KC Recalls: The Coon-Sanders Night Hawk Orchestra


(Above: Joseph Sanders, left, and Carleton Coon.)

By Joel Francis

The music Carleton Coon and Joseph Sanders made for a dozen years together helped put Kansas City jazz on the map. Their Nighthawk Orchestra may have broken up in 1932, but it’s two bandleaders have been silently reunited for 40 years at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Kansas City.

Coon and Sanders first met at a downtown Kansas City music store in 1918. Tall, handsome and quick-tempered Sanders, was an amateur baseball player on leave from the Army. He was practically the antonym of the pudgy, extroverted Coon. Despite their physical and temperamental differences, both men quickly found they shared a love of jazz and complementary tenor voices.

The following year, when Sanders got out of the Army, the two teamed up, formed a jazz combo and started booking gigs around Kansas City. With Coon handling business, Sanders writing songs and city boss Tom Pendergast ignoring prohibition with his “wide open” bars, clubs and brothels, the Coon-Sanders Novelty Orchestra was soon one of town’s in-demand outfits.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, 1922, the orchestra was booked to play on radio station WDAF. The success of that performance helped launch their weekly show, broadcast from 11:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. When the announcer let slip that “anyone who’d stay up this late to hear us would have to be a real night hawk,” thousands of listeners spread across Canada, Mexico and most of the United States let him know that they were proud to be “night hawks.”

Sanders quickly penned a theme song “Night Hawks Blues” and the pair rechristened their ensemble the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra. In 1924, they recorded for the Victor record label in Chicago and agreed to let burgeoning Chicago promoter Jules Stein book a four-week tour. Stein parlayed his profits from that tour into his own booking company, which he called Music Corporation of America, or MCA.

On the strength of that tour, the Night Hawk Orchestra relocated to Chicago where their performance opening the Balloon Ballroom of the Congress Hotel was broadcast on KYW. Two years later, they moved to the Blackhawk Restaurant where fan Al Capone frequently left $100 tips for the band. On the strength of WGN radio broadcasts and reputation built playing around Chicago (including Capone’s Dells supper club in Morton Grove, Ill.), the Coon-Sanders Orchestra relocated once again in 1931.

Broadcasting weekly from Terrace Room in the Hotel New Yorker on CBS radio, Coon and Sanders found themselves in the same Big Apple circles as Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo. Coon loved the night life, frequenting the Cotton Club and other Harlem jazz clubs, and making friends with Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.

Sanders, on the other hand, was less enamored. He longed for the Midwest and made his sentiment plain the final number recorded by the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra, “I Want to Go Home.”

Unfortunately, circumstances forced the bandleaders’ hands. Popular taste was shifting away from the Caucasian stylings of Coon and Sanders and toward all-black ensembles like the Ellington, Calloway and Kansas City’s Bennie Moten orchestras.

These circumstances, coupled with the Great Depression, forced the Night Hawks back to Chicago in April, 1932, for an engagement at the College Inn. Sander’s delight to be back in familiar territory was tempered when Coon was admitted to the hospital in critical condition. He died a few weeks later from blood poisoning from an abscessed tooth.


Coon’s 1932 funeral was one of the largest Kansas City had seen. Although his procession carried on for miles, his band’s legacy did not stretch so far. Less than a year after Coon’s death, Sanders dissolved the group and moved to Hollywood to write movie scores. Although Sanders was active in music for the rest of his life, he never regained the popularity he found with the Nighthawk Orchestra. In 1965, he died after having a stroke and was buried about 200 yards sound of his friend, Carleton Coon, at Mt. Moriah Cemetery.

Today, the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra is a footnote in the Kansas City jazz story that includes big bands lead by Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Andy Kirk and Jay McShann, and soloists like Big Joe Turner, Mary Lou Williams, Walter Page and, of course, Charlie Parker. But Coon and Sander’s early triumphs helped paved the way for all who followed them out of Kansas City.

Ironically, the Night Hawks are most celebrated in Huntington, West Virginia, where the Coon Sanders Nighthawks Fans’ Bash has been held on the weekend after Mother’s Day for 39 years.sanders


A Life Full Of Jazz

By Joel Francis
The Examiner

A smile beams from Rusty Tucker’s face. Conversation has just shifted to jazz, his favorite topic and lifelong passion. Tucker can’t disguise his delight. In fact, he can’t get more than a couple sentences without breaking into laughter or pausing to effuse happiness.

“I met all the people who are great now, when they were just starting out, Little Richard, Ray Charles,” Tucker said. “When I met Ray he was singin’ like Nat King Cole.”

When one of Charles’ musicians was sick, Tucker filled in for a one-night stand in Wichita, Kan.

“He (Ray) always said he was going to drive the first 100 miles,” Tucker said with a laugh. “Several years later when I saw him and went backstage to say hello he told me, ‘I knew I’d seen you before.'”

