Gigging Around Town

By Chuck Haddix, Marr Sound Archives

After parting ways with Charles Sr., Addie and Charlie moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Addie rented a house at 1516 Olive St., a few blocks north of the vibrant 18th and Vine District, which was the heart and soul of the African American community.

Exterior view of Sumner School building
Sumner (formerly Morse) School exterior. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

Charlie finished grade school at Sumner, located at 2121 Charlotte, and then attended Lincoln High School at 19th and Tracy. While at Lincoln, Charlie continued his musical studies with band master Leo Davis. Charlie played in the orchestra and concert band.

Charlie left school after completing 10th grade and joined the Twelve Chords of Rhythm, a young up-and-coming band led by pianist Lawrence Keyes. The Chords of Rhythm performed at Lincoln Hall, a popular dance hall located on the top floor of the Lincoln Building and other venues in the 18th and Vine area.

Paseo Hall exterior
Paseo Hall exterior, 1940. Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

On Halloween of 1935, Charlie launched his professional career with an engagement with George E. Lee at Paseo Hall at 15th and Paseo, the largest dance hall in the 18th and Vine area. Lee, who had recently disbanded his traveling band, hired Charlie and the Twelve Chords of Rhythm for the date. Since Paseo Hall was a union house, Charlie had to join Musicians’ Union Local 627, located at 1823 Highland.

Charlie spent the summer of 1936 playing with a union band led by George Wilkerson at Musser’s Ozark Tavern, located five miles south of Eldon, Missouri. Off hours, Charlie mastered his horn and by all accounts returned to Kansas City a musically changed man.

Once back in Kansas City, Charlie joined a band led by alto saxophonist Buster Smith at Lucille’s Paradise, located in the heart of the 18th and Vine area. Working side-by-side with Smith on the bandstand, Charlie further honed his skills as an improvisor. On April 11, 1938, the Smith band opened for the Basie band at the art deco Municipal Auditorium at 301 W. 13th St. That fall, Smith moved to New York City, leaving Charlie in charge of the band, which soon fell apart. Charlie followed Smith to New York, but soon returned to Kansas City.

An in-demand soloist, Charlie worked with the Harlan Leonard and Jay McShann Bands at various locations around the city, including Clair Martin’s Plaza Tavern, the Century Room, Pla-Mor Ballroom, Tootie’s Mayfair, Antler's Club, and a malt shop called the Kangaroo, which was frequented by University of Kansas City students. In early 1942, Charlie moved to New York with the Jay McShann band, making his national debut at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.