He was mostly self-taught as a pianist and began working as a professional musician in 1931, playing throughout the Midwest before settling in Kansas City in 1936. He formed his own sextet the following year and soon had his own big band. His kind of music became known as the Kansas City sound.
McShann’s band featured variously Charlie Parker (1938–1942), Al Hibbler, Lawrence Anderson, Ben Webster, Paul Quinichette, Gus Johnson, Harold ‘Doc’ West, Earl Coleman and Walter Brown, among others. His first recordings were all with Parker, the first as The Jay McShann Orchestra in 1940. The group disbanded when McShann was drafted into the army in 1944.
After the Second World War, McShann re-formed his group – but as the big band era was over, this was short-lived. McShann soon moved to Los Angeles, where he led combos for the next few years, his main attraction being blues shouter Jimmy Witherspoon.
For the next two decades, McShann was in obscurity, making few records and mostly playing in Kansas City. In 1969, he was rediscovered and soon became a popular pianist/vocalist. Sometimes featuring violinist Claude Williams, McShann toured constantly, recorded frequently, and appeared at many jazz festivals, being active into the mid-1990s.
He made his last recording Hootie Blues in 2001 after a recording career of 61 years.
McShann received many honours and accolades throughout his career, including Pioneer Award of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, 1989.
In this 1990 live recording of ‘I’m Just a Lucky So and So’, Jay McShann plays with Plas Johnson (tenor sax) and Milt Hinton (bass).