Monday, September 28, 2009

5 CDs, KC Style

Among the blogs I enjoy most is NPR’s jazz entry, A Blog Supreme. A couple weeks back they solicited listings, here, of 5 CDs per, from 20-somethings of recent albums (within the last decade or so) they would recommend as an introduction to jazz. Which started me thinking, what albums of recent vintage -- with a Kansas City connection -- would I recommend?

I’d start with an octogenarian violinist who first recorded with Andy Kirk’s band in 1929. But 70 years later, on the 1999 CD Swingin’ the Blues, Claude “Fiddler” Williams is still at his best. Kansas City jazz started as blues-based swing and you’d be hard pressed to find an album blues-based-swingier than this. Claude plays with the vitality and bounce of a 20-something. And alto sax man Bobby Watson sits in for a couple of numbers.

(A fun aside: Following this album’s release, Claude and Bobby played the Kansas City Blues & Jazz Festival. At one point, after an exceptional violin solo, Bobby looked towards the 80-something “Fiddler” and told the crowd, “I want to be like him when I grow up!”)

Pat Metheny hails from KC suburb Lee’s Summit. Over the years, I've enjoyed some of his albums while others launch into musical pyrotechnics not quite to my taste. But one of my favorites is just Pat and his guitar, 2003’s One Quiet Night. Recorded at home, this is solo guitar at its most intimate. Listening to the music, I can hear what Pat’s thinking. I can feel what he’s feeling. There’s an accessibility to the music which can be, at times, almost uncomfortable but is consistently intriguing.

I’ve written in earlier blog posts of going downtown to The Phoenix Tuesday nights, some 15 years back, to hear Karrin Allyson. Among her last decade albums I enjoy most is 2002’s In Blue. I hear other jazz vocalists today who just don’t swing like (I think) jazz should. But on this album you can hear the influence of years spent in KC. Mostly blues done fun, this is as fine an introduction to the three time Grammy nominee as you’ll find.

For my next selection I’m going to cheat a little, because Kevin Mahogany’s 1997 Another Time, Another Place dates back a dozen years. But it’s my favorite of Kevin’s CDs. Kevin lived and performed in KC around the same time as Karrin (good years, yes). The sometimes playful sometimes soulful selections on this album delivered with Kevin’s extraordinary voice bring back fond memories.

My fifth CD showcases some of the outstanding young talent that has followed Karrin and Kevin in KC. I’ve written about the group Diverse a couple of times. Their 2009 CD, Diverse, is an excellent example of Kansas City today. This is less traditional than the other albums listed, but the music is equally exciting, equally engaging, equally accessible. Individually (I’ve heard Diverse members around town with other groups) or as an ensemble, these guys can play.

Bobby Watson is a guest on one of the Diverse numbers. Which in a way brings these selections full circle. From Bobby's joining a musician who first recorded near jazz's start to joining musicians who are part of jazz’s tomorrow, it’s all Kansas City connected jazz.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Much of the last week was spent with family. An uncle passed away, and other uncles, aunts and cousins gathered from afar to mourn and talk and reminisce.

My aunt reminisced about dating in Kansas City in the 1940s. Specifically, she remembered going to Milton’s, a jazz club then at Armour and Troost, to hear Julia Lee, piano and vocals, with Baby Lovett, drums. She recalled Julia’s double entendre songs, titles like All This Beef and Big Ripe Tomatoes and The Spinach Song (better known as I Didn’t Like It the First Time). Her sex education, she said, came from listening to Julia Lee at Milton’s.

To know Kansas City jazz is to know, too, Milton’s. It was the iconic Kansas City jazz club.

When I knew it, Milton’s Tap Room stood at 32nd and Main Street and no longer featured live bands, instead playing Milton’s enormous record collection day and night. Anyone of drinking age in KC in the early ’80s or before (or those somewhat near drinking age; that wasn’t necessarily an issue at Milton’s) more likely than not knew the joint, too.

Milton’s neon sign glowed out front. Inside Milton Morris, jazz era raconteur, sat at the front, big black eyeglasses on his owl-like face, cigar in hand, scotch nearby, telling tales. Music by Ben Webster or Count Basie or Buck Clayton or Julia Lee or dozens more filled the darkened room. Large backlit silhouette cut-outs of musicians and musical instruments graced the back wall. Milton knew how to run a jazz joint. It’s what he’d done since the 1930s.

A friend talks of a Saturday afternoon when he stepped into the barely lit club and Milton called out to him, told him to come join him at the table where Milton sat with a friend. Milton wanted to introduce him to a buddy. And Milton introduced him to Count Basie. When Basie passed through town, he’d usually stop by to see his old friend Milton, who had employed Basie in a KC club decades before.

You never knew who you might run into at Milton's. What you did know is that you'd enjoy good drinks, hear good jazz and have a good time.

Both Milton and Basie passed in 1983. Milton’s niece inherited the club and a year later sold it to a group of investors and fans. Another friend was part of that group. He tells of the day they turned on the lights to clean the place. Maybe the first time the lights had been on in years. They found walls stained by decades of cigarette smoke. They found dead bugs and rat droppings behind the silhouettes.

And in the loft, they found Milton’s spare false leg.

I’m working now to open a new jazz club in KC. I don’t know if I’ll be successful (lately I’ve faced more discouragement than encouragement). But if I am, Milton’s is the model. If I’m successful, among my intentions: Live Kansas City jazz nightly. No dead bugs. No rat droppings. And any false legs in the club must be attached to paying customers.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Post Delayed

I'd hoped to have a new blog post up today or Monday. However, an unexpected death in my family yesterday has delayed new contributions until later next week and has left me, for now, listening to the blues (yesterday some Big Joe Turner and "B.B. King in Kansas City").

Monday, September 14, 2009

Festival Tales

Through much of the 1980s I volunteered as one of the organizers of the Kansas City Jazz Festival, then in Volker Park. For a couple of those years I also served as chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission. From time to time (meaning, when I can’t think of anything else to write about), I’ll recount stories from those days.


While Jazz Commission chair, I helped the coordinator of the 18th & Vine Festival, then a free outdoor music fest held each September (and a separate event from the much larger Kansas City Jazz Festival).

At that time The Kansas City Star published crowd estimates provided by professionals, such as the police. Previously, they printed numbers festival organizers quoted, until it became apparent we organizers might, um, exaggerate a bit (or a lot).

One year, as the 18th & Vine Festival wound down on a Sunday evening, several of us gathered around a concession stand and chatted. We agreed among ourselves about 5000 people had passed through the event that weekend. A few police officers, assisting with security, walked by. We asked if they’d like some hot dogs and soft drinks. The hot dogs would just be discarded anyway, we told them, so they took us up on the offer. They thanked us, adding those were a good end to a long day. Then the officer in charge asked, so what do you want the weekend crowd estimate to be? 20,000? Sure, we said, 20,000 sounded good.

And that’s how (then, anyway) published crowd estimates were derived.


Festivals are funded by corporate sponsorships, foundation grants and concession sales. At the Kansas City Jazz Festival, we sometimes joked that we might make more money if we gave away the beer and charged for the Porta-Johns. That is, until the year a Porta-John tipped over with someone in it.

The guy was drunk. He stepped into a Porta-John and swayed back and forth. It was an end unit. He kept swaying. And the unit fell on its side to the ground.

Inside, the disoriented drunk couldn’t figure out where the door went.


Today, The Kansas City Star has knowledgeable writers covering jazz, like Joe Klopus and Steve Paul. That wasn’t always the case. Such as when our 1985 headliner was the Modern Jazz Quartet and The Star’s reviewer compared them to Muzak.

But we needed The Star to help publicize an event with a meager budget. So at times we endured a love-hate relationship with the newspaper.

By the 1990s I had stepped away from organizing the festival, and the event had merged with the blues fest to create something much larger. I still attended each year. One of those years, The Star’s then jazz writer (who has long since left town) published an article critical of the festival’s talent lineup. After the event, I wrote a letter, which The Star printed, praising the organizers on what was an exceptionally good event that year, even in the face of critics who didn’t understand the limitations of talent availability and budgets.

The next year, I was walking through the festival grounds when a mutual friend stopped and introduced me to The Star’s jazz writer. When he heard my name, the writer pointed a finger at me and exclaimed (all these years later, this isn’t really an exact quote), You! You’re the one who wrote the letter! I heard from so many people on that article! But you didn’t get my point! Nobody got the point!

Now, it seems to me that if nobody got his point, he didn’t express it very well.

But more importantly, to find out that my letter had caused him so much grief, and that a year later it still bothered him, felt wonderful.

That was one of my favorite days at a jazz festival.


The year the Modern Jazz Quartet headlined, I learned to refer to them as the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet. Milt Jackson told me. But that’s a story for another blog post.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Credit Due

I’ll not hesitate to criticize when deserved. But the other side of that coin means giving credit when due. So let’s give the KC jazz club Jardine’s credit for working to correct the few annoyances there. And succeeding.

A few blog posts ago, I took club owners to task for making schedules difficult to figure out, and difficult to figure the players behind some obscure group names. Since, Jardine’s has started a blog, here, which provides background the limited calendar space cannot.

Additionally, clicking on the date in their online calendar reveals a pop-up usually including a list of musicians.

(Was that pop-up always there? And was it always populated with all that info? Did I miss that before writing my earlier post? If so, Jardine’s, I owe you a honkin’ big apology.)

And just last week they started a Twitter feed of updates under JardinesJazz. Add in their Facebook page and when it comes to social media marketing, here’s a club that gets it. Jardine’s is making their nightly talent schedule easier to find and find out about.

Hopefully, that Twitter name and references to the blog and Facebook page will adorn Jardine’s next calendar. I’d urge a card or table tent promoting these outlets on every table. Given the number of smart phones I spy in customers’ hands when there, I’ll bet the social media will be noted quickly. Then, how better for a club to inexpensively stay in touch?

Other clubs, take note. As someone with a marketing background, trust me when I say this is a critical part of marketing thyself in 2009. I’ve seen the research. Example: 50 to 60% of Twitter users match the demographics of most folks I see in your joints (Nieslen Demographics, February, 2009 and Comscore, March, 2009).

Another as yet unmentioned criticism seems resolved as well. I’ve written but not yet posted a post on noise in our jazz clubs. In general, I sympathize with owners needing to attract a diverse crowd to make ends meet. But, after visiting a popular blues spot with the volume turned up to hear music over talkers, the unpublished piece cajoles our jazz club owners to do the same.

After two visits last week, sounds to me like Jardine’s has. For Trumpet Summit last Thursday the music was delightfully easy to enjoy over the ambient noise. And late Saturday, despite a wonderful-to-see wall-to-wall first set crowd for Shay Estes with Trio ALL, music could still be heard pretty darn well. On past visits, that wasn’t the case. If last week is the new norm, now we can have our talk and music, too.

(But now I need to rewrite my post on club noise. Glad I hadn’t put it up yet. After all, I’d hate to owe two honkin’ apologies….)


I’ve added links to the calendars of KC’s jazz clubs at the right. For links to anything and everything to do with KC jazz, visit the excellent blog Plastic Sax, here.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

An Extraordinary Progression

It was during the mid ‘80s, maybe 1984, when Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Harry “Sweets” Edison, legendary Basie alumni, were booked for the 18th & Vine Festival. An outdoor event, it stormed all day. So that evening, Sweets and Lockjaw, backed by Rich Hill, claimed a corner bandstand in Eblon, then a club at the corner of 18th & Vine (where Harper’s stands today).

I walked in and took a seat near the stage. People talked, and noise ricocheted around the room. Noisy is the kindest description of Eblon when packed. And that night it was packed with festival goers huddling out of the rain.

Then, amid the noise and talk, Lockjaw launched into a solo like I’d never heard live before, or since. Some quieted. The solo, resonant and exuberant, continued. More stopped and turned to the stage. Then the rest. The room silenced, except for what memory assures me was one of the most extraordinary tenor sax solos, ever.

We sat, some stood, in awe. We knew we were hearing something magic.

I recall The Phoenix on Tuesday nights some 15 years back. Karrin Allyson played piano and sang, with Rod Fleeman on guitar. I sat at the piano bar most weeks. The talent on stage was obvious. Weekly, Karrin displayed the gifts of a to be internationally recognized jazz vocalist (today, for those who don’t know, she resides in New York and can claim three Grammy nominations). Not every performance, not every song, but often enough amazing music flew from that tiny stage. Few knew Kansas City was hosting regular performances most any jazz fan would envy the chance to hear.

I reminisce of Saturday afternoons in the same room with Milt Abel and Tommy Ruskin on stage. I can still see Milt entrancing the crowd with Big Wind Blew in From Winnetka and Tommy drumming everything in sight to Caravan. I’m smiling now, ear to crazy ear, remembering rapt audiences and a room brimming with joy.

Now forward to July this year, at Jardine’s, last Wednesday of the month. Megan Birdsall is on stage at her regular gig. It’s the third set and the noisy part of the crowd has left for the night. The room feels more intimate now. Megan, wondering what to sing next, jumps on a jam of Ellington’s I Got It Bad. The room, musicians and audience, hear something special coming together up there. Next she tears into an up-tempo Lover Man. Stunning. At the end of those songs, the other musicians on stage look at each other and smile. You know they know they were just part of a remarkable set.

Now to Wednesday last week at Jardine’s and again Megan’s monthly gig. A different pianist this month brings a different dynamic to the group. Midway through the second set, it’s coming together. Vocalist, pianist, bassist and drummer are driving each other. The audience, thinned, is engaged. Through Good Morning Heartache, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Squeeze Me (But Please Don’t Tease Me), Wichita Lineman then Love for Sale, a rush of great music, just plain great.

One more stop, last Friday at The Blue Room. Diverse is a group of recent UMKC students that exemplifies the young jazz talent cascading through this city today (Joe Klopus of The Kansas City Star profiled them recently, here). Recent winners of a national competition, their CD is 49th and rising on the jazz charts (the KC jazz blog Plastic Sax reviews it here). Hermon Mehari, William Sanders, John Brewer, Ben Leifer and Ryan Lee meld into a group as simultaneously lyrical and dynamic, as unexpected but precise, as any exploding in jazz today.

The evening was exceptional. From the overflow, standing room only crowd, young and old, packing The Blue Room and wildly celebrating each set; through Kenny Loggins (of Loggins and Messina, in town for a concert) showing up and joining Diverse and saxophonist Bobby Watson at the end of the second set; through Bobby driving the group for more and more again on the final number; it was one of my most enjoyable evenings in nearly 30 years of following jazz in KC.

Looking back, I’ve heard in KC some of the all time jazz greats, names like Lockjaw and Sweets. I’ve heard current stars back when they played local clubs, like Karrin. I’ve heard local heros we’ll remember for generations, like Milt.

And looking ahead, today in KC I can hear jazz’s tomorrow. I can hear an overflow of great young musicians starting to dominate this town, setting the stage with excitement driven by unbridled talent. I’ve made this point before and I’ll make it again: Jazz is poised to surge in Kansas City. The talent here, young, mid and old, is too collectively overwhelming to not be noticed, to not be heard, to not overtake jazz apathy.

It’s an extraordinary progression. I’ll be out again this week. I’ll risk hearing something great.