Monday, December 27, 2010

Hootie You Haven't Heard

What better way for a jazz blog to end the year than with some music? And what better way for a blog on Kansas City jazz to end the year than with some Jay McShann you’ve probably never heard?

Earlier this year, I digitized for a friend a video tape she could no longer play. I’ve previously posted other videos from that tape, and here’s one more: 28 and a half minutes from Nebraska Public Television of Jay McShann’s trio. I don’t have a date on this one, but I’m guessing for various reasons – including the dates of what surrounds it on the tape – it’s from about 1980, give or take. Jay is accompanied by longtime drummer Paul Gunther and a bassist with whom I’m not familiar. A stereotypical 1980s-PBS-style talking head doesn’t exactly build excitement. But nothing can take away from hearing a Jay McShann performance which probably hasn’t been seen in about three decades, and by most of us never.

The program is divided into two parts, due to YouTube restrictions. Unless someone objects, those two videos are embedded below.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Part 1

Part 2

Monday, December 20, 2010

KC Jazz for Christmas, 2010

’Twas the week before Christmas. I needed a gift
For a new KC jazz fan who wanted a lift.
“I know about Basie, ’bout Lester and Bird.
“But who’s playing now? Tell me, what's today’s word?
“Point me to CDs that are current and clear.
“What new KC jazz was released this past year?”

Well, there’s Metheny’s new one – Mike and not Pat –
Hearing Mike’s E.V.I., can’t go wrong with that.
Add Wilder’s keyboards, Embry’s guitar, what fun!
Bowman’s bass, Draper’s drums, you’ll love 60.1.
A blues and a ballad, then music so brash,
This delivers a sound you can’t otherwise match.

If acoustic’s your preference, I’m sure you’d agree,
When Turkish and jazz blend on Taman Abi,
With Beau Bledsoe on oud and Harshbarger’s bass,
Sait Arat’s darbuka (unmatched anyplace),
Add in Rich Wheeler’s tenor: a CD to seek.
Alaturka plays jazz that’s fun and unique.

Or you want more outlandish? You want less demure?
I know your CD, know you’ll love it for sure.
The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater KC:
It’s not Basie or Benny. It’s jazz that's been freed.
Untraditional big band rattling musical puns. 
Best way to describe it? This jazz is just fun.

You’ve heard him ’round town backing Lonnie and Shay
But here he’s alone. It’s an intimate play
Of piano once subtle, dynamic yet sure,
Pulls you in, turns your head, you listen and you’re
In a Lush Life, or Mars. You are Live at Jardine’s,
Mark Lowrey’s piano you should hear, by all means.

Big band, it returns: The Gates BBQ Suite
KC jazz celebration of our favorite treat.
With May I Help You? and Heavy On Sauce,
Compositions by Watson, not once at a loss.
The Concert Jazz Orchestra, UMKC,
Shines jazz's bright future. They prove it, you’ll see.

“That’s it! I want all!" exclaimed KC jazz fan.
“If they’re all in my stocking, I’m one happy man.
“I’ll always like Basie and Lester and Bird,
“But it’s two-thousand-ten and to this I’ve been spurred:
“To hear today’s jazz and in all of its might.
“So Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”


You, too, can (and should) have all of these CDs:
  • Mike Metheny’s 60.1 was discussed here. You can purchase it from Mike’s web site, here, or download it from iTunes, here.
  • Alaturka was photographed here. Taman Abi can be purchased from their web site, here, or downloaded from iTunes, here.
  • The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater KC was showcased last week, here. Their CD can be purchased here, or downloaded from iTunes, here.
  • Mark Lowrey’s Live at Jardine’s is available in Kansas City at Streetside Records and at Jardine's.
  • The Blue Room performance of Bobby Watson’s The Gates BBQ Suite was photographed here. The CD can be purchased from CDBaby, here, or downloaded from iTunes, here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

In Lieu of 1000 Words: The People's Liberation Big Band

This is not your daddy's big band. Though there's at least one similarity: Listening to these guys is a helluva lot of fun.

Go to the Record Bar each month to hear The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City, and you might see a head-lamped saxophonist walking the crowd, playing, and accompanied by a cellist. You might hear an opera singer vocalizing. You might hear musical nursery rhymes, 2010 style.

