Monday, October 26, 2009

Saturday Night Blast

I was expecting a quiet hotel lounge. Man, was I wrong. What a blast.

That’s the mini-review. Now, the details.

I hadn’t been to the Drum Room, 13th and Baltimore, before. But this past Saturday night, with Megan Birdsall singing there, it seemed a good time to check the place out.

The room is small and, with all hard surfaces for music and talk to bounce off, it’s not a listening room. The harsh acoustics are particularly unforgiving to vocals and drums, and to ambient noise. You’re never far from the band, but if you’re not settled in the direct path of a speaker, don’t expect to hear the vocalist clearly.

And it doesn’t matter. Not a bit. Because, at least last Saturday, that’s not what this space, at its best, is about.

It’s the crowd, which loudly talks, makes noise, masks the music, bumps you in your seat, walks in and out, blocks your view, occasionally yells, it’s the crowd propelled by the music which makes this space so much fun.

You’re not at a table. You’re sitting next to everyone. Next to the guy or the gal who will break from their own conversation to engage you. Next to the group that jumps from their seat to take the floor and dance. All, and this is important, driven by the fantastic band playing the room.

This city has been host to some terrific vocalists (two of them were there on Saturday; more on that in a moment). And Megan is one of the unsurpassed, one of the young KC jazz performers who are just too damn good to remain known only to us. With a voice playfully best in live performance, and backed by more of KC’s greatest (this group: Danny Embry on guitar, Bob Bowman on bass, Matt Leifer on drums), it's a group which knows how to drive the room. Hey, the music drove a stranger seated next to me tap my shoulder and half ask/half exclaim, “Have you ever heard anything better?"

Answer: Not so easy to clearly hear, but the raucous room made the night plenty easy to enjoy. And, after all, isn’t having fun what going out for a night of fun all about?

Former KC resident and Grammy-nominated jazz singer Karrin Allyson stopped by to hear a set. Beena, owner of Jardine’s, was there and was, during the last couple of numbers, coaxed out to the dance floor.

I don’t know if this is what the Drum Room is like every week. I’ve now been there just once. But this last Saturday it was, well, no better word for it, it was a blast.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

This 'n That 'n Missed Opportunity

It’s Thursday. The weekend is approaching. A good time, it seems, to collect miscellaneous thoughts.


Kurt Rosenwinkel is a name known among jazz literati. But while we jazz folk excel at preaching to ourselves, we’re rather rotten at spreading the word beyond our insular blogs, tweets and publications. Which is a shame when a talent like Rosenwinkel comes through town and just 60 or so of us show up at The Blue Room. And especially when the bulk of those 60 are the coveted under-30 youth this music needs to attract.

Rosenwinkel’s performance was entrancing. His solos tell a story. They draw you in with a tight beginning, walk (or jump, or drive) you through the middle, then drop you off at an oh so satisfying conclusion. His is contemporary guitar built on a base of tradition.

Many more people than those of us who showed up Monday night would have thoroughly enjoyed the music. In fact, this music could have introduced a broad range of younger listeners to jazz in 2009. Because Rosenwinkel’s sound is jazz with appeal which broaches the connotation of jazz. As Metheny is known beyond jazz, so could be Kurt Rosenwinkel.

And he might be, were we any good at telling anyone besides ourselves.

The name needs to be more than what’s in the Monday night square of a club calendar. The performance deserved publicity. Where’s the Facebook push (definitely not on the American Jazz Museum, home of The Blue Room, page)? Where’s the tweets? Where’s any social media mention? Where are the links to Rosenwinkel’s music, so others can sample this talent making his first visit to KC? Was a press release released? I knew Rosenwinkel’s name from various jazz blogs and websites. But we need to inform beyond those boundaries. We need to push the introduction to more under-30-somethings through the media they frequent.

With music like this, if we expose it, they will come.

Well, some will. A heckuva lot more than came last Monday, anyway.

The biggest disappointment of Monday night was the opportunity missed to introduce to those outside the jazz circle just how broadly encompassing and accessible and relevant and entertaining this music can be.


A Chicago Tribune critic (here) reviews a book of essays, including some on windy city jazz, starting with this preface:

“But I still hate jazz. The music leaves me cold -- yet perversely, I love the idea of jazz. I love the image of hip, swinging, subversive people who live by their own rules, who revel in melancholy, who blow sexy, dangerous notes in out-of-the-way places.

“It’s just the music I can't stand. It always sounds like rehearsal, not performance. It sounds to me the way a kid's scribbled picture looks: It's the sort of thing only a parent could love.”

