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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Big Band Pianist Jay McShann

A native of Oklahoma, McShann came to Kansas City, Mo., in 1937, when it was the capital for boogie-woogie, blues and swing. He spoke to Terry Gross in 1987, and also played a few songs in the studio.


Other segments from the episode on August 31, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 31, 2017: Interview with Max Roach; Interview with Anita O'Day; Interview with Jay McShann.



I'm Terry Gross. This week we're marking our 30th anniversary as a daily NPR program with a collection of interviews from our first couple of years. I was lucky enough to have been conducting interviews while some of the icons of bebop and the big band era were still alive. We're going to hear three of those interviews today.

First we go back to 1987 for an interview with Max Roach, one of the inventors of modern jazz drumming. Together with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, Roach helped formulate the language of bebop. In the mid-'50s, Roach teamed up with trumpeter Clifford Brown to form what many jazz fans regarded as the quintessential bop group of the time. In the early '60s, Roach recorded the album "We Insist!," the "Freedom Now Suite," some of the first jazz music inspired by the civil rights movement. We started with this 1954 Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet recording of "Daahoud."


GROSS: Max Roach, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MAX ROACH: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: How did you first meet some of the people who you became very close with and made now-classic music together with? I'm thinking of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Did they find you? Did you find them?

ROACH: Well, Dizzy Gillespie heard me at a jam session in a place called Monroe's Uptown House. Clark Monroe was the brother-in-law of Billie Holiday's first husband, Jimmy Monroe. And he was, like, kind of a patron for young talent. And these after-hour clubs - these after-hour clubs would open up at 4 in the morning and go until 8. So we could work those places and still go to school, Bud Powell and a crowd of us. Well, he heard me. He was at Cab Calloway. He heard me. He says, someday, when I get my own band and when I leave Cab Calloway, I would like you to play for me. That's how I met Dizzy, and Dizzy got - introduced me to the Coleman Hawkins, and I got my first record date.

And Dizzy was kind of, like, the catalyst of that whole movement that we called bebop. You know, he brought Charlie Parker to New York and Bud Powell and all these wonderful people. He kind of had a group around him, you know, and I was just fortunate enough to be part of that. But that's how I really got started.

GROSS: You were one of the first drummers to play bebop, and you were one of the first people to figure out how to drum in the kind of fiery sessions that were being played. What were some of the challenges that that presented to you?

ROACH: Well, when they played fast, they played very fast. Instrumental virtuosity prevailed because during the War, you know, we had an extra - the Second World War - we had an extra 20 percent cabaret taxes, very complex. To put it very simply, it was if an entrepreneur hired, he had to pay for, say, he had to pay a city tax - like in New York, he had to pay a state tax and a federal tax - on top of that he had to pay a 20 percent government tax called entertainment tax. If he had a singer, if he had public dancing or dancing on a stage or a comedian, this really heralded the demise of big bands during that time. This tax was just awful, you know?

So the people who really got the jobs were the virtuoso instrumentalists. And everybody went home and practiced, practiced, practiced. And then that was the beginning of bebop, like, the people who - so Charlie Parker and Dizzy, and hearing the virtuoso players were the ones who people would come and sit down. Everybody began to sit and listen to the music rather than get up and dance to it. That was the beginning of it.

GROSS: What rhythms had you been playing before, and what rhythms did you shift into playing once you started playing bop 'cause you really had to - you had to invent new rhythms and you had to invent new styles.

ROACH: Well, I also - I had help, too. I had a lot of help. My mentors were people like Big Sidney Catlett and Chick Webb, Joe Jones with the Count Basie band, for folks who don't know these. These were people who played with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Catlett did and later went with Benny Goodman. Sidney Catlett took Gene Krupa's place when Krupa started his own band.

But all these folks, they were doing pretty much the same thing but only in large band contexts. When you played in a small band, you had to do more. More was - more was required of you because there were less people. It was like playing in a string quartet is vis-a-vis symphony orchestras. It's much more interesting for the individual players. Of course an orchestra's interesting for the composer the conductor and the soloist. But when you play in a smaller context, everybody has to do more to fill up the sound.