You will hear wonderful music.

Because first and foremost, The People's Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City is a collection of outstanding musicians assembled by Brad Cox to play modern big band compositions, including a fair number of his.

Take those nursery rhyme numbers, for instance. This is not music with which to put the kids to sleep. This is not Jimmy Rushing singing Stop Beatin' Around the Mulberry Bush with the Count Basie Orchestra. These selections are closer in sensibility to Fractured Fairy Tales than to Little Bo Peep.

For this big band, think Mingus before you think Basie. Think Mingus then take it a step further.

And that next step is a mix of eccentricity, experimentation, excitement and fun. Think no fear of stepping to a musical edge while rooted by a professional jazz base. That's what musicians this good bring to the stage. Look, I'm not particularly a fan of jazz which gets too far out there. But anyone can tell these guys are having a ball, and that playfulness, through skillful sections and expert solos, projects to the audience. With this music, even I loosen up and revel in the delight.

You can revel, too. It was a delightful and relatively tame night on November 7th when The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City celebrated their first CD release at the Record Bar. Five of those nursery rhymes start the disk, so if you don’t yet grasp what this group is about, you just need to listen. You can find the CD here.

And you can grasp a look of what it was like at that release gig and again last week, December 5th, from the photos below. As always, clicking on a shot should open a larger version of it.

Brad Cox directs The People's Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City

Brad Cox, Roger Wilder, Jeff Harshbarger

Sait Arat of the group Alaturka sat in on darbuka. Roger Wilder watches.

Brad Cox, um, directs

The People's Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City

Thursday, December 9, 2010

100 Posts and Feet to the Fire

This, to my amazement, is this blog’s 100th post. And now is your chance to get even.

If you’re a subject I’ve criticized in one of the previous 99 missives, or if you’ve long thought my occasional jazz marketing and management rants rank me as all blowhard, now you can claim that pound of flesh. If you’re right.

Because starting on January 1st, I’m the new Orchestra Manager of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra (or, KCJO).

Husband and wife Jim and Mary Mair, with others, birthed the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra 8 years ago and have built it into one of this city’s most respected jazz organizations. But after 8 years of dedicating body and soul, and producing the finest series of big band jazz you will hear anywhere, they have decided to step aside.

The board has wisely hired Kerry Strayer as the new artistic director. I can tell you that Kerry is bringing exciting ideas for the orchestra’s future (though I can’t tell you, yet, what they are).

And in a more dubious decision, the board hired me as the new manager.

So after 100 blog posts on Kansas City and jazz, after posts criticizing other KC jazz presenters for their management and marketing of this city’s heritage, after being handed management and marketing of one of Kansas City’s premiere jazz organizations….

I’d better not screw this up.

The position is part time. This will not become a KCJO blog (in fact, I may start another, albeit less frequent, KCJO-dedicated blog). This blog will continue.

Though how much of the next 100 posts are bombast or contrition may be determined, in part, by whether I’m pulling a foot well-wedged from mouth or, from many of the last 99 posts, successfully practicing the practices I’ve preached.

I will be opening the orchestra’s new office doors fully expecting the latter.

(…the blogger wrote, with shameless bombast….)


But to determine, definitively, how I do, you first need a standard of comparison. Which means you need to go out this Friday, December 10th, to Unity on the Plaza, at 8 p.m., and hear the final Kansas City Jazz Orchestra concert expertly produced by the Mairs. It’s A Big Band Christmas. Midway though, Jim hands off the conductor's baton to Kerry. General admission tickets start at $25. Student tickets are available at the door for just $5 (with student ID). Hear how good this music and presentation can be.

(And I’m not promising you will not see more plugs here. Actually, you will.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Importance of Buster Smith. And Lucille's.

In 1987, the city started to demolish the building behind this painted false front. It was dangerous, they said. Protesters screamed that the building is a crucial piece of Kansas City jazz history. The process was stopped and a city department head later said he made a mistake.

Behind there, at 1713 E. 18th Street, next door to the Kansas City Call, stood Lucille’s Paradise Band Box. There, in 1938, Buster Smith tutored a teenage Charlie “Bird” Parker on playing the alto sax.

