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


Monday, July 20, 2015

Wrapping the Show and Tell

In September, the American Jazz Museum celebrates 18 years since its opening. For the last eight of those years, Greg Carroll has served as CEO. Last week, Carroll “resigned” from that position.

Greg Carroll didn’t build the American Jazz Museum. He didn’t stock it with Ella Fitzgerald’s dress or Charlie Parker’s plastic saxophone. But run an institution for eight years and you leave your imprint.

For starters, Carroll leaves the museum with an exceptional staff. Staff that has turned the Blue Room from losses to profits. Staff that has moved the museum’s marketing from stodgy print ads to a twenty first century internet presence, and public relations efforts that recognize and build on the institution’s unique presence. Staff that reaches into the community to pull in students and educate. Staff that has raised over $240,500 from public donations to fund general operations. That’s not enough money to pacify the city, apparently, but it’s more than any other Kansas City jazz organization has raised, ever.

Carroll turned a too grand festival into a tighter event that fits the crowd size 18th and Vine will attract. I disagree with its broad range of music styles. The pop group War playing “Cisco Kid” doesn’t fit a jazz and blues festival. Worse, it sends the message that jazz and blues alone can’t sell enough $25 tickets to fill the museum’s back yard. I don’t buy that view. And it’s an inappropriate message to be sent by the American Jazz Museum. But give Carroll credit for reviving the money losing and, for a year, dead Rhythm and Ribs Festival and re-conceiving it as the profitable Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival.

The museum under Carroll has been a founding and driving force behind KC Jazz Alive, uniting nearly all Kansas City jazz organizations in a way rarely seen in this community. The second annual Charlie Parker Celebration will span ten days next month, culminating with the resurrected Twenty-One Sax Salute at Parker’s gravesite on what would have been Bird’s 95th birthday. I was dubious when first told of the multi-day celebration last year, but it was a grand success thanks in large part to the support of that professional museum staff.

Special events like a festival and celebration are key to drawing people into a district too many still consider a precarious trip. It’s not, but it’s an image 18th and Vine struggles to overcome. That’s not new. A 1979 study on repurposing the armory building at 18th and Highland noted that even then many were afraid to come to 18th and Vine after dark. It’s not the museum’s fault.

News stories on the American Jazz Museum routinely sheathe it in a disappointing – that’s a euphemism for failed – redevelopment project. No question, 18th and Vine needs restaurants and shops. But when shown an early concept for rebuilding the district in the late 1980s, my reaction was that people will not flock to an oasis surrounded by a moat of industrial buildings and blight. Today there’s not nearly the blight that dominated the area back then, but it still takes a knowledge of the neighborhood or a leap of faith to drive 18th Street from the Crossroads to The Paseo. It’s safe. But few sights along the way reassure.

News stories suggest the city expects the museum to depend on it less for sufficiency. Yet, look at the city budget. The Liberty Memorial has $771,501 coming. Union Station is in there for $308,400, and the Kansas City Museum for another $408,305. The American Jazz Museum was budgeted to receive $466,094. Some of those other institutions have dedicated taxes flowing their way. Good for them. But why is it reasonable to expect the American Jazz Museum to thrive with less support than the others? News reports say the museum was expected to be more self-supporting by now. Well, city, the entire district was expected by now to have shops and restaurants and oodles of people walking its streets noon to night. The museum is an anchor but alone it will never be the jazz district’s salvation.

Nonetheless, the museum can do more to pull the public into Kansas City’s rich heritage. Exhibits are interesting but stale and offer little incentive for a return visit. And consideration needs to be given to how, outside of Blue Room and festival programming, this museum of jazz can tie into an increasingly vibrant and exciting Kansas City jazz scene.

A wonderful new web site, Inside Jazz Kansas City (here) offers the musicians’ perspective on what is going on in Kansas City jazz today. In an opening day column for the site, trumpeter Clint Ashlock wrote this:

“We have many flagship groups that are as we speak developing a NEW Kansas City sound - something that hopefully our city will speak of soon with as much reverence as it does Basie, Williams, Parker. There are great things happening in Kansas City jazz right now. We have something exciting brewing, and venues who are starting to really support it. It's a really cool time to be here, right now.”

This is a growing, evolving jazz scene. Who ties it all together? Who examines the history, the up-the-Mississippi-from-New-Orleans-but-something-different-happened-here story of jazz, its expansion into bebop and fusion and all the other sidebars, its influence on rock, then its continued recasting into newer sounds and ideas and experiments? In Kansas City today, a fan can be immersed in jazz. But who is embracing the complete story? Who is wrapping their show-and-tell around the ongoing advancement of the music?

New leadership brings fresh opportunities to reimagine the American Jazz Museum.

Monday, July 13, 2015

No Post, Just Jam

This weekend was close for the August/September issue of Jam magazine, my first solo flight as editor. That means this weekend was not one with spare time for a blog post. The upcoming issue of Jam is exciting, with a genuine surprise. I’d tell you what it is, but then it wouldn’t be a surprise when the issue comes out. So instead, I’ll tease. And promise a real post next week.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Steve Cardenas Trio at The Blue Room

I remember him with wild hair, sticking way out, playing guitar with Ida McBeth downstairs at The Point. Someone else at The Blue Room on Friday night remembered taking guitar lessons from him, probably a quarter century ago.

Steve Cardenas moved to New York a couple decades back. There, he’s built a sterling reputation and performs with the jazz elite. But last week he returned to his hometown for shows at Take Five and The Blue Room. He played some Monk and an Ornette Coleman composition, but mostly he showcased his own music, contemporary jazz that pulls and engages. Listen and, more than once, you could still hear those Midwest roots.

Accompanying Cardenas to KC was acclaimed New York bassist and composer Ben Allison, They were joined by KC drummer Brian Steever. At The Blue Room, Matt Otto and Stan Kessler each joined a couple numbers.

Below are photos of how Friday at The Blue Room looked. As always, clicking on a shot should open an larger version of it.

Steve Cardenas on guitar

Ben Allison on bass

Brian Steever on drums

The Steve Cardenas Trio at The Blue Room

Cardenas, Allison and Matt Otto

Steve Cardenas

Ben Allison

The trio plus Stan Kessler on trumpet

The trio plus Matt Otto on tenor sax

Brian Steever

Ben Allison plays

Steve Cardenas in The Blue Room

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.

Records

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 jazzinthewoods.com 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.