If stories were touchdown passes, Tucker would be Joe Montana.

“One of the biggest pleasures I had was playing with Dizzy (Gillespie),” Tucker said. “Teddy Stewart, my drummer, used to play with Diz and when Dizzy learned that, he couldn’t believe it. He said, why don’t we do a number together with both bands. So we did ‘A Night In Tunisia.’ The house went wild and I had to play a solo in front of Diz. The people just went crazy.”

Don’t worry, there’s more.

Tucker and Myra Taylor share a laugh at a 2006 jazz symposium at the University of Kansas.

“One night we were at Tootie Mayfair’s club on U.S. 40. Bird (Charlie Parker) was playing on 18th Street, then he was going to meet up with us. We’d had no rehearsal or nothing, and about midnight Bird walks in,” Tucker said. “He said we’ll do things everybody knows like blues, ‘How High the Moon,’ ‘What is This Thing Called Love,’ and ‘Perdido.’

“The blues went all right, but when we did ‘What Is This Thing Called Love,’ our piano player was an accordion player learning piano, see,” said Tucker, interrupting himself.

The apprentice pianist botched a couple chords, drawing Parker’s ire.

“Bird called us together and said it ain’t no sin not to know a tune, but to say you know a tune and not know, you (messed up) those chords,” Parker yelled at the pianist.

Bird sent word out to bring in a new keyboard player, but none were to be found at 1 a.m.

“They got in a big argument and finally Bird just told the piano player, ‘you just lay out.’ ”

Tucker grew up in Birmingham, Ala. where he took trumpet lessons from W.C. Handy Jr. It wasn’t unusual to see the elder Handy, a veteran bluesman and writer of many songs including “St. Louis Blues,” wandering the halls of and speaking to his son’s music school.

“He would always give lectures,” Tucker said. “He told us how to write tunes and get them copyrighted. He said he was getting $30,000 a year off that one tune (“St. Louis Blues”) so to always copyright your tunes.”

One day the Punch Miller Band came to town and announced they were auditioning trumpet players. Tucker tried out and got a job to play with them at the state fair.

“He (Punch) looked like Louis (Armstrong) and played like Louis and said ‘That’s why I can’t make any money,’ ” Tucker said. “I played with them at the state fair then for four or five weeks we’d go around. Then they told me they wanted me to go on the road with them. I was 18 and ran away from home to go with them. They called me ‘school boy.’ ”

He was in love with both the music and several of the dancers.

“I fell in love and ran away. My parents didn’t know where I was,” Tucker said. “I fell in love with a lot of the dancers. That was my problem; that’s why I’ve been married three times.”

Tucker toured with Punch for three years.

“We played the state fair in Sedalia and my first wife got sick,” Tucker said. “She lived in Kansas and her folks were going to come and take her back. I was supposed to meet the show in New Orleans and during the time I was here (in Kansas City) I met The Scamps and other musicians. At that time they were starting shows at the Orchid Room down at 12th and Vine and needed a trumpet player.”

Tucker decided to stay in town and take the Orchid Room gig. That was 1947 or ’48, he can’t remember the exact year, and Tucker has been here ever since. These days he plays most Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at the Phoenix Club as a member of either Tim Whitmer’s KC Express or The Scamps, which he joined 25 years ago.

“Sometimes the Scamps play from 4 to 8 Saturday, then I play 9 to 1 with Tim. It’s long but I got used to it,” Tucker said. “The Scamps usually play for an older crowd. We do the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers. Tim does more jazz tunes. When I was on the carnivals with Punch we used to play all day so I’m used to playing long hours.”

Tucker may be a veteran of the KC jazz scene, but he still performs like he has something to prove, said Rudy Massingale, pianist and only original member of the Scamps still performing with the group.

“I think Mr. Tucker is still reaching for his goal,” Massingale said. “It seems like he’s just starting out and has to make a big impression.”

Independence has been Tucker’s home for 30 years now. He lives just off Noland Road with his wife, Diane. His children, daughters DuJuan and Carla, and son Lynn, live in Kansas City.

“It’s quiet and I don’t get any noise,” Tucker said. “Everything is so convenient. We were looking at a place in Vegas but the stores were so far away and there are so many people it’s crowded out there.”

By stretching his talent, Tucker today counts drums and piano among the instruments he can play.

“He’s a good showman,” Massingale said. “The main thing is getting the crowd’s emotions into it and he has that gift.”

Good Times in the Old Neighborhood

By Joel Francis
The ExaminerThe Neck may have been razed 30 years ago, but its spirit lives on.

About 125 residents of the Neck, the African-American neighborhood bordered by U.S. 24, Spring, College and McCoy streets, gathered at McCoy Park, site of the old neighborhood, to eat, play games and swap stories.

“The thing about the Neck was that people down here were family — a big continuous family,” said former Neck resident Nancy Harris. “If one had bread, all had bread. This was like a village. We played together and mourned together.”

