Monday, August 27, 2012

The Sunset Club

What had been the Sunset Club, 1715 E. 12th Street, now vacant in 1940.
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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In the 1930s, the block of East 12th Street between Highland and Woodland avenues – just east of the celebrated corner of 12th and Vine – was home to one of the storied jazz clubs in town.

The Sunset Club at 1715 near Woodland was also known at various times as the Sunset Crystal Palace and the East Side Musicians Club. As Ross Russell says in his 1971 book, Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest:

"In appearance and interior decor the Sunset was just another club, in fact a rather modest one ... The bandstand was of a modest dimension and the house band at this famous club consisted of exactly two pieces – a drummer ... and a remarkable pianist named Pete Johnson ... who had taught himself to play blues and boogie-woogie piano. ...  Fellow musicians said of Pete Johnson that his left hand was so strong and so distinct in marking the beats, and so percussive in quality, that the band at the Sunset didn't really need a bass player. They were so effective and popular with jazz musicians that the Sunset became one of the earliest and most popular places to jam."

And there was another who stood out at the Sunset. Russell continues:

"A tall, handsome man worked there as a bartender, and when the spirit moved him, he burst into blues song. His name was Joe Turner ... One of the first public address systems in town was installed behind the bar for Joe Turner's use, although he didn't really need it because he had a voice with the quality and dynamics of a trumpet, enough to fill a club larger than the Sunset. When Big Joe, backed by the two-man rhythm section, burst into song, the entire neighborhood knew it ... On some occasions, Turner would dispense with the amplifying system and, stepping into the street, begin 'calling his children home.'"

The Sunset was managed by a guy named Piney Brown. Chuck Haddix and Frank Driggs describe him in their 2005 book, Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop, A History: as –

"... a trim, dashing gambler well-known for his generosity to musicians, (who) lorded over the nightly festivities ...  'Piney was a patron saint to all musicians,' recalled saxophonist Eddie Barefield. 'He used to take care of them. ... If you needed money to pay your rent, he would give it to you and take you out and buy booze. He was a man you could always depend on for something if you needed it, as a musician.' In turn, musicians repaid Piney's generosity by lining up for the after-hour jam session at the Sunset. Often by sunrise, as many as fifteen musicians crowded the bandstand at the Sunset."

Listen to Joe Turner, Pete Johnson and others doing "Piney Brown Blues."

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