Monday, August 31, 2009

Diverse Friday

I'll post one of my too long essays later this week. But today, a shorter post to recount a terrific Friday night at The Blue Room.

The group was Diverse, some of the outstanding young KC musicians I've previously blogged about (and will again). The great saxophonist Bobby Watson (also head of UMKC's jazz program) joined them at the end of each set. As did, on the second set, a surprise guest.

For the first set, The Blue Room was packed, standing room only (I counted more than 20 without seats). On Diverse's web site (here) they say there was a 45 minute wait to get in (fortunately, I arrived early enough to avoid that). People crowding the room ranged from 20-somethings to 60-somethings. Don't tell me there's no interest in jazz in KC, or that jazz doesn't appeal to younger people. Friday, I saw otherwise.

Midway through the second set, another patron walked in with his girlfriend and, coincidentally, sat down next to me at the bar extending along the ramp to the upper level. He just looked to me like someone who missed combing his hair before heading out. I paid him no further attention until it was announced that Kenny Loggins was in the audience, and that guy next to me raised his hand. Turns out Loggins and Messina was in town for a show at the Ameristar Casino, and afterward Kenny Loggins came down to The Blue Room for some jazz, and he was sitting next to me.

At the end of the set, Kenny joined Diverse and Bobby on stage for two songs (he needed to Google the words for the second one). Gotta say, Kenny Loggins still has one helluva voice and can belt out a jazz standard spectacularly. You could see on their faces the members of Diverse (after all, these are guys right out of college) were amazed to find themselves backing Kenny Loggins singing jazz standards.

Diverse was outstanding. Their CD is getting national airplay and deserves it. Just hearing them would have been a great night of jazz. But Bobby Watson and Kenny Loggins joining them made for a more-special-than-anyone-expected night at The Blue Room.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Knock, Knock, Who's There?

Club owners, listen up.

Some gripe about noise in your establishments. In general, not me (I’ll post on that another time). Some gripe about cover charges or drink prices. Both, to my mind, are fair and justified. Overall, Kansas City jazz club owners, you’re doing a pretty darn good job.

But not totally good. One nuisance which irks me no end: Quit making me work to figure out your schedule when making plans.

Last night, I was at Jardine’s to hear Megan Birdsall (terrific show, especially the second half; I’ll get back to that in another post as well). I walked to the back windowsill where schedules lie. Why was the August schedule the only one to be found? This month is nearly over. I want to know when I want to return next month. The September schedule’s on your (nicely improved) web site. Why isn’t it in your club?

For that matter, why isn’t it front and center on your web site? I have the home page open now. Its scrolling calendar, at this moment, is telling me who was there August 6th, now August 7th, now August 8th. Why?

Trio ALL plays Jardine’s next Wednesday. Terrific group, with some of the sterling young musicians I’ve written of before. Heard them there a couple months back. I may be there next week. But I should have had an easy and obvious way to know the headliners a week away before I left last night. If I wasn’t researching this post, I might not have known until well past the date. The music is a key reason to go to Jardine’s. Tell me who it is.

Another gripe: Tell me more about the group. Thursday of next week Trumpet Summit is listed. $5 cover charge, more than usual for a weeknight. Who are they? Who’s in the group? I may like them. The cover may be a bargain. But how do I figure that out? How do I find out more about Trumpet Summit? Tell me, on your calendar, on a link, on a blurb, somewhere, who these guys (and/or gals) are. Don’t make me work to find it. Stick it in my face. Worst thing that could result? More customers.

Earlier this month, HoracesScope played Jardine’s. No explanation of who they were. I figured it was Horace Washington’s group. Not until I read a review on the wonderful blog Plastic Sax did I know it was a band playing Horace Silver’s work including, among others, the excellent Stan Kessler. Had I known in advance, I’d have gone. Between dinner and drinks, Jardine's, you’d have probably raked in another 30 or 40 bucks off me. It’s to your benefit that we know about the band before, not after, the show.