So this was required of us. I don't think we were aware of it excepting that that first small band I worked in - the first one was Dizzy's. I worked in small bands, of course, all around the city at that time, but Dizzy was the one that his band with Charlie Parker and Oscar Pettiford and Bud Powell or Charles Mingus, that was real. All the virtuoso people got together, and that's - and we knew that everybody had to be kind of busy so consequently, there were - you heard more drums, you heard more piano, you heard more this then that and the other to fill it out. That's to put it very simply, of course (laughter).

GROSS: Right. Well, to put it less simply, we'll hear some of what you were playing then. (Laughter). This is from the mid-1940s, and this is my guest Max Roach as recorded with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. And we're going to hear "Ko Ko."


GROSS: That was "Ko Ko." It was recorded in 1945 with my guest, Max Roach, on drums and Miles Davis on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto saxophone. Does it bring back memories for you? Do you listen back to that much?

ROACH: It sure does. And it'd be Charlie Parker at that time as well as Dizzy. The music was very, very fresh. And I guess you would equate it with what we hear today from people like Anthony Braxton, at least they treated us that way. We were the new breed on the scene.

And they would say things, well, like - the critics would say Dizzy sounds like he's playing with a mouth full of marbles, and Charlie Parker was playing scales from a saxophone book - just only scales. And Max Roach dropped bombs. I don't know (laughter). What is (unintelligible). But Powell had no left hand. And it was - you know, we were criticized. But it was - some of it was valid, I thought, you know? We had...

GROSS: Really?

ROACH: We had a long way to go, You know?

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1987 interview with the late drummer Max Roach. We'll hear more as our 30th anniversary retrospective continues after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1987 interview with Max Roach who, along with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, helped formulate the language of bebop.


GROSS: Was this the life you had planned on when you wanted to become a jazz musician? Because you started playing at a time when the big bands were still around and being a jazz musician meant going on tour with Earl Hines or Cab Calloway - one of the - Duke Ellington - one of the big bands. But you actually came of age, you know, you grew - right after that, you came of age in a time when it was small groups, as you were saying before, and the life just became very different.

ROACH: It did. Well, I hadn't planned on really becoming - taking jazz music that seriously at the time. But the war and all the things that did happen - and then while I was in my senior year at Boys High, I said I had been - I met this gentleman Clark Monroe (ph) and worked in his after hour club. Well, Sonny Greer, Duke's great drummer, was ill. And most of the great drummers were in the Army, like Joe Jones, Sidney Catlett, et cetera. I could read music. So, you know, Clark - in those after-hours spots you played, as I said before, for shig (ph) dancers, usually, a catchy (unintelligible). You did all kinds of things.

And when Sonny Greer got sick, Duke Ellington called Mr. Monroe up for - did he know a drummer who could play a show? Duke was at the New York paramount. He said, I got a kid who works at my club that plays a show. And I went down to the New York Paramount. Make a long story short - got on the stage and looked at Mr. Greer's music stand. There was no music stand and no music. And I couldn't play by ear at that time. You know, I was about 17. So everything was by ear.

So Mr. Ellington see - before the curtain came up, he looked at me and saw the fright of fear in my face and said keep one eye on me and one eye on the acts on the stage. And I made it through. But then I made up my mind I wanted to be in this area of music because Duke had - all the theater and the drama and the pageantry was just surrounding him when he presented a show. And that's when I really decided that that was what I wanted to do.

GROSS: In the 1960s - in the early 1960s, you started to play music inspired by the civil rights movement. Had you become an activist then?

ROACH: Well, I guess we always have been, you know? People ask me that quite often. But I go back to Bessie Smith with "Black Mountain Blues" and then to Duke Ellington with his "Black, Brown And Beige." It's always been there. Had Lead Belly always spoke about the issues and the times that existed. And many of the old black folk singers from the south to street musicians dealt with it.

And so, to me, it wasn't - it was just I had an opportunity to say something. And I used - in fact, the suite was commissioned by the youth movement of the NAACP. And we premiered it here in Philadelphia at one of their conventions. That's was it was - we - in 1960. It was - we were originally commissioned to do something for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. And so that's how it came about.

GROSS: Was it at all risky for you to do politically-inspired music? Were you going to - did you run into any trouble in getting recording dates afterwards or club dates because of your involvement in the civil rights movement? And, you know - I don't know how...

