Jazz Profiles from NPR
Jay McShann
Produced by Molly Murphy

Jay McShann  

Bluesman Jay McShann--"Hootie" to his friends-- has been a living legacy of Kansas City jazz for over 60 years. As pianist, bandleader, singer, and composer McShann has been an unsung but important figure in jazz history.

Listen to radio producer Bob Porter, singer Jimmy Witherspoon and record producer John Norris reflect on Jay "Hootie" McShann

McShann's big band of the 1930s and '40s delivered the hard swinging music of Kansas City imbued with foot pattin' rhythms, boogie woogie beats, and the cryin' and shoutin' blues. It was a launching pad for many talented soloists including a young Charlie Parker, whom the band introduced to the world via early radio broadcasts, recordings, and national concert appearances.

The best way of describing it is the essence of swing. It is just right on the beat kind of swing, but loose and relaxed, never frantic.
-- Bob Porter, on the Jay McShann Band's quintessential Kansas City swing

A wide-eyed McShann first rolled into a very different Kansas City in the late 1930s, during the era of "Mob Boss" Tom Pendergast.

Listen to Jay McShann describe late-1930s Kansas City

He then met pianist Pete Johnson and singer Joe Turner, who would have a profound effect on his career.

Listen to radio host James Condell talk about Johnson's and Turner's effect on McShann

McShann later started his own group that in just a few years grew into a full fledged big band. In 1941, with Walter Brown on vocals, the Jay McShann Orchestra recorded its biggest selling hits, including "Confessin' the Blues," "Hootie Blues," and "Vine Street Boogie," for Decca Records.

Listen to James Condell recall the time he first heard "Confessin' the Blues"

Just two short years later, with a year's worth of advanced bookings, the orchestra was disbanded in one fell swoop when McShann was drafted into the army right off the bandstand. According to McShann, "a couple of fellas came up to me and told me....we've taken an oath to bring you in tonight."

Jimmy Witherspoon  

Unable to get the orchestra back together after the war, Jay formed various groups in New York and California. It was in California, McShann remembers, where he met another young singer, Jimmy Witherspoon (left).

Listen to McShann and Witherspoon recall their first meeting

McShann drifted from the spotlight in the 1950s and '60s, but with reawakened interest in the blues in the 1970s, he staged a well-deserved comeback.

Today, Jay McShann is still going strong, playing and singing for audiences throughout the world in both solo concert appearances and with numerous ensembles.

I always felt this way, that jazz never had no destiny. One guy will put the thing down and say this is the finished product. You don't do that with jazz. You ever notice that musicians, they're never satisfied. See because there was something else brought out that you hadn't picked up on before, you know.
-- Jay McShann  


View the Jay McShann show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org


  • Browse a Jay McShann discography