Jazz in the Movies: Kansas City (1996)

The late Robert Altman was a maverick filmmaker whose greatest films featured large casts, overlapping dialogue and strong soundtracks to portray American cities. Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993) captured the essence of Nashville and Los Angeles, respectively. The same can be said about the film Altman made about his home town, Kansas City. It’s a film about politics, power, race and corruption, set to a thrilling soundtrack.

The plot of Kansas City turns on gangsters — specifically, Seldom Seen, kingpin of KC’s black underworld, played by Harry Belafonte with an intense, angry power. His headquarters is the Hey Hey club, from which he runs his nightclub, taxis and less savoury businesses.

The film also stars Michael Murphy as a prominent advisor to FDR (the film is set on the eve of Election Day, 1934), Miranda Richardson as his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh as the girlfriend of a low-end hood, and Dermot Mulroney as said hood, who makes the mistake of hijacking a passenger in one of Seldom’s cabs, who was on his way to gamble heavily at the Hey Hey. I’ll leave a blow-by-blow recounting of the plot to the many online reviews that lay it out, but suffice to say that there’s enough plot and action to more than satisfy fans of the genre.

The production itself is magnificent; the sets, costumes and design are all top-class. But I want to talk about the music. Kansas City was the birthplace of the energetic, intense swing that found its best expression in artists like Jay McShann, Count Basie and a very young Charlie Parker, who we meet as a teenager dying to sit in with the Hey Hey band.

And it’s that house band that is, for me, the most memorable thing about this film. Let’s start with the roster: Joshua Redman, Fathead Newman, James Carter and Don Byron are among the reedmen, with Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Geri Allen playing piano, Russell Malone on guitar, and Ron Carter and Christian McBride on bass — and that’s not even the full lineup. These are some of the top players of our day (well, 1996) dressed up in ’30s suits and playing original arrangements. And boy, they can play, and their enthusiasm in doing so is obvious. The highlight is a five-minute sax battle between Lester Young (Joshua Redman) and Coleman Hawkins (Craig Handy) play duelling tenor saxophones on a Noble Sissle tune, Yeah, Man.

Part of the reason the music is so thrilling is that it was recorded live from the studio floor. The production designers managed to hide all the microphones needed to record the musicians so that they could play with the intensity of a live performance, rather than laying it down in a studio and then pantomiming it when the cameras rolled. It’s an understatement to note that this is not how soundtracks are usually recorded.

For fans of gangster films, Kansas City is a treat. For fans of Altman, it’s a look at the city of his youth, filmed with the swagger and style of his other great films, as a rare chance to see the beloved Belafonte play a bad guy, but above all, for the music. This is a very special film. See you at the Hey Hey club.

How to watch Kansas City online:

David Basskin is the host of The Nightfly, Saturday at midnight on JAZZ.FM91. You can reach him at nightfly@jazz.fm.