ROACH: No, I don't think so. I'll tell you what did happen that was very positive. It sneaked into South Africa. Or rather, it was - it went into South Africa - didn't sneak in it. It was taken into South Africa as a jazz musician's album until people read the liner notes put out by Nat Hentoff. And the pieces were a comment because Oscar Brown Jr., of course, was a lyricist on the work. It was a comment on the things that happened in Charlottesville, Damascus and things like that.

So when the authorities in South Africa realized that this was not just simply a jazz album, they banned it. It hit the UPI and AP. And it became a celebrity record. And it sold more records, I guess, than anything else - anything I had ever made at that time. So something came out of it because of that. And the musicians from South Africa, like Hugh Masekela and doll Brandy, were listening and buying it and taping it and things like that. But it's amazing how things turn around, see?

So the Freedom Now Suite - that wasn't - but I've always been an activist. I've got - at that time, of course, my children were young. But you're always thinking about, you know, their future as well. And there has to be - if they're going to come up and be responsible human beings, they have to have education and the things like everyone else has. And the society has to accommodate that. So I guess I've always been activist because of them.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for joining us today and talking with us. Thank you for being here.

ROACH: Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure.

GROSS: Max Roach recorded in 1987. He died 20 years later at the age of 83.


Let's continue our 30th anniversary retrospective and return to 1987 for an interview with jazz singer Anita O'Day. An interview I'll never forget because I love her singing and because, as you'll hear, she did not hold back from saying what was on her mind.

O'Day inspired the so-called cool jazz singers of the '50s. The music critic Will Friedwald described O'Day as always the greatest, the coolest, the hippest and the swinging-est (ph). O'Day first became known in 1941 when she joined the Gene Krupa band. She later sang with the Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman bands and many small groups.

In her 1981 autobiography "High Times Hard Times," O'Day explained that her last name was Colton. But she changed it to O'Day because in pig Latin that means dough. And she hoped to make plenty of it. Let's start with this 1960 recording of "That Old Feeling."


ANITA O'DAY: (Singing) I saw you last night and got that old feeling. When you came in sight, I got the old feeling. The moment that you danced by, I felt a thrill. And when you caught my eye, my heart stood still. Once again, I seem to feel that old yearning. And I knew the spark of love was still burning. There'll be no new romance for me. It's foolish to start for that old feeling is still in my heart. I saw you last night, got that old feeling.


GROSS: Anita O'Day, welcome to FRESH AIR. Throughout your career, you've always not wanted to be the, quote, "girl singer" - the person who's accompanied by the band, accompanied by the orchestra. You've always said you wanted your voice to be part of the band.

O'DAY: Right.

GROSS: Would you explain some of the things that you did and didn't want as a singer with a band?

O'DAY: Well, the things I did want was to be there because you learn and you earn while you learn. Nothing wrong with that one. The band work is really very simple work. It's called pattern work. And you mostly sing quarter notes. And the band fills with patterns. (Singing) Pleasure you're about - the band goes, do-won do-won (ph). You know what I'm talking about?

So it's called pattern work. And then - well, after Gene Krupa orchestra for five years and Stan Kenton for one year - this is a few years back - I decided that I would like to try for a small group, which is different kind of work.

GROSS: You have a very unique voice. And physically, one of the reasons for part of the uniqueness of your singing is that you don't have a uvula, which is that...

O'DAY: Oh, you read my book. I can tell.

GROSS: I did read your book. What - can you tell us about how you lost your uvula? And I should say that that's the little fleshy...

O'DAY: That's the (unintelligible) that hangs...

GROSS: ...Overhang in the back of your mouth.

O'DAY: ...Down in the back of the throat, where you see the cartoons and it shows their singing and that little things going lahhh (ph).

GROSS: (Laughter).

O'DAY: Well, that's gone. I was in the hospital for just a regular bit of tonsils or something. I think I was 7 years old. And my mother said - years later, I said, you know, I want to be a singer, and I really got a problem. I can't get any vibration going. I have to make a different type. And that's when she told me about this uvula having been - it was a slip of the knife.

GROSS: So...

O'DAY: That's how that went down.

GROSS: How did that change your singing?

O'DAY: Well, not knowing about it from 7 years old and not knowing I was going to be singing at 20 and still singing at 68 years old, it didn't make much difference because you find a way to do it because where there's a will, you know.

GROSS: When you were singing with big bands, you were usually the only woman in the band. And I think it was always a source of pride for you that you could, you know, keep up with the men in every way. In your book, you wrote that you were proud that you carried your own bags. You paid your own checks when you were with the group or band.

