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.