Excerpt: Queering Kansas City Jazz

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Queering Kansas City Jazz: Gender, Performance, and the History of a Scene (November 2018) by Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone. This is the latest book in the Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Series which promotes rigorous and interdisciplinary research that critically expands the field and purview of feminist, women’s, and gender studies. 

In one of the opening scenes of the musical Oklahoma!, cowboy Will Parker steps off the train in Claremore and greets his friends at the station. After extolling Kansas City’s modernity Will piques the interest of the men and embarrasses the women with tales of his trip to a burlesque show: “One of the gals was fat and pink and pretty,” Will informs his small-town friends. “She went about as fur as she could go!”

Oklahoma! was set in 1906, in the early days of Kansas City’s rise to fame as a “wide-open town.” The music of the “wide-open town” was jazz. Played in the “burleeque” of Oklahoma!, in cabarets memorialized in musicals and films such as Robert Altman’s Kansas City, jazz as a sound was central to the jazz scene in the city. While Kansas City was the site of gender, racial, and class clash during its jazz scene, its written history focuses on this memorialization and does not consistently reflect the contested territories of identity and power in the city. The history of jazz scene Kansas City is instead filled with stories of cowboys in the big city, with the excesses of crime and jazz more easily associated with characters like Will Parker than with lived experience. These stories provide the foundation for the official and scholarly knowledge of Kansas City as a history of civilized roughness.

Such heteronormative examples reveal the grand narrative of Kansas City jazz scene history as the story of heterosexual male consumers and willing female commodities. The city’s masculine aura depended on the strict control of gender, class, and racial difference, a control since forgotten and silenced in the grand narrative. In fact the very legend of Kansas City’s “wide-open” jazz scene continues to ignore the knowledge of the jazz scene by constantly defining and defending the dominant hierarchy. Anyone interested in the history of Kansas City’s jazz scene can read the stories of Charlie Parker peering in cabaret windows or hear about the all-night battles between the city’s rival bands. While these famous events of the jazz scene remain in popular memory and written history, many important aspects of the complex jazz scene were forgotten and silenced. What about the lives of the “fat and pink and pretty” girls of the cabarets, burlesque shows, and brothels? What about the girls who were not “pink,” or the girls who were not “girls”? How were these areas of “pleasurable commodities” defined and zoned? How did spaces of the jazz scene retain their popularity despite their challenges to the dominant constructions of gender, race, and class? Finally, how did all of those critical challenges to identity, space, and power go forgotten in the city’s grand narrative?

Normalcy, explained historian David Goldberg, was the goal of the “Jazz Age.” Challenges to the social order were appropriated as a temporary flowering of youth and culture, and threats were transformed by the grand narrative as bumps on the road to modernity. In the grand narrative of the “Jazz Age” Kansas City was positioned as one of the road bumps. The city’s railroad terminus meant that performers and musicians from the “big city” found themselves in Kansas City at the end of the line, with no choice but to export their opposition to the status quo. Meanwhile in each of those schemes Kansas City appears as a country bumpkin coming of age, a brief exception in an age of exceptions, the city whose adolescence was felt in the jazz scene.

The problem with that grand narrative is that it does little to explain life inside the jazz scene. Kansas City did not represent a flowering of experimentation or a circumstantial dead end. The city was, in fact, the frontier of the cultural wars fought during the jazz scene: cutting edge, not country bumpkin. As historian Kevin Mumford has explained, a study of jazz scenes must be “premised on the proposition that the shift from rural to urban America, from southern agricultural economies to modern commercial infrastructures, from communal to modern anonymous social relations represented a historic watershed.” Kansas City represents that historic watershed that was its jazz scene. Unfortunately, those disruptions were forgotten, silenced, and lost in a fictional “Jazz Age” that emphasized the road to modernity in the 1920s.

A study of the Kansas City jazz scene reveals an important aspect of life in the city: the threats to the social order were all linked. The sounds of jazz music cannot be divorced from clashes over gender, growing debates about race and ethnicity, the crisis represented by class divides, and the evolving influence of a criminal underworld in the United States. In Kansas City these interrelated subcultures were linked through the Pendergast machine: the Pendergast machine was the fuel for the jazz scene in Kansas City. In fact, the jazz scene in Kansas City is part of the Pendergast machine, and vice versa. The Pendergast machine, however, is reduced in the grand narrative of jazz in Kansas City to a backdrop, a criminal element that created the environment of the city’s jazz scene, but did not directly influence its events. The subsumed and reductive history of Kansas City’s jazz scene is inextricably linked to Pendergast’s representations of class, race, and gender in the city. The story of Kansas City’s jazz scene is one of spatialization, discursive formation, and the way the reductive representation of the Pendergast machine reflects the desires of historians.

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