O'DAY: Yes. Yeah, I sort of became one of the guys because that was the only way to play it, you know? I mean, I guess you could play it girl. But I haven't played girl yet. Let's see, I'm 68. I'm going to play girl next year because I'm always too busy. I've been wearing slacks since 1932.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1987 interview with Anita O'Day. After a break, we'll continue our 30th anniversary retrospective with more of the O'Day interview, and we'll hear my 1987 interview with jazz pianist Jay McShann, who helped launch Charlie Parker's career and was at the piano for our interview. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


O'DAY: (Singing) You'd be so nice to come home to. You'd be so nice by the fire. While the breeze on high sang a lullaby, you'd be all that I could desire. Under stars chilled by the winter, under an August moon burning above, you'd be so nice.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective and pick up where we left off in the middle of my 1987 interview with jazz singer Anita O'Day. She got her start in the Big Band era with Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton and went on to a solo career.


GROSS: I want to play the first really big hit that you have - play an excerpt of it. This was - you recorded this in 1941 with Roy...

O'DAY: With, Roy, yeah, I do it every night. Yes, I call it my nostalgia portion (laughter). And I do "Let Me Off Uptown."

GROSS: What's the story behind the record? Who - how did you get to do a duet on this?

O'DAY: Oh, I have no idea. Gene bought it from somebody who made the arrangement and taught us how to do it. It belonged to Gene. It was in his books.

GROSS: The record sold, I think, a million and half copies.

O'DAY: That's the one. Gene bought a house in Yonkers.


O'DAY: Yeah. That's right.

GROSS: Well, let's play an excerpt of it. This is my guest, Anita O'Day. It was recorded in 1941.

O'DAY: Right.


O'DAY: Hey, Joe.

ROY ELDRIDGE: What do you mean, Joe? My name's Roy.

O'DAY: Well, come here, Roy, and get groovy. You've been uptown?

ELDRIDGE: No, I ain't been uptown, but I've been around.

O'DAY: You mean to say you ain't been uptown?

ELDRIDGE: No, I ain't been uptown. What's uptown?

O'DAY: (Singing) If it's pleasure you're about and you feel like stepping out, oh, you've got to shout it - let me off uptown. If it's rhythm that you feel, then it's nothing to conceal. Oh, you've got to spiel it - let me off uptown. Rib joints, juke joints, hep joints - where could a fella go to top it? If you want to pitch a ball and you can't afford a hall, oh, you've got to call this - let me off uptown.

ELDRIDGE: (Singing) Anita, oh, Anita.

Say, I feel something.

O'DAY: What you feel, Roy, the heat?

ELDRIDGE: No, it must be that uptown rhythm. I feel like blowing.

O'DAY: Well, blow, Roy, blow.

ELDRIDGE: (Playing trumpet).

GROSS: Anita O'Day, how did that record change your life?

O'DAY: Well, it didn't change it too quickly because at that time there was no union for girl singers. I made $7.50.

GROSS: From a million-and-a-half-selling record?

O'DAY: That's right. He built a house in Yonkers (laughter).

GROSS: You've played with several other big band leaders, in addition to Krupa. You performed briefly with Benny Goodman, and you described him as a bandleader who always tried to distract attention from the performer so that - why? - so that they wouldn't take attention away from him?

O'DAY: Yeah, well, that was just his style. I don't think he did it maliciously. That - you know, that was just his way.

GROSS: How would he do it?

O'DAY: Well, for instance, if I've scheduled to do four tunes, and the people are giving me too much attention, he would just automatically go into "Sing Sing Sing," which is his tune. And I'd have to leave the stage, waving goodbye.


O'DAY: Yeah.

GROSS: You've had a lot of hard drinking in your time, and you've also done a lot of drugs in your time. Do you think when - that your involvement with alcohol and drugs had anything to do with wanting to keep up with the men - as we were talking about before - and wanting to be as tough as they were?

O'DAY: That's a good question - never thought about it that way. No, I do it because I enjoy it.


O'DAY: You know, everybody has their things, and that's what I do. You know, I didn't want to have a family. I didn't want to sit at home. I didn't want to be a housewife and own property. And I didn't want to work in an office from 9 to 5. And so I was just out there looking to find something that I could, like, go along with - you know? - and maybe contribute to the people in the world.

