Jimmy Keith is a legend on the Kansas City jazz scene; beyond that, his family itself is one of the most noted in the state of Missouri. This doesn't mean anyone can rush out and purchase stacks of Jimmy Keith sides. Unfortunately, most of the music this artist was involved in during his lifetime does not seem to have been documented. The exception covers his tenure with various groups led by fellow reed player Harlan Leonard, a popular choice for compilations dealing with subjects such as historic jazz or Kansas City jazz. The track "A La Bridges," frequently mutilated by typesetters, is a quite famous recording, providing an early glimpse of composer and pianist Tadd Dameron in action as well as a hot Keith solo. Soul lady Myra Taylor's recording of "Spider and the Fly" with backing from the Leonard band has also gotten a fair amount of exposure.
Keith's reputation is more about his talent and who and where he was in the historic scheme of things than anything that can be nibbled on by a phonograph needle. For example, it was Keith's band that the greenhorn Charlie Parker attempted to sit in with one frightening night in 1935, realizing only a few bars into the first tune that he had neglected to learn how to play his instrument in more than one key. That must have been hard to take for Keith, a master tenor saxophonist who supposedly could not only play like Lester Young in any key but looked like him, too. What he didn't have that Young had were national and international tours and recording contracts. Instead, Keith stayed put, holding forth at what in a perfect world would have been endless residencies at Kansas City venues such as the Rialto and the Playmates Club.
Keith's early gigs of note began in the mid-'30s with bandleader Tommy Douglas. He had his own group in 1938 until Harlan Leonard came along and seduced away most of the players; curious about all the fuss, he also joined Leonard, staying with him until the early '40s. There was also a brief period a few years later with Count Basie, a member of the jazz royalty who could always pick the best from among the Kansas City jazz scene. Keith's famous stand at the shimmering Sterling Club began in 1945, and from that point on he didn't seem to have much interest in leaving town. Excellent players worked with Keith in his groups, such as drummers Jimmy Lovelace and Corky Brown, bassist Cleofus Berry, pianist George Salisbury, and singer Irene McClarin.
Keith was posthumously inducted into the Kansas City Jazz Hall of Fame. His family's fame comes from other areas well outside the music business. His wife, Gertrude Keith, was the first African-American woman to be elected to the Kansas City school board. Their son, Kenton Keith, is a former ambassador to Qatar.