Okay, Phoenix, you’re not off the hook, either. I just checked your calendar as well. Even printed it out. So explain the partial listings. September 3, 7 pm: Mark. September 4, 4:30 pm: George. September 12, 4:30 pm: Grand. Mark who? George who? Grand what? I’ll bet Mark and George and Grand are good guys. But who are they? Is it too much to expect a schedule which tells me who’s scheduled?

(Each Tuesday’s “Open Jam With” and Saturday afternoons listing only “Lonnie” on the Phoenix calendar look bad, too, though I know enough to complete those blanks. But for potential customers who don’t, the incompletions are a problem.)

The aforementioned Plastic Sax blog posts a compilation calendar (here), but that doesn’t lessen what the clubs themselves need to do.

Club owners, if you want us to come, tell us what’cha got. Don’t hide your schedules. Don’t make them incoherent. There’s too damn few of us fans wandering KC and looking for good music to begin with. If you want us in your clubs, at the very least, tell us why we should be there. And don’t make us do all the work to figure it out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Happy 89th

This blog should never be about me. After all, I’m mighty uninteresting. But today, forgive me, I break that rule, because Bird’s birthday reminds me how Charlie “Bird” Parker introduced me to jazz. Well, Bird and Teddy.

It was 1980. I’d graduated college and lived in the Plaza/Westport area. And often I browsed Pennylane Records (today, Streetside) on Broadway. A high school friend, Teddy, worked there and Teddy knew where to steer me.

Record albums stacked the racks then and Warner Records offered a double of some of Parker’s best work, which I’d later recognize as his Dial label masterpieces. Teddy sold it to me. When home, I placed the first disk on my old Panasonic turntable, and at that moment, irrevocably, I was a jazz fan.

Shocked: Somebody solos like those alto turns at the heart of Moose the Mooche and Yardbird Suite and Orinthology? Music could be this exciting, this involved, this engaging? And the Famous Alto Break, I wore out the grooves on that cut. Why didn’t anybody clue me in before? What cave had I lived in?

I played no instrument, never have. But as with nearly any twenty-something, music mattered.

Teddy sold me another double LP, Bird’s Savoy label recordings. Then his work on Verve (never liked that as much). Then the live recordings. Then his early work with McShann. I couldn’t find enough jazz by Charlie “Bird” Parker.

I recall sitting across a table, one weekend afternoon, at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, talking with saxophonist Joe Thomas (if you haven’t heard the album he made with Jay McShann late in his life, in 1982, Blowin’ In From K.C., you’re missing something). I was talking to him about the jazz I’d so far discovered, about the joy of listening to Bird. Joe Thomas observed, “You like hearing a lot of notes.” Hadn’t thought about it that way. At the time, he was right.

Teddy would later introduce me to Count Basie and Lester Young, to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, to Julia Lee and Big Joe Turner. I‘d learn and love Kansas City’s jazz roots. But I doubt I’d have appreciated those artists then as I do today had I heard their music first. Then, coming from the Beatles and the Stones, I’d have likely found them too much like the Sinatra 8-track tapes Dad played over and over in the car (though today I’ll gladly take Sinatra, too). Bird was the right place, for me, at that time, to start, to appreciate jazz, to appreciate our native art form and the art for which KC is renowned.

This weekend would have been Charlie “Bird” Parker’s 89th birthday. Born in Kansas City, Kansas, raised in a house now gone at 16th and Olive in Kansas City, Missouri, Bird now lies buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Summit, between Kansas City and Independence.

(I remember Eddie Baker, of the Charlie Parker Foundation, lobbying the city council to save Parker’s home. It was, Eddie argued, part of our history. He said councilmen told him it was just another old home to be razed. They were wrong. Eddie was right.)

(And about the gravesite: Did anyone ever correct the tombstone my successors at the Kansas City Jazz Commission purchased for Bird’s grave, engraved with a tenor sax? A tenor sax, on the marker for history’s greatest alto saxophonist? What an unbelievable blunder. A masterstroke of embarrassment.)

This Sunday, saxophonists will gather at Lincoln Cemetery, at Bird’s grave, to salute his genius.