GROSS: You were convicted several times on drug charges. How difficult did that make it for you to get bookings in certain cities that had...

O'DAY: That helped. That's showbiz (laughter). They come to look at the girl that went to jail for smoking dope. I don't say that happens today because it's too popular today, and the kids grew up, and they say, well, that's a scam, you know. But at that time, that was part of it. Man, I'd work a club, and they'd be standing out down the street and around the corner, getting in to see the girl just got out of jail.

GROSS: So it just didn't matter for you when you were hooked? Or from...

O'DAY: I worked all the time.

GROSS: Did people know?

O'DAY: Everybody knew.

GROSS: Everybody knew.

O'DAY: I worked those kind of places.

GROSS: Well, did it affect your performance? I mean, could you tell?

O'DAY: I don't know. I just did it. I was asked to do 50 minutes, I do 50 minutes. That was my job.

GROSS: How did you finally kick after doing drugs?

O'DAY: Oh, I went to Hawaii. I went to Hawaii, and I didn't know anybody in Hawaii. And when you get the chills, I just laid in the hot sun. And went you get the sweats, I jumped in the water. I did it for five months - cool, cold and straight ever since.

GROSS: Did you have to almost relearn how to sing straight after you'd been performing high for so many years?

O'DAY: Oh, yeah, you kind of have to work around it. Right. That's why I went back to this nostalgia things because I'd been doing bebop and whatever else. And so I went back to before that time, and that's what I'm doing now.

GROSS: I recently had the opportunity to see a movie that I suspect a lot of our listeners have seen - "Jazz On A Summer's Day" - which was a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival.

O'DAY: Oh, I was feeling no pain that day.

GROSS: Really? This is what...

O'DAY: You can - I was on "60 Minutes," and Harry Reasoner asked me the same thing. He says, that day when you were on "Jazz On A Summer's Day," and you were out there in that big picture hat and the breeze was blowing those real ostrich feathers on top of it - he says to me, were you high? And I looked at him, and I looked back at the little film they were showing me, and I says, I would say yes (laughter).

GROSS: Well, you know, what I really wanted to know was how you - you were wearing these great white gloves in it - these, like, I think wrist-high white gloves. And it's very sharp-looking. I don't know how many women were actually wearing those gloves back in 1958. But how did you decide to wear them? I think it almost became a trademark for a while.

O'DAY: Well, I went to George Wein, who was the promoter of the whole thing. And I said, what night am I on because it was Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights. And he says to me, oh, you're on Sunday afternoon. And I said, oh, thanks a lot. You know, what am I going to wear on a Sunday afternoon? I'm not going to wear a frock to the floor. And I'm not going to wear it off the shoulder. So I got to thinking.

So I lied prone, and I kind of, like, thought, what would you wear? I was due at 5 o'clock. So I wore a cocktail - afternoon cocktail party dress with the black sheets and the white peplum and little glass slippers and the little white gloves and this black hat with the ostrich feathers. And that worked out apropos for the time O'Day. (Laughter) that's a joke - O'Day. Terry. Hello, Terry, are you there?

GROSS: (Laughter).

O'DAY: Yeah, that's what happened, love.

GROSS: Oh, goodness.

O'DAY: Yep. That was it.

GROSS: Anita O'Day recorded in 1987. She died in 2006 at the age of 87. After we take a short break, we'll hear my 1987 interview with jazz pianist Jay McShann, who led the band in which Charlie Parker first gained attention. We recorded the interview at the piano so McShann could play some songs. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective. We return again to 1987 for this interview with Jay McShann, who was considered the last of the great Kansas City pianists. It was a thrill to have him seated at the piano, playing a few songs during the interview.

Jay McShann grew up in Oklahoma and came to Kansas City in 1937 when it was the capital for boogie-woogie, blues and swing. In Kansas City, he assembled his now-legendary big band. McShann had some great sidemen, but his most remarkable find was Charlie Parker, who got his start in the band and made his recording debut with McShann.

McShann's big band split up during World War II when he and most of his musicians were drafted. The jazz scene changed after the war, and listeners lost track of McShann. The '70s brought a resurgence of interest in the Kansas City style and in McShann. He went on to make solo and small-group records and was the subject of the documentary "The Last Of The Blue Devils." He was 71 when we spoke.


GROSS: Jay McShann, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you here.

