Friday, June 10, 2011

Bruce Ricker left a gift to Kansas City jazz fans -- The Last of the Blue Devils -- here are some photographs of Fiddler Williams & Jay McShann

Allow me to add this image from the Reunion concert in Lawrence that was part of the "Last of the Blue Devils" movie. (See below) The Blue Devils, by the way, were a territorial band playing across Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri and other points west and east. Count Basie was a member of that band.

The image left is Claude "Fiddler" Williams, an Oklahoma kid, as was Jay McShann, below. They made a lot of wonderful music together. Just wonderful, smokin' music. I used to see the Fiddler in Lawrence at Paul Gray's Jazz Club on Massachusetts Street in the 1970s. He just tore the place up -- in my rock n' roll youth I compared him to Jimi Hendrix. Ok, that's still not a bad comparison.

I interviewed him many years later in his home on Kansas City's east side. He was a generous interview, full of stories and insight. His voice was soft as a Hershey bar left in the glove box on a summer day (thanks to Larry McMurty for the idea) but also pleasantly rough. I remember he said things changed around here when the Beatles arrived. Suddenly, he said, audiences didn't know a complicated blues chord from any other note.

He was probaby right, but the long haired kids danced their butts off at Paul Grays. They might not have known what chords he was playing but they knew he could outswing anybody they were llistening to at the time on the radio.

He was in the Basie band when John Hammond took them to New York and the big time. Hammond was traveling across country, the story goes, to hear another band. I think he stopped in Chicago -- that might be where the other band was -- and heard Basie on the short wave on WHB live at the Reno Club in Kansas City. He forgot about the other band, got back in the car, and drove straight here.

Claude was the guitar player in the band that night but when the got to New York, Hammond replaced him with Freddy Green. Fiddler told me that was because Green owed Hammond money and it was the only way John would get his money back. Fiddler laughed and said it was for the better, he'd have spent the rest of his life just sawing back and forth across the guitar strings (he illustrated) as a rhythm player if he'd stayed in the band. On the fiddle, he was always out front, always got the last word. Besides, he chuckled, he had outlived both Count Basie and Freddy Green.

He held forth during the 1940s and 50s at a club I think was on Blue Parkway where Neece's Lounge was, but I've forgotten the name. If anybody knows, leave a comment. My wife an I spent many romantic evenings listening to him play in his 80s, and she claims he was the one who introduced her to jazz one Friday night at the Point. He sang a number and she was hooked. The planet misses him.

More photographs to come as I find them ...

Filmmaker Bruce Ricker died recently. He lived a short while in Kansas City and left the city a great gift -- the movie "Last of the Blue Devils." If you are interested in jazz, particularly the history of Kansas City jazz, this movie is a must see.

Ricker put together a couple of "reunion" concerts in 1979 to create his film. One was at the Mutual Musicians Foundation at 18th and Highland in Kansas City. The other was in Lawrence, Kans. Both were stunning, almost like traveling back in time to the day when jazz and Kansas City were the same. It took a brave and resourceful soul to make these reunions happen.

Ricker hired me to make still photographs but I don't remember if I actually got paid or my payment was free admission. Certainly doesn't matter now. All I know from this distance is I was up front and center with my Rolli and a pocket full of black and white film.

Here's one of Jay McShann and Gene Ramey. I'm going to leave this post on top for a while and add other images as I find them in my ridiculous file, which is actually just a box crammed full of negatives. Do anything you want with them except make money or not give me credit.



  1. Wow, John, that's beautiful. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Great pix and post! I really miss Claude and Jay, but I'm glad I saw 'em as many times as I did. The Fiddler's tone was singular - rough yet sweet, as you describe his voice. I guess that is appropriate.

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