From me: Thank you, Charlie “Bird” Parker, for your gift. I’ll always owe you for my introduction to jazz. You too, Teddy.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Relevant History

A short history lesson: Story is that jazz began in New Orleans then moved up the Mississippi River. But Kansas City doesn’t share that route. So how, in the 1920s and '30s, did our unique style develop? I'll cite three reasons. And news this week reminds us that one of those reasons is equally vital today.

Best known is that during the Great Depression, Kansas City was an open, no prohibition town. Bandleader Andy Kirk, in his autobiography Twenty Years on Wheels, tells of a tour through Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee in 1933. Theaters where his band was booked had closed. In those still open, few customers showed. But when the band returned to KC, “The whole town was wide open, as usual. Clubs were going full blast, lights were bright....And we had a job practically waiting for us.” Musicians from throughout the south and southwest came here. In KC, they found work.

Less known is TOBA, the black vaudeville circuit. The letters stood for Theater Owners Booking Association, though participants said they meant Tough On Black Asses. Starting in New York, the show toured west to KC where it reorganized before heading back. And when it reorganized, some were left behind. Among those: a young piano player from New Jersey named Bill Basie.

But also crucial to jazz developing, of all places, here was the music program at Lincoln High, then Kansas City, Missouri’s black high school. It produced musicians who formed and performed in KC’s most historic bands. Blue Devils leader and Basie bassist Walter Page is a key example.

Leading the program stood Major N. Clark Smith, a disciplinarian who musicians recalled with respect. Saxophonist Bill Saunders, in the book Goin’ to Kansas City, says this: “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, ‘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.”

Lincoln High’s music tradition survives Major Smith. Charlie Parker attended there as did, much later, vocalist Kevin Mahogany. And just this past school year the Lincoln College Preparatory Academy (its official name today) jazz band played Carnegie Hall.

So why this history lesson now?

This week, Lincoln Academy nearly ended its jazz band due to budget cuts. First noted on the news and opinion blog TKC (here) then on Channel 41’s news (here), the crisis now appears over with the band director reinstated.

But it brought to mind a critical part of the mix that resulted in Kansas City jazz.

The building most of those musicians attended, at 19th and Tracy, is gone (the current location opened in 1936). And today lessons aren’t reinforced with a whack.

But that doesn’t diminish the history that Lincoln High helped produce. Or the role that education served. Education is critical to exposing young people to the arts, to music and to jazz. And through that exposure, to discover with whom the music will stick.

That always will be the case. And always was.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Return Might Do You Some Good

I knew Terry Teachout (casually) when he lived in KC. Today he’s in New York, and an article he wrote last week for The Wall Street Journal is creating quite the stir. Titled “Can Jazz Be Saved” and subtitled “The audience for America’s great art form is withering away,” the piece can be found here.

The refrain is nothing new, despite the attention its Wall Street Journal locale attaches this time. Of course jazz is not popular music today. When Andy Kirk’s KC-based band recorded “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” it was the #1 song of 1936. 1936. Nearly three quarters of a century ago. Of course music has moved on since then.

Want more well known evidence that jazz is not popular music? For most of the 30 years I’ve enjoyed it, jazz has claimed about 3% of recorded music sales. Chicago’s web site touts the number of jazz fans residing in their town. Compare that figure to the total population of Chicago elsewhere on the site and -- surprise! -- it’s 3%. So, all together now, what percentage of music fans do we think are jazz fans?

Jazz is not easily found on radio. It’s featured in relatively few clubs. It must be discovered and then, like any music, will not be loved by many. Its day as popular music has long passed. But its day as a relic is nowhere near. All of this has been the case for at least 30 years. Developing jazz audiences is a challenge. That’s not going to change. Neither is it a revelation.

Here’s where Terry, in his article, gets it wrong: He cites figures from an NEA report on the decline in the number of folks attending jazz performances. But he neglects to also quote this sentence from the report: “There are persistent patterns of decline in participation for most art forms.” Or the figures that the percentage of U.S. adults going to arts performances declined from 40% in 2002 to 35% in 2008.