Buster Smith on Charlie Parker:

“I couldn’t get rid of him. He was always up under me. In my band we’d split solos. If I took two, he’d take two. If I’d take three, he’d take three, and so forth. He always wanted me to take the first solo. I guess he thought he’d learn something that way. He did play like me quite a bit, I guess. But, after a while, anything I could make on my horn, he could make, too, and make something better of it.”

One of the most influential yet today least known names in KC jazz history is Henry “Buster” Smith, also called “Prof.” His name came up repeatedly in my Reno Club posts (here and here).

Bassist Gene Ramey:

“Buster was...a great improviser. He didn’t have the strong sound of Johnny Hodges, Bird or Benny Carter. He had a soft alto sound…. But though it was soft, he was very good playing lead. And when Benny Goodman or any other clarinet players came into a [jam], Buster would get his clarinet out and clean everybody up, including Benny.”

Lester Young, center, Buster Smith, right, 1932
Buster Smith started with the Blue Devils, a band which Bennie Moten raided for the musicians who made his own band great, including Smith.

Buster Smith:

[After Moten’s death] “I...went down to the Reno and carried my repertory with me. Basie told me, ‘Prof, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. We’ll organize the band and have a partnership. It’ll be your band and my band…. I said okay, be fine. So we started the band and split our money.”

Count Basie:

“Prof Smith was the lead man in the reed section, and every now and then he would put a couple of things together for us…. Prof wrote a few things when he felt like it, and when he was in a good mood he would really put something together for you. He could put something together for you, and he could play for you, too. He was great…. There was nobody like him on alto. He had a style that was different from everybody.”

Gene Ramey:

“Buster Smith’s influence was not so direct…. Buster would set riffs. There might be one trumpet and ten saxophone players. Usually, when one horn sets a riff, the other guys play in unison with him, but with Buster the other horns had to harmonize. Then it would sound like a written chorus, and that’s what you hear on records when Basie’s band was jumping so good.

“Buster was noted for that, and for eliminating those who didn’t get the harmonic notes right in the riffs. You may have played your solo well, but you had to get out and not play for a while. Buster would always do that at jam sessions where there were too many horns. The guys would take their horns to a table and listen to the heavy riffs he set.

“It made them think, yes, but it also showed the young guys that they had to learn to team as well as play a solo....

“All this was inspiring to Bird, who learned many tricky riffs that way.”

When John Hammond took Basie’s band East, Prof remained behind.

Buster Smith:

“We’d heard so much about how somebody was going to come and get the band and make it big, I just didn’t think anything about it – figured it was just more talk – so I left.”

Count Basie:

“I guess Prof didn’t really think we were going to make it into the big time. I don’t know.”

Buster Smith:

“I had to do something for myself and I made me up a band, got Charlie Parker and a bunch of boys…and then Lucille’s Paradise wanted me to work up there…. Charlie Parker and about six of us was playing up there every night. I think we was off one or two nights. During them nights I would take [a] big band out on some of them club dates, social functions, like that…. But I used Charlie in both bands….

“I had the band about two years and Charlie was with me all that time. He was the youngest cat in the band…. He was a little hot-headed sometimes, and he wouldn’t stay with nobody but me. He stayed with me longer than anybody ’til he got with McShann.”

But by staying here, Prof rarely recorded. He moved to New York for a short time (Bird followed), and solos as a sideman on recordings made there – 1939 and early 1940s Pete Johnson/Big Joe Turner, Eddie Durham and Hot Lips Page sides – provide glimpses of his genius.

Buster Smith:

“I had saved up a little bankroll…and I said, ‘I think I’m going back to Texas.’ I had lost my father and I couldn’t even be there, to see him put away…. [I] opened me up a restaurant and organized a eight-piece band…playing all them little shows around here.”

Buster Smith from his 1959 album
In 1959, Prof recorded an album in Dallas, but by then he was past his prime. An auto accident in the 1960s left him with dental problems and unable to play sax. He continued performing on piano and bass.

