Monday, June 29, 2015

No New Post

No new thoughts, profound or otherwise. No photos, either new or old. No excuses. But no post this week.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Molly Hammer and Samantha Fish at Jazz in the Woods

The most integrated place in the Kansas City area last weekend was Corporate Woods.

In 1984, the organizers of The Kansas City Jazz Festival chose Volker Park, just south of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, as the site for that outdoor festival in part because it was near the city’s then more sharply defined racial dividing line of Troost. An underlying hope was that the music could bridge some of this city’s legacy barriers with fun and celebration.

We did a bunch of things right when staging that festival. We did a bunch of things wrong. But an idea we had right is that the joy of jazz and its musical descendants can bring together people of all backgrounds.

Jazz in the Woods last Friday and Saturday was proof. More than three decades after the Kansas City Jazz Festival started with lofty, idealistic goals, people mingled and laughed and danced and loved music together as if that’s how all of Kansas City always was, everywhere.

This past weekend, near College Boulevard and Antioch, tens of thousands of people gathered. Some were in strollers, a few walked with canes. It was probably four times the best attendance of the 18th and Vine and Prairie Village jazz festivals combined. Tens of thousands of dollars of profits were generated for charities. You can argue whether the range of music presented truly fits a jazz event. But in its 26th year, by every other measure, Jazz in the Woods is clearly the area’s preeminent jazz festival.

I captured some photos Saturday evening of Molly Hammer’s and Samantha Fish’s sets. They’re below. As always, clicking on an image should open a larger version of it.

Molly Hammer

Steve Lambert on tenor sax

Joe Cartwright on keyboards

Rod Fleeman on guitar

James Albright on bass

Sam Wisman on drums

Molly sings


An impressive crowd


Samantha Fish sings blues, not jazz. I don’t care. Her dynamic performance stole Corporate Woods. Any time she’s dominating another jazz festival in Kansas City, look for me there. Go-Go Ray was her drummer. I didn’t catch the name of her bassist (if you know, email me and I’ll update this post).

Monday, June 15, 2015

KC's Greatest Collection of Jazz (and It's Not in a Museum)

Think jazz artifacts in Kansas City.

At the American Jazz Museum you can gaze on Charlie Parker’s plastic saxophone, Ella Fitzgerald’s dress, the neon sign from Milton’s. You can watch snippets of the John Baker jazz film collection.

But elsewhere you can see all of the photos that once graced the walls of the Mutual Musicians Foundation. You can peruse the photo collections of Dave Dexter and The Grand Emporium – each indexed at over 100 pages with 20 photos per page. Online, this same source offers the photo collection of Buck Clayton. That one’s index is 1441 pages of 20 shots per page.

You can hear recordings from Warren Durrett’s big band, ranging from a 1954 performance at the Pla-Mor Ballroom through 1970s Kansas City Jazz Festival recordings with guests like Pat Metheny, John Park and Julie Turner.

You can examine the contracts, scores, clippings and memorabilia of Jay McShann, Claude Williams, Priscilla Bowman, Gene Ramey, Ahmad Alaadeen and Bettye Miller and Milt Abel.

And this is home to the Frank Driggs Oral History Collection, over 300 interviews recorded between 1956 and 1986 with the people who created jazz. Among those with ties to Kansas City are Buster Smith, Andy Kirk, Thamon Hayes, Myra Taylor, Herman Walder, Oliver Todd and Buddy Tate.

All of this is part of the Marr Sound Archives and the LaBudde Special Collections at the Miller Nichols Library at 51st and Rockhill Road on the campus of UMKC.

UMKC might not jump to mind when considering premiere resources in Kansas City for researching jazz. But with recordings, photos and documents cultivated over decades, these archives stand apart. To most fans in Kansas City, they’re under-appreciated and rarely recognized. To many, they’re unknown.

The online home of the Marr Sound Archive is here. The jazz portion of the LaBudde Special Collections is here. The Frank Driggs Oral History collection is based here. The music of Warren Durrett’s band can be heard here. The photos of Buck Clayton can be viewed starting here.

The photos below offer a glimpse at history - much of it integral to Kansas City as the world know us - indexed and saved.


Step in to record players you don’t find anymore

More records

Recordings are digitized in this room

  The jazz display from the lobby of the LaBudde Special Collections

One row of the library’s collection of over 800,000 items

On the top row, cases from Warren Durrett’s big band

Chuck Haddix pulls an album

Monday, June 8, 2015

KC's Oldest, Most Successful Jazz Festival That We Never Discuss

We don’t boast about it. Maybe we should.

In 1990, two board members of the Kansas City Jazz Festival, then staged in Volker Park, south of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, decided to start a new jazz festival. They didn’t like the direction the Kansas City festival was headed that year. So the woman who handled the festival’s marketing the previous year and a man who helped organize concessions left and found a sponsor in the Corporate Woods office park in Overland Park.

The Kansas City Jazz Festival in 1990 wound up sponsored by radio stations, which provided good promotion but raised little money. The festival ended earlier in the evening that year so they wouldn’t need to pay for lights. It would go on to merge with the blues festival and build an event larger than the sum of its parts. It would grow into a celebration with multiple stages and large crowds in Penn Valley Park. But it would start to build debt and eventually it succumbed to money owed.

Meanwhile, the festival in Corporate Woods continued. It survived some shaky years. But the pair who founded it turned its operation over to a civic group (the female co-founder went on to become a rabbi, one of the more unlikely careers to follow starting a jazz festival), which in turn developed it into a premiere charitable endeavor.

Last year, Jazz in the Woods, as the Corporate Woods Jazz Festival was rechristened somewhere along the way, celebrated its quarter century mark by attracting 25,000 fans and raising over $90,000 for area children’s charities. It boasts of raising over a million dollars for charities over the years. The 26th annual event will be staged the weekend after next, on June 19th and 20th. Admission is free (the festival raises money through sponsorships and by keeping a portion of concession sales). If the weather cooperates, they’ll attract over 10,000 people each evening. No other area jazz festival approaches those numbers or that record of success.

Jazz in the Woods has been dismissed by jazz fans for its emphasis in recent years on smooth jazz, the stuff of radio stations that border on easy listening and elevators. And last year’s parade of half hour slots for Bobby Watson, Eldar and Angela Hagenbach suggests an indifference by organizers to Kansas City’s jazz scene (if you book names of that stature, give them the full set they deserve). Then there was the year they turned a day over to country music. Smooth jazz, contemporary jazz, fusion, blues, reggae and ragtime I understand. A bit of soul, R and B or funk, okay. But country music is a different festival.

With those kinds of missteps, respect among jazz fans starts to dart down a rabbit hole. But look at this year’s lineup. Najee and Julian Vaughn are as smooth as jazz gets. Yet Najee opened last year’s Jammin’ at the Gem series – and sold the house out – and Julian Vaughn opens next year’s series. This is jazz you’ll find at 18th and Vine in the 21st century. Molly Hammer, on Saturday night, is the real thing. So is local blues superstar Samantha Fish, also on Saturday.

This is not jazz intended to soothe fans of Count Basie. The same weekend, the Mutual Musicians Foundation is hosting an educational festival on swing, if that’s what you want. This is jazz intended to fit a broad definition of the music and draw 25,000 people to hear it in Johnson County.

And this is a festival organized by people whose day jobs are as business professionals and who operate this event as tightly and as expertly as they do their paid work. The longest page on is the one of legal gobbledygook. There’s insight into who’s running this show. But who’s running this show is why the festival is entering its 26th consecutive year and has raised over a million dollars.

Jazz in the Woods has stubbed its programming toes over the years and has earned its reputation for psuedo-jazz. Some years it can be one of those jazz festivals that I’ve criticized as keeping jazz in its title only because that’s what they used to book.

Now look at this year’s Jazz in the Woods lineup another way. Just as The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City (hey, Jazz in the Woods people, you should feature them) expands what your granddaddy knew as big band jazz, and just as Dominque Sanders’s latest CD incorporates all of the influences absorbed by a young musician in 2015, and just as Mark Lowrey has played hip-hop and Shay Estes has sung the music of Radiohead, Jazz in the Woods is embracing a modern sense of what is jazz.

And weekend after next, they’re ready to turn Kansas City’s oldest, most successful and least respected jazz festival into another year of triumph.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Another No Post Week

No great insights, no new historic tales, no revelatory photos, no snarky comments this week. As the first issue of Jam magazine to which I've contributed hits the streets, and as a new monthly email newsletter from the Jazz Ambassadors is initiated (I’ll let you know how to get on the list for that when I find out), and as meetings pile up, I’m taking a week away from the blog. This weekend, I decided I’d rather go out and hear jazz. No regrets about that. None at all.

Monday, May 25, 2015

June, and June a Hundred Years Ago

June 18th through 20th, the Mutual Musicians Foundation hosts an educational music festival celebrating Kansas City swing. On the 19th and 20th, the 26th annual Jazz in the Woods festival in Overland Park’s Corporate Woods offers sets by Najee – who opened this season’s Jammin’ at the Gem series – and Julian Vaughn – who opens next season’s Jammin’ at the Gem series – among others. Those same days, Parkville’s 20th annual River Jam in English Landing Park presents David Basse, James Ward, the Danielle Nicole Band, and plenty more jazz and blues.

It’s a busy weekend.

A hundred years before, on June 17, 1916, The Kansas City Sun ran a story headlined, “Band Master Organizing Band Chorus” The sub-head read, “Big Organization of Two Hundred and Sixty Members.”

Kansas City Sun, June 17, 1916
The story effused:

“A great phenomenal musical organization, that’s all. Tremendous in number, wonderful in ability. Think what it means. A band augmented to sixty pieces with highly developed musicians and two hundred thoroughly trained voices. Great, you say. Why, the heavens will acknowledge such music and such singing from such a band and chorus.

“In no place in America can a community boast such a thing on such a magnificent scale. This will probably be the high mark in big things musical. It will work wonders in civic affairs and racial matters. Nothing like music to win love, respect and confidence among the races. If music soothes the savage, it also reconciles the civilized to better race adjustment. All Kansas City will be proud of the Afro-American Band and all male chorus, with N. Clark Smith as master-director.

“You know about the famous Pickininny band which toured the world, taking in Australia and many foreign parts; you know who created the Tuskegee Concert Band that toured this country and opened doors never before opened to Colored musicians and won applause from the highest musical circles; you know who directs the best race band in these parts today, and you know in what comparatively short time he has accomplished this result. Mr. Smith has a reputation for doing big things musical, in band work and the intensive study of song by the many….”

Major N. Clark Smith educated many of the musicians who would create Kansas City jazz. At the time this article ran, he directed the bands at Western University, in what is today Kansas City, KS, and was once the town of Quindaro. But in September, 1916, he would move to Lincoln High School where he trained musicians like Walter Page, Harlan Leonard, Julia Lee, Jap Allen and Lamar Wright, each of whom would play key roles in the development and dominance of Kansas City jazz.

The Kansas City Sun unapologetically “reported” on January 9, 1915, when Smith landed in KCK:

N. Clark Smith in 1914
“The coming of Captain N. Clark Smith, who has been elected Commandant at Western University, marks a distinct epoch in the history of that Institution and augurs well for the future prosperity and development of that excellent school. Capt. Clark Smith comes thoroughly equipped with all the necessary training and experience of the successful Commandant and in addition is recognized not only as the greatest bandmaster of the race but the greatest director America has produced since the days of the illustrious Gilmore.

“More than 16 years ago he carried a band composed of youths of this community known as the Pickinny band [yes, it’s spelled differently in this article] to Europe and Australia and won fame for both himself and the band, many of the members of which have since developed into either exceptional musicians or successful business men. Upon his return to America, he was elected director and captain of the Famous Eighth Regiment Band of the Illinois National Guard, which he brought to a high degree of efficiency until it was publicly acknowledged by the military authorities to be the greatest band of the state of Illinois. His services were later secured by the Wizard, Dr. Booker T. Washington, for the great school at Tuskegee, and here he built up another famous musical organization that has toured America….”

In the book Goin’ to Kansas City, saxophonist Bill Saunders recalls being a student under Smith at Lincoln High School:

“One day Major Smith told the class that music was melody, harmony and rhythm. Being a kid, I paid no attention. The next week, the first thing he said [was], ‘Saunders, stand up here and tell me what music is…. You don’t know, do you?’ He had a ruler and he said, ‘Put your head on the table. Music is melody.’ BOOM! ‘Harmony.’ BOOM! ‘Rhythm.’ BOOM! ’Now go home and tell your Mammy I hit you.’ But I know what music is.”

Saxophonist Herman Walder related:

At Lincoln High School, “I got into a band with some of the greatest musicians I’ve ever known…. I was under Major Smith…. Oh, that cat was a masterpiece. Man, I remember, he come by me and I made the wrong note. Man, he took that baton and hit me right on the top of the head…until I got it right. He was a masterpiece, but after he left, we had a helluva band.”

By 1917, Bennie Moten was organizing his first band (B. B. and D., with Bailey Hancock and Dude Lankford). And the Musicians Protective Union Local No. 627 was founded, initially with 25 members. With N. Clark Smith moving to Lincoln High School the previous September, the puzzle pieces that would lead to the creation of a unique style of jazz in Kansas City were starting to fall into place. By 1930, the union would be dedicating its new headquarters at 1823 Highland with 347 members. Among those members were Bill Basie, Bennie Moten – and Walter Page, Harlan Leonard, Julia Lee, Jap Allen, Lamar Wright, Herman Walder and Bill Saunders.

In June, 2016, a festival honoring Kansas City swing will be staged at 1823 Highland. At the same time, major jazz festivals will swing Overland Park and Parkville.

In June, 1916, a man crucial to why jazz developed in Kansas City was preparing a very big concert.

Monday, May 18, 2015

No Post...Blame the Jam

As I wrap up co-editing my first issue of Jam magazine, I have discovered two points: (1) It takes more time than you think it will and (2) I really need to start sooner next time.

Both of those points lead to no new blog post this week.

The June/July Jam, which should be on the streets on June 1st, is co-edited by outgoing editor Roger Atkinson and me. The August/September issue will be the first for which I'll deserve all the blame.

Actually, there's a third point I've discovered about editing the magazine: Despite the work, doing this is a bunch of fun.

Monday, May 11, 2015

A Week of Good News, and an Outlier

Two signs of a healthy Kansas City jazz scene stood out last week: A general manager with a track record of success coming to The Broadway Jazz Club and unprecedented donor support for the American Jazz Museum.

Since it opened nearly a year and a half ago, the jazz community has desperately wanted to see The Broadway Jazz Club thrive. Not just for the additional opportunities to hear jazz, but because it embraced the concept of a dinner jazz club, a niche unfilled in Kansas City since the demise of Jardine’s.

But The Broadway Jazz Club wasn’t located just a little north of the Country Club Plaza, Jardine’s onetime neighborhood. It was in Midtown. You didn’t see Nichols Fountain as you approached Broadway. You saw a Sprint store with bars on its windows. Plus, the success of Take Five Coffee + Bar meant Johnson County jazz fans no longer needed to drive into town for dinner and jazz. Some of the best music is now in their back yard.

The club closed for the first couple weeks of January for upgrades. It reopened with a clearly diminished music budget, mostly duos and trios, largely comparable to the jazz that not-a-jazz-club The American Restaurant booked. You could hear complete bands at the Green Lady Lounge, at The Blue Room, at Take Five. There were exceptions, but too often The Broadway Jazz Club felt like listening to a pianist with a brass or woodwind player on a stage and in a room intended for much more than that.

Recently, Green Lady Lounge proprietor John Scott has quietly consulted with the owners of The Broadway Jazz Club. Scott knows the area. Before Green Lady, he owned a gym – still operating, with a different owner – in the rear of the faded strip mall across the street. And he grasps how to run a neighborhood club spotlighting jazz. In the last year and a half he has opened a second stage in Green Lady’s basement level while tripling the club’s revenues.

Starting June 1st, John Scott takes over as general manager of The Broadway Jazz Club. After a couple of weeks closed for adjustments, Broadway will reopen as Broadway Kansas City. Initially, the club will operate just Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and Wednesdays when the 12th Street Jump radio program records there. Broadway will be less the-second-coming-of-Jardine’s and more a club which embraces the neighborhood Scott understands, but with the live jazz he adores. He envisions a bigger sound to fill the room, tighter shows, and the same professional presentation that is a hallmark of Green Lady. It’s wrapping Kansas City’s heritage in a more appealing light and comprehensively branding it with a different feel than you’ll find in Johnson County. Not better, not worse, but unique. And if you want to sample this style of unique, you’ll need to come into Midtown.

The jazz community hasn’t felt this excited about the future of Broadway since it opened.

We can feel equally excited about the future of the American Jazz Museum. With proposed cuts to its city funding half restored – museum supporters have always done an exceptional job of raising a ruckus at City Hall – last week the museum announced record private donations.

Its fifth annual PEER Into the Future fundraising lunch on April 20th attracted nearly 240 guests and raised more than $112,000 in private donations. Add over $128,000 in donations prior to the luncheon and the museum has so far raised over $240,500 for general operations.

That’s extraordinary. Don’t kid yourself. There’s an elephant in the Kansas City jazz room, and it’s the American Jazz Museum.

You can criticize elements of the museum. It should be larger. The permanent exhibits need to evolve to entice repeat visits. But recognize that they do a superlative job of fundraising, better than any other Kansas City jazz organization in the thirty-plus years I’ve known the scene.

(PEER, by they way, stands for Performance, Exhibition, Education and Research, which are the museum’s key missions.)

The museum is a central player in KC Jazz ALIVE, an organization working to bring together a too often divided jazz scene, with too many organizations and every group out for itself. Separately, club owners are talking with each other. The owners don’t see themselves as competitors, but as crucial to maintaining a thriving audience for jazz.

Yet, there’s an outlier which appears intent on moving its own direction and not working with others in the jazz community. The Mutual Musicians Foundation is unquestionably the most historic building and institution in Kansas City jazz. They are educating school age music students at no charge each Saturday morning. They are sponsoring an educational jazz festival centering on KC swing next month. If they can raise the money to erect a tower and begin broadcasting by June of next year, they will be home to this city’s only jazz radio station.

The Foundation is no relic. It is sponsoring vital programs.

But the Foundation declines to participate in the unity enveloping the rest of the jazz community. The organization chooses to estrange itself despite other groups repeatedly reaching out to its members.

The rest of the jazz community is not competing with the Mutual Musicians Foundation. On the contrary, I repeatedly hear how this community wants to embrace the Foundation’s history and help celebrate its successes. More than that, I suspect some of the same donors who have supported the American Jazz Museum will also wrap their financial arms around the Foundation when it moves beyond presenting itself an an aggrieved institution.

Because supporters of Kansas City jazz are recognizing that the scene flourishes most when we work together.

Monday, May 4, 2015

No Post

No post this week, and perhaps the next week or two, as I begin to co-edit the next issue of JAM magazine and discover this is going to take more time than I thought and I really should have started a couple of weeks ago. I foresee late nights and an abundance of daytime yawning in my near future.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Evolutions and Descendants

Volume 2, Number 1 of K.C. Jazz Ambassador, A Guide to Jazz in Kansas City, dated February, 1987, lists 18 clubs and hotel lounges where you could find jazz.

The April/May, 2015 issue of Jam, Jazz Ambassador Magazine, lists 38 locations. I question some of them – does The Kill Devil Club still have jazz? – but the comparison is impressive.

As I prepare to take over editing Jam, I’ve examined my own archives for old issues, and I’m amazed at how little has changed.

The October, 1987 issue includes a page of five jazz organizations in Kansas City: The Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation, Friends of Jazz, Kansas City Jazz Festival Committee, Mutual Musicians Foundation and International Association of Jazz Record Collectors. Not listed are Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors, which published the magazine, and the Kansas City Jazz Commission, with which at that time the Ambassadors were closely aligned.

Today I count The American Jazz Museum (largely carrying on the ambitions of the Charlie Parker Foundation), The Folly jazz series (which is what the Friends of Jazz series evolved into), the Mutual Musicians Foundation (unchanged), The Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors (still publishes the magazine), KC Jazz ALIVE (with the same unifying ambitions that the Jazz Commission was formed to foster), and the Prairie Village Jazz Festival (significantly smaller event, but sub it for the KC Jazz Fest).

Further evidence of today echoing the 1980s was spied in a press kit in my files for 1988’s Jazz and Heritage Month. The press release in it announces: “By official proclamation of the City of Kansas City, Missouri, August has been declared Jazz and Heritage Month. The proclamation recognizes an umbrella program established by the Kansas City Jazz Commission, under which more than 30 jazz related events will be held throughout the metropolitan area in the month of August….”

Sound a smidge like a certain 18 day Charlie Parker celebration organized by KC Jazz ALIVE this past August, perhaps?

Today’s organizations and activities are to a remarkable extent evolutions and descendants of what Kansas City was doing to promote its incredible jazz heritage 28 years ago.

Yet, two key differences stand out. Today we have the American Jazz Museum anchoring the 18th and Vine district. And the abundance of outstanding young jazz talent dominating this city offers a genuine reason to believe this isn’t ending any time soon.


That October, 1987 Jam includes an interview with Claude “Fiddler” Williams. Among the exchanges is this one:
Ambassador: Do you have a message for Kansas City about jazz?

Williams: I think it’s a wonderful thing they’re doing in Kansas City to get jazz going again… the festivals, the concerts in the park, and companies matching funds to have these things because, otherwise, it would be too expensive to have them. But they, the Festival Committee and Parks and Recreation, will bring musicians from out of town, pay four or five hundred more… while not wanting to pay the local musician hardly anything. They don’t want to do the hometown musician right! Like at the jazz festival… they didn’t do the public right. I played a jam session. Now, I have two or three groups of musicians I work with regularly – ssSlick, Frank Smith and a few individual musicians. We could have arranged some things where we all would know what we were going to do. But, I just told the piano player to call something out.

Ambassador: That was a jam session. You don’t think that was right for a jazz festival?

Williams: No, especially when they’re going to bring in somebody like Wynton Marsalis – he only had four pieces, but they all knew what they were going to do.

Ambassador: They were tight.

Williams: Right! Do the hometown musicians right and pay ’em a little taste. If you want me to head a group, let me know in time – we’ll rehearse and people will really have something to listen to.
On the jam groups, we heard the complaints and discontinued that experiment (it seemed like a good idea when we tried it). On the discrepancy in pay, well, I’m still booking festivals and I still hear grumbles.


There will be an increasing number of weeks when I don’t offer a fresh blog post. Alas, I only have the weekends to write and, with three decades behind it, I'm giving Jam the attention it has earned.

But while this blog may become a wee bit less frequent, it is not ending. Jam brings a different attitude to the Kansas City jazz scene, and I respect that. Jam will not see my snarky side. This blog will remain the forum where I speak my feeble mind, mixing photos and praise with occasionally pissing people off.

Retiring Jam editor Roger Atkinson and I will co-edit the June/July issue, the last of Roger’s decade at the helm. August/September will be the first on which I swim or sink alone.

Well, maybe it’ll see a little snark.