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The Reno Club, Back in the Day

With the opening of Lonnie’s Reno Club in the Ambassador Hotel this month, we look back on the venue’s namesake, courtesy of an article from the kcjazzlark blog. Author Larry Kopitnik plumbed William “Count” Basie’s autobiography, Good Morning Blues, for these tasty Count quotes about the original Reno Club:

609 E. 12th Street. Today, it’s a KCPD parking lot. But three quarters of a century ago, it was the Reno Club, where in 1935 Count Basie formed what would become the Count Basie Orchestra, and in 1936 experimental radio broadcasts introduced Kansas City jazz to the world.

Like most KC clubs of the time, the Reno was segregated. The main floor was for white customers. The balcony and a small space behind the band were for black customers. As the Count remembered it:

“The Reno was not one of those big fancy places where you go in and go downstairs and all that. It was like a club off the street. But once you got inside, it was a cabaret, with a little bandstand and a little space for a floor show, and with a bar up front, and there was also a little balcony in there. There were also girls available as dancing partners. It was a good place to work. I liked the atmosphere down there. There was always a lot of action because there were at least four other cabarets right there on that same block, and they all had live music and stayed open late.” “The manager of the Reno was a short little fellow named Sol Steibold, and we got along fine from the very beginning.... After I had been substituting in there for about a week, Sol...asked me if I would like to have the job on a permanent basis.... When I asked him about [the other pianist], he just shrugged his shoulders [and said,] ‘It’s your job if you want it.’

“I got Sol Steibold to put an elevated band shell in the Reno.... That showed the band off very nicely, but it got pretty crowded up there, too, because they also brought in a baby grand in there. And we also forgot that the tuba player couldn't quite fit in there, either. So old Big ‘Un, [Walter Page] used to have to go outside and reach in through the window. He'd leave the horn inside, but he was outside, sitting on a stool or something if he wanted. But he didn't mind that at all, because he had his little action going on out there. He could take his little nips. He had a ball out there. But, of course, when we used the bass fiddle, he was inside, right next to the piano.”

As saxophonist Buster Smith recalled, the club “was nothin’ but a hole in the wall. Just mediocre people mostly went in there, a lot of the prostitutes and hustlers and thugs hung out down there. And the house was packed. They had a show down there we had to play. Dancers and comedians and things like that.” Trumpeter Buck Clayton echoed those sentiments, adding “ beer was a nickel, scotch was fifteen cents, and the other whiskey in there was a dime. That's all it was.... And it was great, you know, it was really nice. You didn't have to wear any [uniforms]. You just put on a shirt, whatever you wanted to do. But it was hot as hell.”

The new Lonnie’s Reno Club just around the corner from the original, opened this month. Presumably, the ambience, clientele and those beverage prices have changed since the Count played the room eighty-five years ago. Check it out; support KC jazz.

(edited for space from the kcjazzlark blog at Thanks to Larry Kopitnik)

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