I sure hope the Tribune doesn’t send her out to do music reviews.


And staying on the Tribune web site for a moment, a blog post (here) tells that 115,000 CDs (total, not just jazz) were released in the U.S. last year. Only 110 of them sold over 250,000 copies. Only 1500 of them sold over 10,000 copies. And less than 6000 of them sold over 1000 copies.

Daunting figures for anyone hoping to release a CD.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Festival Tales 2

Through much of the 1980s I volunteered as one of the organizers of the Kansas City Jazz Festival. For a couple of those years I also served as chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission. Occasionally, I’ll recount stories from those days.


Through several festivals, I got the posters signed.

Each year, we asked the festival headliners to autograph a dozen or so copies of that year’s poster to give to the volunteer organizers who contributed most.

Our 1985 headliner was the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). This was my first year to gather autographs. Sheepishly, I stepped into the hospitality room where the musicians rested prior to going on stage. The room was tense because the airline lost Percy Heath’s bass.

I was greeted at the door by MJQ drummer Connie Kay. He immediately introduced himself and shook my hand. I told him why I was there. He stepped to a table and signed each poster. He then walked me around the room and introduced me to each member of the MJQ -- pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, Percy Heath -- and he personally saw to it that each signed all posters.

Sometimes working jazz festivals you meet sinners and sometimes you meet saints. I never met anyone nicer than Connie Kay.

(Percy’s bass was found and rushed to the festival before the MJQ took the stage.)


If I ever get the jazz club mentioned in an earlier post off the ground, my copies of many years’ autographed festival posters will hang there.


In 1985 I also served as co-emcee, introducing acts on stage. I wrote a short introduction for each. Later, a friend asked me, as someone who spent his then short advertising career in an office, if it was scary facing the crowds. No, I told him. During the night, a spotlight shined in my eyes, blinding me to anything beyond the stage. And during the day that year the temperature hit 103 degrees and there was no crowd.

The night the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet was to perform, I stood on stage, preparing to introduce them. Then Milt Jackson stopped me. “Are you in charge?” he asked. “Did anyone tell you how to introduce us? Just say, the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet. No individual names, nothing else. Just, the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet.” So I did. And that’s how I’ve referred to them ever since.

Somewhere in the basement, in a stack of papers, I think I still have that never-delivered introduction.


In 1989, our radio sponsor was KY-102, then the biggest rock station in town. We wanted the party-goers at the event, and that’s the station which reached them. As part of the promotion, the day before the festival began, we were booked on KY’s morning show to discuss the event.

But booked ahead of us that morning was a beautiful porn star. She was in the studio with her pot-bellied husband/manager. And as two of us from the festival looked through the studio window, awaiting our turn, she stripped. Totally naked. As the hosts talked and joked with her.

Understandably, her segment ran long. So we were invited to join them in the studio, to discuss the festival, while the totally naked, beautiful porn star and her pot-bellied husband/manager stood next to us.

I don’t remember what I said. I don’t know if I was coherent. My mind was not on the festival.


Then there was the year that our largest sponsor drove his personal gigantic RV onto the festival grounds and parked it next to the stage. But that’s a story for another blog post.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Weekend This 'n That

The weekend seems a good time for a few short thoughts.


A discussion has swirled of late around one-time local pianist and now Sony Classical label prodigy Eldar Djangirov’s recent performance at the Folly Theater and the paltry crowd it attracted. The talk can be read on the excellent KC jazz blog Plastic Sax, here. But one important point which stands out to me has yet to come up.

What the hell was the Folly thinking in bringing back Eldar just five months after he played Jardine’s? There may well be many reasons the crowd totaled only about 350, but without doubt one of them is that there is a limited number of folks around here willing to pay thirty bucks to again hear a jazz performer they just heard. Sure it’s a different venue, but the venue is selling to the same audience. And the jazz audience is small to begin with (remember, just 3% of music sales). Only a small percentage of that small percentage will double dip in a short time span.

When I organized jazz festivals, Jimmy McGriff was among our headliners one year. But I got word that another local group was looking to bring him to town a few months before the fest. I refused to sign the contract until I was assured he would not book the earlier gig. I couldn’t have expected much of an audience had Jimmy played KC just months prior. The same applies to the Folly.


It will be interesting to see how the crowd size compares for Jimmy Cobb at the Gem Saturday night, with a group celebrating the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’ best selling album, Kind of Blue. But I will not be there. A review from a previous stop for this group said they played each song of the album, in order. If true, I’m not sure a live album recreation is what I'd want to sit through.


