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curiousKC | Tuning into KC Jazz and ‘Big L’ curiousKC Answers A Jazz Listener’s Query About LaVerne Barker and City Light Orchestra

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Above image credit: Before touring the U.S. to play with legends like Charlie Parker, LaVerne Barker played with Deans of Swing in Kansas City. (Mutual Music Foundation Collection | Kansas City Public Library)
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7 minute read

Kansas City jazz is steeped in greats – great traditions, influences and legends. 

So, it’s safe to say, local musicians take their cues from people who made it big like Charlie “Bird” Parker. In the 1920s, Kansas City musicians such as cornet player Lamar Wright, trombonist Thamon Hayes, clarinet player Woodie Walder, and drummer Willie Hall – who created the Bennie Moten Orchestra  – kick-started the metro’s jazz style. This birthed a thriving music scene in the ‘20s and ‘30s that spread across the country in the 1940s.

Back in the day, world-renowned entertainers such as Billie Holiday, who was part of Count Basie’s band in the late 1930s, frequently performed in jazz clubs throughout the Midwest and later traveled coast to coast. Today, Kansas City is considered one of the four cradles of jazz

But shine the spotlight on local greats and eventually it lands on LaVerne Barker, a jazz bass player who played with the legends themselves. 

“He was a great cat. So fun, and so funny,” said David Basse, Barker’s former bandmate and a well-known local jazz vocalist and drummer in Kansas City. Basse founded City Light Orchestra, a jazz band that played everywhere in the 1980s. 

These days, Basse hosts a jazz show from his home, plays gigs when he can and writes.

Basse recounted one memorable trip to New York where “Big L” gave him the grand tour of the city and clubs where he once played. 

“Traveling around with LaVerne was really something. He knew people,” Basse said. “He even showed me the hotel he and Charlie Parker lived in in the ‘40s.”

In response to a query by Jeanne Blomster, a Kansas City jazz lover who wanted to learn more about “Big L” and his role in City Light Orchestra, Flatland searched the archives at LaBudde Special Collections at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

But Basse offered to do us one better. He wrote the following, a story of Barker’s life and journey.

“I wanted to write it down, about who he was,” Basse said.

LaVerne Barker poses with his bass for Dan White, a local photographer. (Contributed)

“LaVerne “Big L” Barker – a seminal figure in Kansas City jazz

There are four churches in the 18th and Vine Jazz District.

Barker Temple, north of 18th Street on Highland Avenue, was founded by LaVerne Barker’s father. In the 1930s, the Barker Temple often had an enormous band. The band would at times be 36-38 pieces. They were featured while traveling with Pastor Barker as he spread the gospel across Missouri and other states.

Black children in Kansas City of the ‘20s and ‘30s were exposed to excellent musical instruction in public schools. As a teenager, LaVerne became a prominent member of the local 627 of the Black Musicians Protective Union. A building at 1823 Highland is now known as the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

As a young man, he would jam all night at the Union Hall and then entice musicians with breath mints and coffee to join him at his father’s church. Attending church on Sunday morning was a “have to” for LaVerne and a “maybe” to the others, so he learned to do a good job of selling the merits of attending and playing in the swinging band at his father’s church.

A tragic bus accident in 1938 ended the church band. Musical instruments were sold and no longer allowed in Barker Temple.

Soon after (no connection) political powerbroker “Boss” Tom Pendergast was indicted for tax evasion. With that the fun ended in Kansas City and musicians began to look for work elsewhere. Pendergast died in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary a few years later.

LaVerne moved to New York around 1940, roughly the same time as Charlie Parker. They lived two years in the same small Harlem hotel as they both were getting established in New York.

There are films of LaVerne Barker performing with Andy Kirk and the 12 Clouds of Joy, and he toured with the popular bands of Eddie Haywood and Louis Jordan.

He made a few records with Buddy Rich and others in the early 1950s.

But his real claim to fame was a 10-year stint in the house orchestra of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Imagine sight-reading those charts? LaVerne landed a coveted gig and was able to network with every talented Black artist of the time.

He also did long-running New York engagements with Redd Foxx, Rusty Draper and Nipsey Russell — top-billed Black comedians. That’s where he developed a masterful comic timing.

Being a preacher’s kid, the cats made fun. Even as senior citizens Jay McShann and others his age called LaVerne, “Baby Brother,” “Mama’s Boy,” and “Little Brother” to his face.

LaVerne’s sharp wit was his defense. At one of City Light Orchestra’s first television appearances, LaVerne was asked how he got himself into a band with three young white guys, not necessarily in those words, but the intention was there.

He became very serious. Played to the camera and said: “I had no car, no instrument, man . . . I was destitute! (pause) “SO I DECIDED TO TAKE THEM UNDER MY WING.”

One night, (the orchestra played almost seven years at City Light, 7425 Broadway) as the band finished a version of Herbie Hancock’s 1963 hit song “Watermelon Man,” out of nowhere Laverne stood up and screamed, “Watermelon Man.”

This became a band joke, then saxophonist Ahmad Alaadeen brought the crowd into the mix. He created a little rap, sort of like a cheerleader making the sign of an “L” with his arms, then his fingers, singing something like, “play that thing Big L, play that thing…”

Soon, everybody in the place was doing it. The song had to be done every night.

Rich Denny, long-time manager of the joint, made trays of a drink he called “The Watermelon.” He’d put as many shot glasses as would fit on a serving tray, drop a couple of coffee beans in each one. Then pour a concoction of watermelon liquor and vodka into each glass. They made the concoction in pitchers behind the bar. Waitresses poured the pitchers in the shot glasses as they went through the crowd like deacons carrying the wine for communion.

It was not uncommon to sell 100 of those in less than five minutes. 

In 1998, LaVerne had become a permanent member of guitarist Sonny Kenner’s trio at the Levee, on 43rd Street between Main and Broadway. This was 10 years after the closing at City Light. Ye, that band did “Watermelon Man” once a set! Three to four times a night.

I wasn’t there. But they say LaVerne was singing the song when he became ill and 911 was called. LaVerne Barker never returned to the Levee. I am not exactly sure, but it is highly likely that “Watermelon Man” is the last thing LaVerne Barker did in life.

LaVerne was a seminal figure in Kansas City jazz.

He can be seen throughout the 1972 movie, “The Last of the Blue Devils,” shot inside the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Sitting at a table of his life-long pals, smoking a pipe and enjoying the company of Count Basie, Jay McShann, “Big” Joe Turner and drummer Jesse Price.

One can notice right away that his red and white checked jacket says he is not a man who is afraid to be the butt of a good joke.”

David Basse 

curiousKC is supported by

CommunityAmerica Credit Union

This article has been updated to include the name Jeanne Blomster, whose curiousKC question we answer in this report.

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