My conclusion would be that jazz is not immune to fewer people going out due to, oh, I don’t know, maybe the recession?

And here’s where Terry really gets it wrong: He writes, “...the average American now sees jazz as a form of high art. Nor should this come as a surprise to anyone, since most of the jazz musicians that I know feel pretty much the same way. They regard themselves as artists, not entertainers, masters of a musical language that is comparable in seriousness to classical music....”

Terry, my friend, I don’t know just what you’ve been exposed to in New York, but perhaps it’s time for a trip back to Kansas City. Because here you’ll rediscover the most open, most friendly and least elite family of jazz musicians you could desire. You’ll find -- just like when you lived here before -- extraordinary talent ready to welcome anyone and perform just about anywhere. You’ll find 92 year old Myra Taylor and 75 year old Alaadeen, and the spectacular young talent described in my last blog post, and a whole lot of people in between.

It’s not easy to develop an audience with a keen interest of jazz. I know of no better way than to expose people of all ages to the music then draw back those with whom it sticks. That was a key goal when I was helping to stage jazz festivals and the method is still valid.

But to suggest that jazz today is in worse shape in relation to other arts, or that jazz musicians all over are elitists, is not valid. That’s just plain wrong.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Tidal Wave is Near

Jazz in Kansas City rolls in waves.

In the 1980s, when I first listened, we could enjoy two jazz festivals and a blues festival every year. Free Sunday concerts in the parks featured jazz more weeks than not. Pub crawls listed 20 participating clubs (many of which only played jazz that night, but still...). Bars with jazz were found downtown, at 18th and Vine, on 39th Street, on the Plaza, on Troost, in Johnson County and north of the river.

Then interest waned.

Then Karrin Allyson moved to town. About the same time we discovered Kevin Mahogany in our midst. Now there was a buzz and excitement. Karrin's schedule 15 years ago this month shows 20 days of performances in KC. Eventually, both left town, both with national recording contracts.

And interest waned.

Today we can point to just three jazz clubs in Kansas City. Surely interest is at its lowest ebb. Surely all is lost.

Except it's not.

Because the young talent you will find performing in those clubs is beyond belief. It's talent that is as good, no, as downright spectacular, as any jazz talent you're going to find today. A sampling -- not a complete list, mind you, but just a sampling -- of who I'm talking about includes Roger Wilder (piano), Zack Albetta (drums), Megan Birdsall (vocals), Jeff Harshberger (bass), Mark Lowrey (piano), Shay Estes (vocals).

Why the abundance of young talent? I don't know. Maybe they were exposed to jazz in Kansas City during its 1980s resurgence. Surely Bobby Watson's music program at UMKC has something to do with it.

But this I do know: Jazz in Kansas City is poised for a new wave. It's rolling in on the backs of the young talent overflowing this town. Because these musicians are too good not to spark it. These musicians are too remarkable to not be noticed, to not be heard, to lie outside of the public's attention.

Add to this young group the outstanding musicians for decades part of Kansas City jazz, and this city today probably has the most extraordinary aggregation of jazz talent since I started listening nearly 30 years ago.

And Kansas City is about to notice.


I've been tweeting for awhile now, but was inspired to establish this blog today when I wanted to write more than Twitter's limits allow. I set this up with some doubts that anyone will ever read it. But it's here and, hey, if you're reading it, my doubts were unwarranted.

And if you're reading, a bit of introduction is warranted. I'm a longtime fan of jazz (well, since the 1980s, anyway; that's not going to seem longtime to many). And living in the Kansas City area, I'm particularly fond of the music for which this city is internationally renowned. As my profile over on the right notes, I was an organizer of the Kansas City Jazz Festival through much of the 1980s and chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission for a bit. Today, I'm just a fan.

As a fan going out to listen to the music, I'm astounded by the wealth of talent in this city today. I'll expand on that in the next post.

Because that's enough about me. Me is not what this blog is about. It's about jazz and Kansas City and thoughts which require more than 140 characters. All of which we'll now move on to.