Instead, I’ll spend my money at The Blue Room on Monday night.

I started listening to jazz when Miles Davis, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan were still performing. I’ve not faithfully kept up with the young performers who followed those greats. Until recently. Between discovering the spectacular young talent now populating KC, and reading a few blogs championing young players with national renown, I’m learning new names.

One of them is guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. An American who now resides in Europe, All About Jazz has called him “the next big thing in the world of jazz guitar.” What I see on You Tube and hear on iTunes has me intrigued and excited to see him live Monday night.

Much more excited, in fact, than by the thought of seeing a 50 year old album recreation.


Bassist and composer Ben Allison is another name I’ve learned. The New York Times says he “has a knack for assembling hardy and sophisticated ensembles like this one” which performs in New York this weekend. Among those hardy and sophisticated band members is Steve Cardenas.

I’m sure many in town remember when Steve was a hot young guitarist in Kansas City, and a musical highlight of Ida McBeth’s band.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Marketing Addendum

A lengthy thought was deleted from my last post, Social Media and Marketing and Kansas City and Jazz, to reduce its length from Monstrously Too Long to just Way Too Long. As a follow-up (hey, it was already written anyway), below is the additional rumination.


When I was organizing jazz festivals 20 years ago, we marketed the fest as a big event. We wanted you to think this was the greatest thing happening in Kansas City. If you missed this, you’d miss where everyone else would be over the weekend. You’d miss what everyone would be talking about on Monday morning. We plastered midtown with posters. Our volunteers returned to Westport every week to replace the posters stolen from windows. We appeared on every local show that would have us, from the TV’s noon news to area NPR affiliates to talk radio. We recruited the biggest rock radio station in town as our sponsor (a light jazz station in KC at the time was angry that we didn’t ask them, but they didn’t have the listeners and the big guy demanded logo and on-site exclusivity).

The event happened to feature jazz. But what we we sold was an event.

I haven’t given much thought to how I would market a jazz festival today. But, unquestionably, it would include hitting every medium available, from articles in The Kansas City Star to TV and radio to the internet.

And just what role would social media play? Sure there would be a web site, tweets and a Facebook page. But how do those feed excitement in marketing an event? Do tweets become increasingly enthusiastic as the event nears? Does the web site offer audio samples of the performers? Does the Facebook page repurpose what the other resources push?

Then let’s take this a step further. Let’s try to apply all this to jazz club promotion. I’ve tossed around in my head how a jazz club could utilize some of the marketing strategies that we used to sell a jazz festival. Clearly, just as a weekly magazine can’t make every issue a special (a topic of a recent New York Times article), a club operating nightly can’t make every night a big event.

But could the internet and social media be better utilized to inexpensively build a club as a destination? I suspect it could, and I’m grappling with how. I’m also contemplating how much responsibility belongs to the club (which stands to gain from sales) and how much lies with the performer (who stands to gain from being known as a draw). A proper mix is there somewhere, but I’ve yet to sort just what it is.

For instance, Jardine’s maintains a very nice web site and has been posting updates to Twitter which then populate their Facebook page. On paper, they’re doing everything right. Yet on a Tuesday night a couple weeks back, I was one of maybe 30 patrons to enjoy an exceptional group. What more could have been economically accomplished online -- by club and/or performer -- to build excitement among others for the night?


If you have thoughts on how social media could be better utilized for jazz promotion, locally or nationally, I’d love to hear them. I’m convinced there’s marketing solutions waiting to be pulled together. And I mean solutions which require an outstanding product to be promoted but don’t need the luck a quirk going viral to succeed. I’m at kcjazzlark(at)gmail(dot)com (with the punctuation spelled out here to try to foil the spambots).


And speaking of Jardine’s Twitter feeds and Facebook page, where did the updates go? As I write this, nothing new has been posted for over a week. Frankly, I liked finding the daily update in my Twitter feed and on my Facebook wall, and it certainly gave the club an edge when I decided to get for the night. But perhaps the social media were not delivering results for the club as marketing in 2009 says they should?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Social Media and Marketing and Kansas City and Jazz

A Saturday morning story on NPR caught my ear, so to speak. Because it addressed a topic I’ve been thrashing through my head of late, though I’ve been tying it to jazz and Kansas City.

In the interview (here), a wine merchant enthusiastically trumpets how he rebranded then grew his business via social media. Through social media, he says, “the cost of creating your voice over the thing that you’re most passionate and knowledgeable about is zero.”

He goes on: “And now, because of things like Twitter and Facebook…[you can] socialize and network, kind of like working a cocktail party. Build your business. Word of mouth is how all businesses have always been built, anyway. And that costs zero. Now it’s time…. It’s time to build a brand around yourself.”

