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.