Taste & See KC: Tom Pendergast, Jazz and Prohibition

Posted at 8:53 PM, Jun 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-20 21:53:31-04

One of the biggest figures to have an impact on the growth of Kansas City’s jazz scene didn’t even play an instrument.

Tom Pendergast, often described as the political boss of the time, ran the Jackson County Democratic Committee when the jazz scene was blowing up in the 1920s and 1930s.

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His political machine controlled much of the activity in Kansas City and he’s often credited with influencing a lot of Missouri state politics.

He even helped Harry S. Truman gain his first elected position as the Eastern District Judge for Jackson County.

Pendergast also allegedly had an influence on criminal activity too. He ordered officials to ignore prohibition laws in parts of Kansas City, including the now-famous Jazz District.

That led to the bars and clubs near 18th and Vine becoming a hub for round-the-clock music and partying. Many jazz greats emerged during that time, like William “Count” Basie and many more. 

His reign didn’t last forever. Pendergast faced accusations of voter fraud and was found guilty of tax evasion.

But his influence, intentional or otherwise, helped 18th and Vine District become known as an iconic spot for jazz music.