We’ve noted before that jazz had been seeded throughout the United States by early in the 20th century, as first New Orleans performers and then others from Chicago and New York toured with their music.
We mentioned “Territory Bands” when we discussed Tiny Parham, and for Alyn Shipton, this “loose-knit collection of travelling orchestras, most of them African Americans” has been overlooked by many jazz historians, who have tended to focus on the centres of New Orleans, Chicago and New York.
“In terms of the geographical spread of jazz, and of launching the careers of many provincial musicians who subsequently became famous, these bands were equally significant”. (Shipton, p158).
Away from those well-documented centres, important contributions to jazz were being made. One such contribution was from Bennie Moten.
Not only was his band a launch pad for the careers of stars such as Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Hot Lips Page, Eddie Durham and Ben Webster, but the Moten band’s style made a huge contribution to developments in jazz.
Moten’s earliest band was just a three-piece, the B. B. & D. Trio (standing for Bennie, Bailey and Dude, although they were known as the Big, Black and Dirty Trio), but by 1923 he was recording for OKEH as a six-piece, Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, such as in this recording from October of that year backing Ada Brown.
Evil Mama Blues, Bennie Moten and his Kansas City Orchestra with Ada Brown:
That early sound owed a lot to Chicago, but jazz in Kansas City soon developed a flavour of its own; more bluesy, more pared-down, loose in structure, and riff-based. Ted Goia believes this drew on different sources: “the blues tradition of the Southwest; the big band sounds of the Northeast; the informal jam sessions of the Southwest”. (p160) But don’t let “pared-down” or “loose” make you think it’s sedate; they could drive along at an amazing pace when they wanted.
Listen to the Moten band play “Toby” in 1932:
It’s fast, at over 300 bpm, and the bass is playing on all four beats of the bar, instead of the more usual 2nd and 4th. 4/4 time is one of the defining characteristics of KC jazz of the era, and although no one player can be credited with originating it, when Walter Page gave up leading his own band to join Moten on bass, it allowed Jo Jones, Moten’s drummer, to open up his sound and provide a more even pulse, and concentrate on his defining hi hat work. The brass and saxophones are trading riffs, and Ben Webster provides a typically muscular tenor saxophone solo at around 1 minute in.
By the time of that recording, Count Basie had joined the band as arranger and had edged his way in on piano, too, despite the fact that Moten was a pianist himself. But the driving sound that Basie honed was laid on Moten’s own foundations.
Moten's influence in Kansas City apparently went beyond musical style, too. According to Oran "Hot Lips" Page, Moten had a lot of useful contacts, including being a friend of "Boss Tom" Pendergast, the political boss whose corruption was finally undone when he was convicted of income tax evasion.
Hot Lips Page says "Through contacts of this kind, [Bennie] was able to control all the good jobs and choice locations in and around Kansas City. [...]However, he was also a very good musician. A real old-timer, he was an excellent ragtime pianist and he could play along with the best of them". (Shapiro & Hentoff, 1955, p297).
Many of Moten’s compositions became jazz standards, and Basie continued to play many of them after Moten’s tragic death in 1935 as a result of a botched tonsillectomy.
Here’s his signature tune, Moten Swing:
And here is the wonderful Prince of Wails: