Monday, August 31, 2015

Building the 2015 Prairie Village Jazz Festival

I failed. So I decided let’s just have a whole bunch of fun.

Last year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival wasn’t perfect. The audience thinned during Joe Lovano’s extended set of Charlie Parker selections (which is a poke at the audience, not at Lovano). Sound glitches during Deborah Brown’s superb performance were an embarrassment. That ratty trailer promoting Ikea was more in the way than a benefit to anyone. While we can do little about a departing crowd, this year those other deficiencies are acknowledged and addressed (with more speakers and Ikea nowhere in sight).

But the occasional botch aside, last year’s festival succeeded on a multitude of levels. Deborah Brown with Joe Lovano and Terell Stafford was artistically unsurpassed. Kevin Mahogany gave a lesson on how to capture a Kansas City crowd. Without exception, local acts stood out. And while the first time $5 cover charge dinged attendance a smidge, it also pushed the festival into its first meaningful profit.

Add that profit to budgeted city support, and this January the festival came into the new year with more available cash than it had ever banked before. Not enough to challenge bigger and more established jazz fests around the country, certainly, but enough to sparkle stars in my eyes when considering who to book into the 2015 Prairie Village Jazz Festival.

This festival looks for every act to bring a Kansas City connection. That doesn’t mean performers without KC ties are forbidden. Look at Lovano and Stafford last year, or Jon Faddis with Bobby Watson’s big band the year before. It means a little creativity is required to broaden the scope.

My brainstorm this year: Book The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra (KCJO) and see who we could entice to join them on the festival stage.

Booking a big band brings greater expenses than you might initially imagine. It’s not just more musicians to correctly pay, but it means investing in a bigger and substantially more expensive stage. After the festival’s second year was rained out with microburstian torrents, the event went to a smaller, more nimble stage. That was fine for groups we showcased until we needed to shoehorn Bobby’s big band onto the platform. If we were going to present a big band this year, a return to the larger stage was a necessary production investment.

Then, it turns out, finding a known jazz name who will give up the security of his or her regular touring ensemble for a night with an orchestra at a price Prairie Village, Kansas can afford is a challenge. It’s a challenge that, at least this year, we were unable to conquer. Those eye sparkles started to dim. The brainstorm was becoming a brain fart.

That is, until I realized what every KC jazz fan already knows: We have all the talent in Kansas City to put together a show that can be the envy of any jazz festival.

A festival wants to showcase something unique, a headliner you’re unlikely to see elsewhere. So consider just how unlikely it would be for KCJO – unarguably one of any city’s premier orchestra of musicians performing jazz – to set up a wood floor for tap dancers in the Kauffman Center.

What’s wrong with just having a bundle of fun?

That’s exactly what the McFadden Brothers with The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra promises to bring to that big outdoor stage. I couldn’t be more excited with where this show has wound up. The eye sparkles have returned.

Angela Hagenbach precedes Lonnie and Ronnie McFadden and the Clint Ashlock-led orchestra with a stellar quintet. And Matt Kane returns to town with his Kansas City Generations Sextet, comprised of some of the cream of KC’s young generation jazz crop. Add Tyrone Clark’s True Dig (with Lisa Henry on vocals), Stan Kessler’s Horacescope, the return of Peter Schlamb’s quartet that once played Take Five the last Friday of each month, and the festival’s next door neighbor, the Shawnee Mission East Blue Knights, and we have built an afternoon and night of outstanding jazz.

The festival is September 12th at Harmon Park, 7700 Mission Road, in Prairie Village. It starts at 2:30 p.m. and runs until 10:30. Anyone 18 years or younger is admitted free. Older than 18 and this year will again cost you a measly $5 to get in. That’s so – assuming the weather cooperates – next year’s festival booker again can dream.

Here’s the complete schedule:
2:30 – 3:00 p.m.    Shawnee Mission East Blue Knights
3:20 – 4:10 p.m.    Peter Schlamb Quartet                           
Peter Schlamb, vibraphone, Hermon Mehari, trumpet, Karl McComas-Reichl, bass, John Kizilarmut, drums
4:30 – 5:20 p.m.    Tyrone Clark and True Dig           
Tyrone Clark, bass, Lisa Henry, vocals, Charles Williams, piano, Charles Gatschet, guitar, Michael Warren, drums
5:40 – 6:30 p.m.    Horacescope         
Stan Kessler, trumpet, David Chael, saxophone, Roger Wilder, piano, James Albright, bass, Sam Wisman, drums
6:50 – 7:40 p.m.    Matt Kane and the Kansas City Generations Sextet                     
Matt Kane, drums, Michael Shults, alto saxophone, Steve Lambert, tenor saxophone and flute, Hermon Mehari, trumpet, Andrew Ouellette, piano, Ben Leifer, bass
8:00 – 8:55 p.m.    Angela Hagenbach                  
Angela Hagenbach, vocals, Roger Wilder, piano, Danny Embrey, guitar, Zach Beeson, bass, Doug Auwarter, drums
9:15 – 10:30 p.m.    The McFadden Brothers with The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra   
Lonnie and Ronnie McFadden, tap dancers, with The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra directed by Clint Ashlock

Monday, August 24, 2015

Clay Jenkins with the Steve Lambert Quartet at The Broadway Kansas City

I was dubious again. I was wrong again.

Organizers of this year’s second Charlie Parker Celebration touted that the addition of an artist in residence, noted trumpeter Clay Jenkins, would raise the bar for this year’s event. Okay, I thought, it’s a nice touch, a little more than the festival did last year, something new to promote. But a visiting musician sitting in for a few numbers at a plethora of clubs wasn’t going to send any bars skyward.

Saturday night Clay Jenkins joined Steve Lambert’s quartet at The Broadway Kansas City (formerly The Broadway Jazz Club) for about half a set. I had a chance to both meet and hear Jenkins. He’s a genuinely nice individual and a genuinely terrific trumpeter. And when he stepped onto the stage, he wasn’t just a guest. He became an integral part of the ensemble. Here were four of Kansas City’s best young musicians – Steve Lambert on saxophone, Andrew Ouellette on piano, Ben Leifer on bass and Ryan Lee on drums – playing at their best with a nationally renowned jazz musician.

The addition of Jenkins to this year’s festival brings a cohesiveness to the Parker Celebration club shows beyond a poster and PR. Saturday night at The Broadway Kansas City, out of the corner of my eye, I may have seen a bar levitate just a bit.

Below are photos of what we saw. As always, clicking on a shot should open a larger version of it.

Clay Jenkins with the Steve Lambert Quartet. Left to right: Andrew Ouellette on piano, Steve Lambert on saxophone, Ben Leifer on bass, Clay Jenkins on trumpet, Ryan Lee on drums.

Clay Jenkins on trumpet

Steve Lambert on tenor sax

Ryan Lee and Clay Jenkins

Andrew Ouellette, Steve Lambert and Ben Leifer

Ben Leifer and Clay Jenkins

Clay Jenkins in The Broadway Jazz Club

Ben Leifer on bass

Ryan and Clay

Andrew Ouellette, Steve Lambert, Ben Leifer, Clay Jenkins

The Steve Lambert Quartet

Clay Jenkins

Monday, August 17, 2015

Five Taken

Is it coincidence that on Friday, the second to the last night of Take Five Coffee + Bar, the Jeff Harshbarger Quartet opened with Bye, Bye Blackbird and I Killed Kenny, two titles about people or beloved things going away?

A club beloved by Kansas City’s jazz community went away – for now – on Saturday night, celebrating with a jam session lasting past 1 a.m. The night started with Mark Lowrey and the La Fonda All Stars playing to some 150 well-wishers and inspiring dancing in the aisles.

But more than that, the two nights were a showcase for Kansas City jazz and proved, again, that the talent in this area in 2015 is astounding.

If you missed it, below is a sampling of how it looked. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

The Jeff Harshbarger Quartet on Friday night. Left to right: Roger Wilder on piano, Jeff Harshbarger on bass, Rich Wheeler on tenor sax, Brandon Draper on drums.

Jeff Harshbarger

Brandon Draper

Roger Wilder

Jeff Harshbarger and Rich Wheeler

Mark Lowrey and the La Fonda All Stars in a packed Take Five on Saturday night. Left to right on stage: Mark Lowrey on piano, Dominique Sanders on bass, Ryan Mullin on congas, John Kizilarmut on drums.

Mark Lowrey

Dancing to the La Fonda All Stars

The jam session begins with Kelley Gant

Molly Hammer joins the jam

Jeff Harshbarger, Megan Birdsall and Sam Wisman enjoy Clint Ashlock's solo

Mark Lowrey, Jeff Harshbarger, Ryan Heinlein and Sam Wisman

Michael Pagan, Gerald Spaits, Ryan Mullin and John Kizilarmut

On stage for the last two songs were Mark Lowrey on piano, Ben Leifer on bass, John Kizilarmut (not pictured ) on drums and Shay Estes and Jeff Harshbarger on vocals.

Owners Lori and Doug Chandler enjoy the last number performed in this incarnation of Take Five Coffee + Bar.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Six Years of kcjazzlark

Six years ago this past Sunday the first kcjazzlark blog was posted. I put it online to express my awe at rediscovering the amazing jazz musicians dominating Kansas City music.

Six years later, my awe has grown.

Six years later, I’m writing jazz previews and an occasional article for The Pitch and have just taken over editing Jam magazine. Both have cut into the time available to produce a blog post each week (and find time to sleep), and the blog has seen more weeks off than it used to. I expect that to continue.

But I also expect this blog to continue. Because it remains a unique forum where I can be snarky and critical (can’t do that in Jam. I have to be nice in there) or lavish praise.

And it remains a place to post photos of the amazing musicians who I listen to with awe.

This week, let’s look back at some of the older photos, from 2009 and 2010. These are some of my personal favorites.

Thank you, musicians, for the music. You make being a jazz fan in Kansas City in 2015 a genuine delight.

Bob Bowman at Jardine's in November, 2009

Zack Albetta at Jardine's in December, 2009

Logan Richardson at The Record Bar in December, 2009

Angela Hagenbach and Matt Otto at The Blue Room in January, 2010

Paul Smith and Megan Birdsall at Jardine's in January, 2010

Diverse with Matt Chalk on sax at Czar Bar in February, 2010

Shay Estes at The Blue Room in May, 2010

Bobby Watson at Jazz in the Woods in June, 2010

Curtis Lundy at Jazz in the Woods in June, 2010

Steve Lambert in The Blue Room in June, 2010

Hermon Mehari at the Mutual Musicians Foundation late night jam in August, 2010

Jeff Harshbarger at R Bar in August, 2010

The People's Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City at the Record Bar in November, 2010

Monday, August 3, 2015

Walloped

Jazz is not suddenly, dreadfully dead. Start with that.

Kansas City jazz took a wallop last week when Take Five Coffee + Bar announced Friday morning that it is closing on August 15th. Few in the community saw this one coming. Adored by every jazz fan who stopped there for a night (I was going to say by virtually every jazz fan, but no qualifier is needed), Take Five is a coffee shop built around a 26-foot long stage and a superb sound system. Owners Lori and Doug Chandler offered the full breadth of this city’s jazz, from the exquisitely delivered standards of Megan Birdsall to the anything but standard People’s Liberation Big Band. National names, like Avishai Cohen, were starting to book shows there. And they were drawing crowds in Johnson County, Kansas where, before Take Five, live jazz was about as foreign as a bad note in a Bobby Watson solo.

But Take Five is closing, didn’t work, told you so, jazz is dead, accept it, c’mon, just listen to hip hop like everyone else.

Wrong conclusion.

When I spoke with Lori for a story on Take Five’s closing for The Pitch (here), she emphasized this: “The music part of it really did work.”

Building the foot traffic necessary to sustain a coffee shop while surrounded by eerily empty storefronts didn’t work. Plumbing and structural issues costing lost business and threatening closure on some of Take Five’s biggest nights didn’t work. A Starbucks inside the new sporting goods store fifty yards from Take Five’s front door didn’t work.

Take Five as a Johnson County jazz destination worked. But jazz alone couldn’t sustain the business the rest of its hours.

Take Five’s Corbin Park landlord told The Kansas City Star (here), “I believe she needed to adjust her concept and offer more food.”

So, Mr. Landlord, which part of “Coffee + Bar” don’t you understand?

Mr. Landlord also told The Star, “There is a huge amount of traffic now with Scheels open....”

Yeah, a Scheels with a Starbucks in its lobby.

He said this to The Star, too: “The restaurants in Corbin are exceeding all their expectations.”

And the restaurants around Take Five, helping build foot traffic, are...? That’s a fill in the blank question, Mr. Landlord. Because a year and a half after signing its lease, surrounding Take Five, I see blanks.

Maybe the back side of Corbin Park is destined to remain a shiny Overland Park ghost town with bad plumbing. Maybe Take Five helped make that discovery the hard way.

Because the Take Five business model is solid. Draw a crowd in the morning with coffee, eggs and quiche. Draw a different crowd at noon with salads and more substantial meals (and more quiche). Draw a jazz audience on weekend nights for drinks, dinner, dessert and jazz (and the rest of the quiche). Turn the venue three times in a day, generating fresh revenue with each turn. Ever wonder why some restaurants in Westport, which most see as a hub for drinking debauchery, are open for breakfast and Sunday brunch, too? Same business model. It works.

Rather, it works when surrounded by people and activity and not just forlorn brick veneer and glass.

That said, the closing of Take Five is a Kansas City jazz sucker punch. It hurts. This was a wonderful venue, built to showcase KC’s abundance of jazz talent and to help that talent thrive and grow the music in fresh directions. While I’ve argued that it was partly responsible for keeping Johnson Countians away from the midtown club that tried to be the next Jardine’s, Take Five mostly grew its own audience. It offered an easy and comfy style, a no grit, no-excitement-here-but-the-music ambiance that no other jazz club in the area replicated. Take Five didn’t fill a hole. It cultivated a sparkling niche.

And it’s going out in style. Mark Lowrey and the La Fonda All Stars take that 26-foot stage on its last jazz night, August 15th. After their show, musicians are invited to stop by and jam into the night. Who knows, this might be the last life the hindquarters of Corbin Park ever sees.

Lori and Doug term the closing a “set break.”  Take Five started in Leawood in 2010 and moved to this location last year. Six years of opening early and closing late every day takes its toll. For now, they need to step back.

Kansas City’s jazz community pulls together when it loses one of its own, whether a musician or a beloved venue. We understand. Lori and Doug promise to return when they’re rested and after a meticulous site search. Guys, we understand, but we’re going to hold you to that.

Because Kansas City jazz needs Take Five, take three.


Monday, July 27, 2015

Eboni Fondren at The Broadway Kansas City

She was out of town the better part of a year in theater productions. So, one of the best statements we can make about the state of jazz in Kansas City today is this: Eboni is back.

Singer Eboni Fondren takes the stage and takes control. And when she surrounds herself with musicians the caliber of pianist Charles Williams, bassist Tyrone Clark, drummer Mike Warren and saxophonist Ian Corbett, you know you’re hearing an ensemble without a weak link within earshot.

That was the case a couple Fridays ago, on July 17th, at The Broadway Kansas City (formerly The Broadway Jazz Club). Photos are below, just in case you made the mistake of not being there. As always, clicking on a shot should open a larger version of it.

Eboni Fondren Quintet. Left to right: Charles Williams on piano, Tyrone Clark on bass, Mike Warren on drums, Eboni Fondren, vocals, Ian Corbett on saxophone.

Eboni Fondren sings

Charles Williams on keyboards

Bassist Tyrone Clark

Eboni

Drummer Mike Warren

Eboni framed by Tyrone and Mike

Saxophonist Ian Corbett

Eboni at the microphone

Charles Williams and Tyrone Clark

Eboni Fondren