So how can this social media serve as a vehicle to market our spectacular Kansas City jazz talent, both locally and beyond? That’s the question that’s been burning through my brain.

I look at Twitter and some of the jazz tweets. JazzTalk boasts over 22,300 followers. Accujazzradio, among my favorites, has over 1000 followers. And NPR’s Blogsupreme tweet, another I enjoy, attracts just over 900. All tweet often. But why does one attract 900 fans and another more than 22,000?

Do you start small and gradually grow as your tweets are discussed, retweeted and mentioned in blogs and elsewhere? Do you need to tweet profoundly and prolifically for that to occur? Is that the word of mouth, virtual cocktail party aspect?

In short, how do you get found?

It clearly helps if you’re an established brand. Comedienne Sarah Silverman is approaching 325,000 Twitter followers. CNN is approaching 3 million. That suggests to me that Twitter may be a better place to maintain a brand than to establish one.

Same for Facebook. With over 300 million users, how do you break through the clutter? Where’s the cocktail party?

I don’t ask for me. I’m on Twitter and Facebook with no grand desire to build myself a crowd. But if Kansas City’s sterling young jazz talent wants to be noticed -- and they deserve to be noticed -- or if a promoter cares to take that task in hand, how is the the internet harnessed to establish a brand?

Does the online cocktail party need to envelop a broader approach? Do the social media need to be complimented with videos and mp3s, photos and biographies, an online media barrage? If so, how are those virtual treats discovered? Or does the presence of one help build awareness of the next? Do all of the social and online tidbits collectively work to define the brand?

My guess is yes, but that online alone may not be not enough.

Let’s look at this another way: Jazz is a niche product. It’s generally accepted that about three percent of music sales are jazz. iTunes claims over 100 million accounts. Three percent of those music-buying accounts should be our jazz-buying niche. So, unless I’m making an illogical leap of logic, there should be an online audience of three million potential music purchasers considering jazz. Those aren’t Michael Jackson numbers, but it’s a compelling crowd to target jazz towards. If you can reach them economically.

Now let’s look at a recent success. Singer Melody Gardot has a compelling personal story, having been hit by a truck on at age 19, surviving head injuries and a shattered pelvis, she was hospitalized for a year. Music therapy helped damaged neural pathways recover. She began recording songs and made them available on iTunes, then released an album in 2006. That album was re-released by the jazz label Verve in 2008, with a media push. An interview on NPR (here) placed her story before millions. The album is short but the music fantastic. According to one online report, it was downloaded just 400 times before 2008. After her interview, it captured the top of iTunes’ jazz charts for weeks. This year, Verve released her second album.

Word spread virally on Melody Gardot. And when it did, it sparked thousands of downloads by those (I think) millions of potential iTunes jazz buyers. But word started through a traditional medium, radio.

Now let’s look at a local success. I’ve written of the group Diverse. Their fabulous August night at The Blue Room sold the place out. But that performance was preceded by a profile in The Kansas City Star and an appearance on KCUR’s Up to Date. Traditional media drove that crowd.

Maybe the solution is that traditional media can provide a push to start sales or a brand quickly, which social media can then drive further. Maybe marketing solely through the social internet is a slower slog, built through an abundance of posts and media which start people talking, spreading the news, then building over time.

Or maybe there’s a middle ground to which I’m oblivious. If you’ve followed me this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Because I suspect there’s a practical social media answer that I’m overlooking.

Now let’s return to the wine merchant with whom I opened. He was on NPR Saturday morning because he’s selling a book which describes how he rebranded and grew his business through social media. As a result of the interview, I’m buying the book. I want to know his insights and secrets. I want to know how he apparently made social media succeed for him in ways, right now, I don’t see. Maybe as a result of this blog, or as a result of hearing the interview online, others will buy the book, too. If so, social media will have sold copies. But I can’t ignore the fact he needed traditional media for the opening push.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Vocal Greats

Yesterday, NPR posted another fun challenge: 50 Great Voices. Between now and the end of next week they ask the following: “Tell us who in the whole world possesses the most beautiful, singular voice you have ever heard.” They’ll compile the public nominations with those of experts, academics and critics, then winnow the list to 50. Starting in January, as they put it, “we're hoping [we will] discover and re-discover awe-inspiring vocalists from around the world and across time. Through archival material, interviews and music, NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered will spend the year delving into the lives and legacies of these voices.”

