John Kander was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to Harold and Berenice (Aaron) Kander. He was exposed to music at an early age. Kander believed that a bout of tuberculosis as a baby, which had kept him isolated from other people, had actually helped him develop his sense of sound. At age six he began taking piano lessons from a woman in the neighborhood. Kander spent many evenings with his parents and brother playing and singing.
Kander's formal musical training began at The Pembroke Country-Day School and at Oberlin College. While still a student, he composed his first theater scores for "Second Square" and "Opus Two" in 1950 and "Requiem for Georgie" in 1951. In that same year Kander received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Oberlin.
He went on to attend Columbia University where he earned a Master of Arts degree in 1954. During the summers of 1955 to 1957 he worked as the choral director and conductor of the Warwick Musical Theatre in Rhode Island. Kander began to work steadily as a pianist in 1956 when he landed a job for the pre-Broadway run of "The Amazing Adele" and "An Evening with Beatrice Lillie" in Florida.
Kander believed that his big break in New York came by accident. He went to a club in Philadelphia after seeing a performance of "West Side Story." By chance he happened to meet the pianist who asked Kander to substitute for him while he went on vacation. The stage manager for "West Side Story" then asked Kander to play the auditions for her next show "Gypsy." During the auditions Kander met the choreographer, Jerry Robbins, who then suggested that Kander actually write the dance music for the show in 1959. After that experience, he wrote dance arrangements for "Irma la Douce" in 1960.
Kander made his Broadway debut in 1962 with a score for the musical "A Family Affair," which was produced at the Billy Rose Theatre. While the show was not a success, it nonetheless led to future successes for Kander. The producer of this show, Harold Prince, would work with Kander again. A year later, in 1963, Kander was introduced to lyricist Fred Ebb by the legendary music publisher Tommy Volando. Ebb had been writing songs for nightclub acts and television shows. He had also had an unsuccessful Broadway debut with "Morning Sun." Kander and Ebb began to work together and their first song, "My Coloring Book," was nominated for a Grammy award.
In the same year rising star Barbra Streisand recorded two of the duo's songs, "My Coloring Book" and "I Don't Care Much.". It proved to be a success and launched the pair on their career. Kander and Ebb have since been associated with writing material for Liza Minnelli and for Chita Rivera, and have produced special material for their appearances live and on television.
The musicals Cabaret and Chicago have been made into films; the film version of Chicago won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Picture.
In 2003, Kander (who has lived for 26 years with one man, a choreographer and teacher) implicitly addressed rumors concerning the nature of his non-professional relations with Ebb by describing the latter to interviewer Jeffrey Tallmer as "his 40-year partner in creativity but never in domesticity, much less romance."