JAY MCSHANN: Thank you, Terry. And it's a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: If I may, can I make a request for the opening? Could you open with one of the songs that you wrote and that is named after you, "Hootie Blues"?

MCSHANN: Be glad to.

(Playing piano, singing) Hello, little girl. Don't you remember me? Hello, little girl. Don't you remember me? Now, the time ain't been so long, but I had a little break, you see? Well, I'm doing all right. Well, I found a little kewpie doll. Well, I'm doing all right. Well, I found a little kewpie doll. Well, she lives three flights out, and she sends me with a smile.

(Singing) Well, she calls me her lover, yes, and a beggar, too. Well, she calls me her lover, yes, and a beggar too. Now, ain't you sorry, little girl, that my new little girl ain't you? Well, she calls me her lover, yes, and a beggar, too. Well, she calls me her lover, yes, and a beggar, too. Now, ain't you sorry, little girl, that my new little girl ain't you? Ain't you sorry, little girl, that my new little girl ain't you, ain't you?

GROSS: That sounds absolutely terrific (laughter). My guest is Jay McShann at the piano. Can we go back to around the period when that tune was written - back to the 1930s when you came to Kansas City and started putting your big band together? Kansas City was a real mecca for jazz then. What were your first impressions when you got there?

MCSHANN: Well, my first impression was I was excited and seeing all this happening and guys like Joe Turner, Pete Johnson playing all the boogie-woogie, Joe Turner singing blues right off the top of his head, you know, make up words as he'd go along and that are all these musicians playing all this swing music, you know, and musicians from north, east, south and west. And it was excitable. It was exciting.

GROSS: How did you decide to put together a big band? How did you go about starting to do that?

MCSHANN: Well, what happened? We had a small group at first, I imagine about four, five, sometimes six pieces. And then we got a job to play for a walk-a-thon. And that required about a - oh, about 12-, 13-piece band - big band. And so we took this job, and so quite naturally we had to have a big band. And the walk-a-thon lasted about - oh, I guess about four months. And so during the four months, that's how we got our book together and got the band together so fast.

GROSS: What would you do to go recruit musicians? Where would you go to hear who the best musicians were?

MCSHANN: Well, the way I did - I even went up to Omaha. And at that time, Nat Towles had one of the finest bands in the country. And I went up to listen to some of his musician play. And when I left Omaha, I left there with about four of them.


GROSS: Was that considered bad form - to steal musicians from somebody else's band?

MCSHANN: Well, no it's not bad form as long as - you know, if they owe the bandleader, then you give them the money to pay the bandleader and then bring them on. Really it's much nicer for them to give a notice, you know? But you know, guys do things like that.

GROSS: Probably the greatest discovery you made was finding Charlie Parker and getting him into your band. How did you decide to recruit him?

MCSHANN: Well, I just happened to be passing through the streets one night, and they piped all the music out in Kansas City. And I heard this particular sound, and so I went in to see who it was. And then so we met, and we talked. And he told me he'd been out of town. Because I thought - I just hadn't been in Kansas City very long, and I thought I'd met most of the musicians.

So he said he'd been down in the Ozarks with George Lee's band. And it's hard to get musicians to go down there because it's so dead, you know? And cats like to be around where the happenings is, you know? And so he said he wanted to do a little woodshedding so he went down there with George's band.

GROSS: Around - during the War, you were drafted, right? And a lot of guys in the band were were drafted. Did you realize that that was going to be the end of the band?

MCSHANN: Well, no, I didn't have any ideas that would be the end of the band because at that time we were booked about a couple of years ahead, and we were really stretched out. But they had been trying to catch up with me, and we was on the road traveling and they couldn't find me (laughter), so we'd play the one-night stand and so then they took me right on to Leavenworth right after that, during intermission.

GROSS: (Laughter). Did - was - what happened after the War when your big band had split up? What did you decide to do? Where did you go?

MCSHANN: Well, after the War, you know, most of the dance halls were made into...

GROSS: Clubs?

MCSHANN: Most of the dance halls, you know, were made where they, you know, throw these balls?

GROSS: Bowling allies.

MCSHANN: Bowling allies, yeah. I couldn't even think of it. And then it was quite expensive to move a big band then.

GROSS: Yeah.

MCSHANN: They had gotten quite expensive. And then people were buying combos - small groups, smaller groups - four, five and six-piece groups.