Gene Ramey:

“He was a nice, easy going man…. He told me once he was sorry in a way that he didn’t go with Basie, yet I think it was Buster who really made the Basie band what it was, a riff band with very little music.”

Buster Smith on Charlie Parker:

“He’d listen to you. He used to call me his dad. I called him my boy.”

Basie’s co-leader and Bird’s tutor died in Dallas in 1991.

1713 E. 18th Street, where Buster Smith bridged jazz generations, nearly died in Kansas City in 1987.


Quotes by Count Basie are from his autobiography, Good Morning Blues. Quotes by Buster Smith are from a 1960 interview in The Jazz Review and from the book, Goin’ to Kansas City. Quotes by Gene Ramey are from the book, The World of Count Basie.

Monday, November 29, 2010

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Alaturka at R Bar

Turkish jazz in the stockyards? I dare you to find that outside of Kansas City.

You could certainly find it here earlier this month when Alaturka, a quartet blending Turkish music with jazz, played R Bar in the city’s West Bottoms, less than a block from where cattle once roamed.

There’s much to explain in that sentence.

For a year I declined to head out to Alaturka’s monthly Sunday night shows at Jardine’s. Turkish music and jazz? What could be more odd a combination than that? Surely I wouldn’t like it.

I could not have been more wrong.

I finally attended an Alaturka performance a few months back. The room was packed, and I grabbed a seat up front.


Seeing Sait Arat’s hands glazing the darbuka faster than the eye can focus – you’ll see what I mean in a photo below – while hearing musical perfection was a revelation. Previously, I’d only heard Rich Wheeler on short sax solos in a contemporary big band. But here, extended tenor of magnificent tone and soulful feel filled the room, intimately. This night, Beau Bledsoe’s guitar and oud and Bill McKemy, sitting in on bass, took occasional expert solos but mostly underlaid solid support.

The experience was extraordinary.

On their recently released CD, Tamam Abi, regular Jeff Harshbarger commands the bass seat. Here, without seeing Sait play, Beau’s oud and guitar assume a more prominent role. It’s still a jazz – no, really, a music – experience like none other you’ll find (the CD is available for sale here, or for download on iTunes here).

Now let’s mention R Bar, a still new restaurant and bar in Kansas City’s West Bottoms area. Thirty years ago, the stockyards dominated this area; where cattle pens once stood is seen right though their front door. But today, in R Bar (web site here), a wonderful atmosphere mixes excellent food and drink with jazz and other styles of acoustic music.

On November 4th, Alaturka, with Sait Arat on darbuka, Rich Wheeler on tenor sax, Beau Bledsoe on oud and guitar, and Jeff Harshbarger on bass, took the R Bar stage for a marvelous night of music. Which is how we get to Turkish jazz in the stockyards. How did it look? That answer is in the photos below. As always, clicking on one should open a larger version of it.

Alaturka. Left to right: Jeff Harshbarger on bass, Rich Wheeler on tenor sax, Beau Bledsoe on oud, Sait Arat on darbuka

Jeff Harshbarger and Beau Bledsoe

Sait Arat. This photo was shot at a speed of 1/15th second. This, amazingly, is how his hands move in one-fifteenth of a second, while playing every note perfectly.

Alaturka in R Bar. The lights you see through the front door today are in a parking garage. Thirty years ago, cattle pens stood there as part of the Kansas City stockyards.

Rich Wheeler on tenor sax with Jeff Harshbarger and Beau Bledsoe behind him

Bassist Jeff Harshbarger


Beau Bledsoe and Sait Arat

Jeff Harshbarger, Rich Wheeler, Beau Bledsoe

Alaturka in R Bar

Monday, November 22, 2010

Classic Shots: Fiddler at the Foundation

I didn’t just start taking photos when I started this blog.

One regret from my days of organizing jazz festivals and chairing the Jazz Commission is that I snapped few photos during those years. But photography has been a hobby for over three decades, and since leaving behind festival organization to now, I’ve taken plenty of shots at Kansas City jazz events.

Until recent years, most of those shots were on slides. I’ve found a relatively easy way to digitize those slides, which means they can now be put online in places like, say, this blog.

From time to time, I’ll post photos from years past. Times like today.

