Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Reno Club

The Reno  Club – "The House of Swing"–  had been closed a year when the tax photos were taken.
Had such a great time at the 2012 Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival, talking about nightclubs of the Pendergast era, that we ran out of time before we got to some of the good stuff. So this week, with the help of the 1940 tax photos, I'll be posting the best of what's on the cutting room floor. 
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It's been called "the queen of the Kansas City nightclubs." The club that put Count Basie on the national  map. The place where a young Charlie Parker sat in the balcony and soaked up the sounds of Basie saxophonists Lester Young, Herschel Evans and Buster Smith. Where the cramped bandstand led Young to his trademark method of holding his horn sideways. Said to be the place where both Parker and Basie received their famous nicknames.

The Reno Club, at 602 E. 12th, two doors east of Cherry Street, was owned by Sol Stibel, a Polish Jew who had immigrated in 1913. Stibel had a barber shop on the east side of town, but was said to be involved in the Pendergast machine. and in the early 1930s he opened the Reno and closed the shop. Perhaps he saw his chance for a piece of the action in the no-limits night life.

The Reno, writes Ross Russell in Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest

was a long, narrow barn of a place that catered to both black and white customers. Racial mixing was discouraged by a divider that ran down the center of the club; ... The floor shows were staged at nine, twelve, two and four, lasted about an hour each, and between them the band furnished music for dancing.

In Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop – A History, authors Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix describe

a long bar in the front that buttressed a modest oyster-shell bandstand tucked beneath the balcony in the back. Prostitutes from next door, arrayed in shades of scarlet, perched in the balcony like exotic birds, dispensing knockout drops to unsuspecting cattlemen.

The sign above the men's room lists the drinks menu: Manhattan, Martini, Bacardi, Bronx, Alexander, Perfect, Side Car,  Whisky Sour, Tom Collins. The door behind the bass player leads out back. The stairs on the left lead to the balcony.

Out back there was an open area where musicians took their breaks between sets. Nearby on Cherry was an after-hours food stand serving crawdads, chicken thighs and sandwiches made from chicken wings, brains, pigs' feet and pigs' snouts. The teenage Parker was said to have picked up the nickname "Yardbird" here, from his love of the chicken thighs.

The food stand out back, on Cherry Street.
In 1935, after bandleader Bennie Moten died, Basie formed a nine-piece group that became the house band at the Reno. They played seven nights a week, earning $15 each. Performances were broadcast on a local experimental radio station, W9XBY. (One version of the story behind Basie's nickname came from an evening before a broadcast, when the announcer, noting Earl Hines and Duke Ellington, thought "Count" sounded better than "Bill" Basie.)

The W9XBY signal was strong enough to reach the car radio of New York record producer John Hammond, who loved what he heard from the Reno Club. In May 1936 Hammond made the trek to hear the Basie band there, an experience, he later wrote, that he would never forget. Hammond signed the band to a recording contract, which ultimately took them away to the big time.

As the Pendergast machine's power crumbled, the Reno Club fell victim to the 1939 crackdown on the city's wide-open scene. Stibel lost his license for selling liquor after hours.

Years later,  Basie's arranger and tenor man Buster Smith remembered that the Reno Club

wasn't nothin' but a hole in the wall. Just mediocre people mostly went in there, a lot of prostitutes and hustlers and thugs hung out down there. And the house was packed.

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Listen to Count Basie and Lester Young doing "Lady Be Good."

1 comment:

  1. A sensational account, Sounds like a place full of my kind of folks. Thanks Norton!