GROSS: So where did you go? Did you go back to Kansas City?

MCSHANN: Yes, I went back to Kansas City, and then I tried the big band again but it wasn't going to work. It didn't work.

GROSS: I think a lot of people lost track of where you were when you went to Kansas City. Did - did that bother you?

MCSHANN: No, it didn't, see because my kids at that time, see, they were getting around school age, and I knew I had to pick out some place for them to go to school. And so I decided to go back to Kansas City.

GROSS: It's difficult to have a family when you're on the road all the time.

MCSHANN: Yes, it is. And so I came off the road, but I worked around Kansas City, maybe within the radius of 600 miles, 700 miles and in Kansas City, you know? Continued to play, but I didn't get out and stay out on the road, you know, like, until after they were finished high school.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1987 interview with pianist Jay McShann. We'll hear more after a break as we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective and hear more of my 1987 interview with pianist Jay McShann, who was in our studio, seated at the piano.


GROSS: Jay McShann, can I ask you to play something else for us? How about a standard? This isn't the kind of thing you used to play back in the old days.


(Playing piano, singing) When I grow too old to dream, I'll have you to remember. And when I grow too old to dream, your love will be in my heart. So kiss me. Kiss me, my sweet. And now let us part. And when I grow too old to dream, well, your love will be in my heart. So kiss me, kiss me, my sweet. And now, let us part. And when I grow too old to dream, your love will be in my heart. Well, your love will be in my heart. Well, your love will be in my heart.

GROSS: A beautiful version of that (laughter). You didn't really sing too much, at least not on your records when you had your big band and the singers were Walter Brown, Big Joe Turner. Al Hibbler sometimes sang with you. How come you never got to sing yourself very much? Or maybe you did in concerts, which I wasn't around for.

MCSHANN: No, I didn't. I wasn't - I didn't do any singing. In fact, I didn't do any singing at all. And I always felt that, you know, with a big band, you always - you wanted good singers (laughter).

GROSS: Wait a minute. You are implying that you are not a good singer (laughter).

MCSHANN: But then after the war, you know - and then I couldn't afford the good singers. And so I had to - you know, people would come up and ask for tunes, and they said, well, we want somebody to sing it. And so then I had to sing it, you know? So that's why I started.

GROSS: Can I ask you how you started to play piano, how you first started to learn the instrument?

MCSHANN: Well, you know, when you're in school, your parent - the band - the guy who got the band - school, you know, he wants you to get a instrument and play a instrument, you know. And my folks was too poor to buy me an instrument. And I wanted to either play trumpet, or sax or clarinet. But they didn't have the money, and so, consequently, I couldn't get no horn to play. So we had a old, beat-up Kimball piano there. And so I just started fooling around on the piano.

GROSS: And then you left home when you were pretty young to try to make it.

MCSHANN: Yes, yes - I guess 11, around 16, something like that.

GROSS: I think we can all hear your piano style a lot more now, too. Now that you're playing in small groups and playing solo, you can hear a pianist in a way that you can't when they're in a big band.

MCSHANN: Well, you know, when I had a big band, I always felt like that - you had all those horns up there. And I always wanted everybody to work. You know, I want to hear everybody working because it used to bug me to see maybe three-fourths of the guys standing up, holding their horns.

You know, and I always like to see them busy all the time. Yeah, our ensemble of something's going all the time, you know, with the big band. And so they always told me, though, I should've taken more solos, but I always liked that ensemble.

GROSS: It's really been very exciting to hear you play today. I've wanted to be able to hear you in person for many years. So thank you so much for coming in, for giving all of our listeners such a, you know, special opportunity to hear your music. Thank you so much for being here.

MCSHANN: Thank you.

GROSS: Jay McShann, can you play us out?


GROSS: This is a song that my guest, Jay McShann, co-wrote with Charlie Parker.

MCSHANN: (Playing piano, humming).


GROSS: Jay McShann, recorded in 1987. He died 19 years later in 2006 at the age of 90. If you missed any of our 30th anniversary retrospective and want to catch up on some of our interviews from our early years with Carl Reiner, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Patty Duke, Ronnie Spector, Ben E. King, Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet, John Updike and others, check out our podcast, where, in addition to our retrospective, you'll find lots of our recent interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.


MCSHANN: (Playing piano, humming).

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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