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Jay McShann: Blue Flame Keeper

Jay McShann

It is remarkable how many leaders in the big band era were piano players. Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Stan Kenton were the major survivors after WWII, but many others-like Fletcher and Horace Henderson, Earl Hines, Claude Hopkins, Luis Russell, Edgar Hayes and Buddy Johnson-either quit, died or took to playing in small groups. Jay McShann and his band were on the verge of big things when he was called into the army in 1943. On his return to civilian life, he re-formed the band, but soon found that post-war conditions were inimical to its continuance.

Earlier, his life had been quietly eventful. He was born in 1916 in Muskogee, Oklahoma, a town of 30,000 that was also the birthplace of such famous musicians as Don Byas, Barney Kessel, Walter “Foots” Thomas and Ellington bassist Aaron Bell. It was Bell’s mother who taught McShann’s sister piano, and indirectly he profited from her instruction. But his experience of jazz on the radio, and particularly the Earl Hines broadcasts from Chicago’s Grand Terrace, were more persuasive. As a youngster, he stayed up late to hear them when his parents thought he was studying. “When Fatha went off the air,” he says, “I went to bed.”

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