Over plates piled with barbecue, domino games and the sounds of Fats Domino, the old neighbors were more than happy to share stories of the old days, but no one could recall how the Neck earned its name.

“We think it started as a derogatory term, but we have turned it into a term of endearment,” Pettigrew said. “I guess it has been here as long as Independence has been here.”

Back then segregation was enforced.

“They had areas where blacks could live and this was one of them,” Harris said. “You couldn’t live just anywhere.”

Pettigrew agreed.

“It was a time of segregation. We got the title of ‘Neck niggers,'” Pettigrew said. “We couldn’t go to anything but we didn’t have anything but the Neck. We couldn’t go to shows uptown and we weren’t allowed to eat uptown.”

Adversity just drew the community closer.

“If one person had a problem, everyone jumped in to help,” Harris said. “Everybody had a garden all could help themselves from.”

Parenting was also a community activity.

“If Nancy’s mom told me to do something, I did it,” Pettigrew said. “There was none of this ‘you can’t tell me what to do’ stuff. These were the days before the child abuse hot line,” she added with a laugh.

Barbara Nutter spent much of her life in the Neck.

“Neighbors used to watch over us when mama and daddy went to work,” Nutter said.

“Those days were the best days of my life,” she added with a smile.

Entertainment options were limited to traveling to Kansas City or making your own fun. Since money was often tight, block parties and fish fries were the norm.

“We usually had fish fries as a church fund-raiser,” Pettigrew said. “You could have a piece of fish, cole slaw and a pickle for 35 cents, and we’d sell good old Polly’s Pop. We’d have beer at night and have music and dance all night at the back of the house.”

Dorothy King remembered learning how to dance at a Neck party.

“A woman named Katherine Thomas opened her home and we went there to dance every Sunday,” King said. “She had cakes and homemade ice cream. We had a lot of good times. A lot of us learned to dance there.”

The teen-agers usually separated themselves at fish fries and formed an area called teen town.

“The young ones would be in the front room with the blue light on and be rockin’ and rollin’,” Pettigrew said. “We had to make our own fun. We didn’t know what we were missing. We knew we couldn’t go places, but we didn’t care. We were poor but we were happy.”

The hilly streets of the Neck were perfect for sledding in the winter.

“We would carry water from the well, fill barrels up, set them up on the hill (on Mill Street) and dump ’em out,” said Herbert Sullivan, who’s Neck home is now a tennis court. “They’d freeze and the next day you could sled down the hill.”

Nutter remembers spending many a day sledding up and down Mill Street.

“You could go from the top of one hill, clear up to the top of another hill,” Nutter said. “Then daddy would have to go to work the next day and he would slip and slide the whole way.”

Pettigrew thought about having a reunion when she was working on her book, “Memories of a Neck Child.”

“Writing that book stirred up hopes,” said Pettigrew. “I thought getting together in reunion would be a good thing.”

Life in the Neck wasn’t easy, but ask anyone their memory of the area and it will be the good times that are shared.

“It was fun,” said Al Rucker, who was 10 when his family was forced to move.

“We used to do basically the same things at those parties that we are doing right now,” he said munching on a slice of watermelon while a group danced to the Temptations.

“The Neck never left. That spirit is still in these people,” King said. n the 1970s urban renewal cleared out the Neck at the prompting of Harry Truman.

“Truman didn’t want a black neighborhood near his library,” Pettigrew said.

Roxanne Copridge remembered seeing Truman on his walks.

“Truman used to walk through this neighborhood,” Copridge said, “and he always had two bodyguards with him.”

This action stands as a contrast to the man who desegregated the military while president in 1948.

“Truman’s record of civil rights speaks for itself,” said Scott Rowley, acting director of the Truman Library. “There were lots of factors involved in the decision for urban renewal, including the City of Independence.”

Families were forced from their homes with little compensation, the residents remember.

“They just stole it from us,” said Thelma Copridge, Nutter’s sister. “Every time I think about it, I get so doggone mad.”

Harris remembers that time well.

“It killed off a lot of people,” Harris said. “The city didn’t give them anything for their homes — they wanted to cart us all off to Kansas City.

“We had hard times getting people to sell us a house. We had to canvas the neighborhood to see if they wanted us here.”

Nutter expounds on the deaths during the relocation.

“There were a lot of people who owned their house and were too old to look for a job and a new home,” Nutter said. “They died from heart attacks.”

Pettigrew said she feels it is the community’s loss, not just hers.

“When the bulldozers dug up our houses we lost a part of the history of Independence,” Pettigrew said. “Not black history, but Independence’s history.”

But the good food, music and friends made harboring grudges impossible. And for at least a little while, the Neck was once again the place to be.

“I’m very happy,” Pettigrew said. “I got to renew so many old acquaintances. We’re definitely going to make this an annual affair.”