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Jazz Pioneer Jay McShann Dies at 90

Although best known for introducing the world to Charlie Parker, pianist and bandleader Jay “Hootie” McShann should first and foremost be remembered as a blues, jazz and R&B innovator-in effect, birthing rock ‘n’ roll. After a career spanning eight decades, McShann passed away Thursday night at the age of 90.

Born James Columbus McShann on Jan. 12, 1916 in Muskogee, OK, the mostly self-taught musician-he learned piano, despite his parents’ disapproval, by listening to Earl “Fatha” Hines on late-night radio-wandered around the Midwest during his adolescence, after initially working with Don Byas in 1931. During his travels, he constantly played and developed a jazz style highly informed by the blues, retaining its rawness and emotional breadth but transforming its rhythms. Though members of the same musical clan, Jay McShann is undeniably a different beast than Duke Ellington or Fletcher Henderson, and the sound of Kansas City jazz soon became inextricably entwined with his name.

Parker and McShann first collaborated in 1937 and played together sporadically until 1941, though it was during his time with McShann that Parker acquired the nickname “Bird” and made his recording debut (on “Hootie Blues” in 1941). Incidentally, McShann earned his own nickname when somebody slipped him a laced drink during a jam session at a hootenanny (often called a “hootie”); a nondrinker, McShann couldn’t play and the episode stuck with him.

In 1937, McShann formed his own sextet, and by 1939 it had grown into a big band. His full ensemble recorded for Decca in 1941 and 1942 before heading to New York City, but it proved difficult to break through during the war. McShann was drafted in 1944, briefly putting his music career on hold. However, he was discharged shortly thereafter, and in 1945, he relocated to Los Angeles, where singer Jimmy Witherspoon joined him for the remainder of the decade.

McShann eventually returned to Kansas City and spent most of the ’50s and ’60s toiling in obscurity, frequently performing but only occasionally recording. In 1969, he was rediscovered (like many of his blues brethren), permanently reviving his career and allowing him to tour constantly-he was always a big hit at blues and jazz festivals-and record regularly. McShann maintained an active schedule until the mid-’90s.

In a long and storied career that kept the hybridization of jazz, blues and R&B fresh and vital, McShann recorded dozens of albums for a plethora of labels, including Capitol, Atlantic, Mercury, Decca, Black Lion, Vee-Jay, EmArcy, Sackville, Sonet, Storyville, Swingtime, Aladdin and Onyx, among others. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1987 and received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1996. In 2000, the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City named its outdoor performance pavilion after McShann, and in 2003 he received a Grammy nomination in traditional blues for his album Goin’ to Kansas City.

Funeral arrangements have yet to be determined, but a musical celebration of McShann’s life is currently being planned in Kansas City for early next year.

Originally Published