From time to time I’ll recount stories from my days with the Kansas City Jazz Festival and the Kansas City Jazz Commission. This is one of those times.
The 1986 festival headlined KC legend Jay “Hootie” McShann. We asked Jay to choose anyone - anyone - with whom he’d like to perform and told him we would try to book them. His choices: Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis on tenor sax, Buddy Tate also on tenor, Harry “Sweets" Edison on trumpet, Al Grey on trombone, Milt Hinton on bass and Gus Johnson on drums.
Milt was in Japan for the summer and unavailable, so Jay chose Major Holley instead. “Lockjaw” was too ill to perform (he would pass away a couple months after the festival). We suggested Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson on alto as a replacement, and Jay agreed. But “Cleanhead” was already scheduled in San Francisco that night and couldn’t break the engagement. So we settled on a group without the additional horn.
But there was one more complication: Buddy, “Sweets”, Al and Gus were booked in Europe (Belgium, if I remember correctly) in another festival that same weekend. Nonetheless, they wanted to play Kansas City, too.
Gus left the other festival a day early, deciding he needed a little rest between shows. But Buddy, “Sweets” and Al played the complete overseas event. They then traveled for over 30 continuous hours, sleeping on flights, and were in KC only about 5 hours before climbing the steps to our stage.
Al Grey was making arrangements for the group. Frankly, we were not paying these jazz icons all that much. One day, our contact asked Al why he, Buddy and “Sweets,” all in their 60s or 70s at the time, were putting themselves through such tortuous travel. It sure wasn’t for the money. They didn’t need our gig. They had more leisurely return plans in place before we called. So why do this? Why put themselves through this sleep-deprived travel hell?
Answered Al: “It’s a chance to play with Hootie! We’d never turn down a chance to play with Hootie!”
Friends with a tape recorder were in the audience at that performance. I’ve since digitized the tape and keep mp3s of it among the music on my iPod and phone. From time to time, I’ll listen to the concert again.
“Sweets” Edison is clearly tired. Buddy Tate is good and some moments great. The others are consistently amazing. The way Jay drives the group and the way Al Grey and Major Holley in particular respond is Kansas City jazz at its best. It’s fun, a joyous reminder of why I love this music.
Every time I hear Buddy and Al sing, “She got it, she keeps it, she sits right on it, she just won’t give it away, anybody get it sure does got to pay,” then that transitions into a “One O’Clock Jump” tribute to Count Basie (who had died two years earlier), I smile. Anybody would.
(One tip from our sound man: The best place to record a festival is in front of the mixing tower, because that’s where the music is being adjusted to sound its best.)
The next January, “Cleanhead” Vinson called us. He was booking his schedule for the coming year and wanted to know if we were putting together the same group for that year’s festival. Because if we were, he would leave the date open.
He did not want to miss another chance to play with Hootie.
Instead, one of the most memorable happenings at the next year’s festival was the owner of our largest sponsor, a beer distributorship, driving his extraordinarily large personal RV over the curb, onto the grass and into Volker park, and parking it next to the stage.
We organizers looked at each other and asked, “What do we do?”
So what do you do when the owner of the company which gave you the largest chunk money to stage the event, whose money you couldn’t have done the festival without, and whose contribution you hope to see again next year, drives his extraordinarily large personal RV into the park and parks it next to the stage?
You tell him you’re glad he could make it and hope he enjoys the music.
(He did, and he sponsored the festival again the next year.)
In my festival years, I had opportunities to meet Kansas City jazz history. Such as the year 87-year old bandleader Andy Kirk sat down with me for a half hour and told tales of Kansas City and jazz in the 1930s, and of Mary Lou Williams. But that’s a story for another blog post.