NPR’s page on the nominations is here. They ask that submissions, with a sentence defending each choice, be made on that page or emailed to . I’ve compiled a list of 25 voices to send. On my list, some are jazz, some are blues, some are pop, one is country. Only a few are KC-connected. They’re listed alphabetically.

And they're here:

Louis Armstrong - Nobody else ever had a voice like this and nobody will. Louis’ voice was as much an instrument in the band as was his trumpet, and whether it was playing Mack the Knife or Basin Street Blues, Louis’ vocal instrument made every interpretation his alone.

Johnny Cash - I’m not a country fan, but I’m a Johnny Cash fan, particularly his American Series albums. By then his is an often tired voice, but it’s a voice echoing decades of life and emotion, a voice that’s lived and tells you how.

Shemekia Copeland - This lady’s blues are fun. She owns a song when she shouts it out to you with sass, sway and swagger. There’s attitude in her delivery that you gotta love.

Ella Fitzgerald - Jazz and swing just don’t get any better than this. Actually, music, period, doesn’t get any better than Ella. If the dictionary adds a listing for “the best music can possibly be” and that listing includes a photo, the photo will be of Ella.

Roberta Flack - A story-teller’s mix of smoothness and force, and a mix that happens to hit every note just right.

Aretha Franklin - The power of gospel, soul, blues and hard-blowin’ pop, a voice that could drive a man to do anything she cares to drive him to, and I mean anything.

Melody Gardot - Her voice is whispery with a dash of salt. Melody has a compelling personal story but, more importantly, a unique voice and a way of telling a story in song that sets her apart and pulls me back for more.

Billie Holiday - A voice that can make me cry, make gasp in awe, draw me in so I tilt my head to get my ear just that much closer to the stereo’s speaker. There’s one Billie Holiday with delivery more like some magical instrument in the ensemble than a voice. If I need to pick a number one favorite, this is it. Oh man, this is it.

Janis Ian - Simultaneously sensitive and bold, sweet when that’s right and demanding when that’s required, her voice tells a tale I want to hear.

Mahalia Jackson - Deeply soulful, she visits every valley then boldly pulls me from each with inspired joy.

Etta James - Ain’t nobody hollerin’ the blues like Etta, with such force and swing that I just can’t sit still.

Janis Joplin - Gravel and sugar, whether she’s molding a tune to shout it hard or to tell a story, she delivers every song as uniquely Janis.

B.B. King - You wanna hear a story and hear it now and hear it bad, ‘cause, baby, here are the blues and B.B.’s gonna tell it as only B.B. can.

Peggy Lee - Now this is the definition of sultry. There’s a near-sarcasm to Peggy Lee’s style which comes across as mighty sexy and mighty appealing.

Stevie Nicks - Delivering a song exactly right yet slightly off-kilter, her voice adds a dimension to draw me in and make me want to stay to see how it ends.

Jimmy Rushing - Swingin’ the blues Kansas City style, Jimmy’s voice propels a song off the bandstand and into your lap. I dare you to listen to a Jimmy Rushing album and not swing, and not listen happy. I dare you.

Nina Simone - Powerful in a way that pushes me back while intriguing me to the point that I cannot go away, Nina Simone is a never to be repeated vocalist whose voice challenges me to think.

Frank Sinatra - Sinatra delivers every song exactly as it should be delivered, with a lift in his voice when the song requires a lift, or a smokey edge when the song needs a smokey edge. Every song, he gets it.

Bessie Smith - Mama’s got the blues and if you don’t feel why after hearing Bessie tell you as only Bessie can, then you ain’t human.

Mavis Staples - A voice which uniquely molds itself around life lived hard and is here to tell us about the experience, and thank God it is.

Koko Taylor - Blues done the Chicago way, Koko’s rough edge puts you in the middle of her troubles and leaves you there to find your own way out, and as soon as you do you want more.

Big Joe Turner - Big Joe was born in Kansas City and tended bar while shouting the blues at 12th and Vine. During his rhythm and blues years his songs turned extremely popular and extremely silly. But when he shouted the blues, he sang with the swing, the force, the soul and the clearly stated deep experiences that no other voice captures and that surely no other voice will ever match.

Sarah Vaughan - When I think Sarah I think ideal tone, ideal pitch, ideal pace, ideal interpretation, a song recorded as magnificently as you’ll ever hear it.

Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson - Eddie played the alto sax and sang the blues with the same inflections, but his were playful, happy blues peppered with a jump beat that makes me smile.

Dinah Washington - Dinah’s singing to me, just to me, I know she is, and I want to hear every story, because I hear her telling me her version of the story each time she sings.