Jay McShann passed away today in Kansas City. He was 90 years old. During the late '30s and early '40s, McShann led one of the best blues-based big bands of the day. Only Count Basie's band approached McShann's in terms of popularity. That's going to be the second line in his obit. The first is going to be that Charlie Parker was a member of that band before he became "Charlie Parker". The reality is that McShann was so much more than Charlie Parker's boss. It's been said that he's the creator of a certain style of music, one that combines swing and blues and quite frankly, changed the course of popular music. I don't go in for saying people "created" stuff like that, but I will say he was a true innovator, a magnificent player and a hell of a nice guy.
After work for his band dried up, McShann fought in WWII and his career took a dip when he came back home. There was a resurgence in his popularity though, starting in the 1970's and stemming from several recordings he made right here in Toronto. Back in 1972, saxophonist, band leader, and Downtown Jazz Festival artistic director Jim Galloway brought McShann to the now-defunct Bourbon Street club for a gig and from that time on Toronto became a frequent tour stop. McShann recorded close to a dozen albums in the city for John Norris' Sackville Records, each one of them filled with his contagious sense of fun. An aside: Galloway is one of my very favourite sax players, but I have to say his greatest gift is that archivist's soul of his. He's been responsible for bringing so many of the greats to this city - I feel very lucky to have been around to witness them playing on the stages at the Jazz Festival and in the intimacy of this city's clubs.
My personal favourites from McShann's Sackville catalogue are Just a Lucky So and So which features Galloway (doubling on baritone and soprano), the great Don Thompson (on bass) and Terry Clarke (drums) and Saturday Night Function where McShann and the quartet join forces with Buddy Tate (on this date they are called the "Sackville Allstars"). This is "feel good", swinging, bluesy music of the highest order.
A few years ago in the film American Splendor Paul Giamatti's Harvey Pekar is found in one scene at a flea market, looking for a Jay McShann record (and McShann is featured on the soundtrack). I got such a kick out of that when I saw the movie on the big screen because even though I was well aware of McShann's stature in the business, to me, he was practically one of us. Hell, I showed him how the sinks worked out by the porta-potties during that jazz fest show. It's hard to put the reality of a man who was so approachable and easy going next to the contribution he made to his art.
It sounds trite to say that it's the end of an era because his era, in a lot of ways, ended a long time ago and in a lot of ways, will never end. It is the end of a great run though, but I'm happy to say his music will live on.
If you're interested to find out more about Jay McShann check out his NPR Profile which has lots of great details and sound clips and will make you feel well rounded and like the smartest kid in the class. I defy you to keep your toes from tapping. Enjoy!