In the fall of 2003, the Mutual Musicians Foundation celebrated its 75th anniversary (the building was purchased by the black musicians union in 1928).

Among the Kansas City greats there that day was Claude “Fiddler” Williams. He was 95 years old and looked frail (he would pass away six months later). He sat inside the Foundation and pulled out his violin to play. He started weakly. But after several minutes, once warmed up, there sat the Claude “Fiddler” Williams I knew, swinging jazz and blues like a man seventy years younger.

No, that’s not entirely true. He swung that violin like someone with the energetic hands of a 25-year old, fueled by the wisdom and experience of a 95-year old. It was wonderful.

Here’s how it looked in the Foundation that fall, 2003 day (clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it):

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Reno Club, Part 2

“Picture Kansas City’s 12th and Cherry in 1935 with the Club Reno almost at its Northeast corner, and parked there, almost seeming to lean against it, a…lunch wagon, horse drawn and stacked high with liver, pig snoots and ears, hog maws, fish, chicken and pork tenderloins. Pick up a sandwich on your way into this musty, smoke-hazed room, squeezing past the hustlers, grifters, solicitors and off-duty musicians, to find a seat as close as you can to the bandstand….”

"Hot Lips" Page at the mic in the Reno Club
“Out on the floor, with patent leather hair gleaming, would be the Reno Club’s highly polished ‘Hot Lips’ Page…. Backing him up was…the Reno Club band. Nine brilliant instrumental satellites of sound responding to the sonic radiance of their personable mentor, Bill Basie….”

– Trumpeter Richard Smith, 1973, in The Kansas City Star


Count Basie:

“[Manager] Sol Steibold gave me some money to make a few additions and changes in the group he had put me in charge of at the Reno. So I went down to Oklahoma City and talked Jack Washington and Big ‘Un [Walter Page] into coming with me, and then I went down to Dallas and got Buster Smith and Joe Keys to join me.”

Saxophonist Buster Smith:

“Jesse Price [was] on drums [but] he and Basie couldn’t get along. Jesse was temperamental. He got mad, he walked off and left the job. So I got Jo [Jones]. [He] was in Omaha, Nebraska, playing with Lloyd Hunter…. So I called up there to get Jo.”

Count Basie:

“Lips Page and Jimmy Rushing had stayed in Kansas City [after Bennie Moten’s death], but when they came down to the Reno, they came as singles…. Lips was also the master of ceremonies and entertainer, and he would sit in with the band, but he was not a regular member of the trumpet section…. Jimmy a job as a regular single feature and as a part of the floor show, and he was such a hit that he could have stayed in there as long as there was a Reno Club….

“After a while, I had three trumpets, three reeds and three rhythms. So we called it Three, Three and Three. There was no trombone in there at first. I couldn’t afford one at the time. As a matter of fact, I didn’t have but two trumpets, because Lips Page made it three. The other trumpets were Joe Keys, who had been in Bennie’s band, and Carl Smith, better known as Tatti, who had once been with the great Alphonso Trent band out of Dallas….

“When Lester [Young] came in there on tenor, I figured I had just about what I needed for what we were doing in the Reno. We didn’t have much room on that bandstand anyway. But what I also mean is we had a hell of a reed section. With Lester in there with Prof [Buster Smith] and Jack Washington, we were cooking with gas, lots of gas.”

Buster Smith:

“In the Reno Club, Basie, it’s no telling what he’s liable to play, ‘cause he’s just sitting down on the piano. He didn’t know nothing about music or nothing, just played by ear. He’d sit down there…he’d get to playing in F – F is his main key – get to playing the blues, he’d say, ‘Prof’ – they all called me Prof – ‘set something.’ He’d leave it to me. I’d be playing the horn and the other boys would be following me, way on down the line. Every time we’d change choruses, I’d set a different riff. That’s the way we made up One O’Clock Jump….

“After I left the band…the first thing they recorded was that tune…. And Basie put his name on it… [Later] he said, ‘Don’t sue me, it’s a long story, I’ll treat you right.’ He sweet-talked me there.”

Trombonist Eddie Durham:

“[Count Basie has] got some fantastic ideas, but nobody’s ever got them out of him, he would never hold still long enough for you to get them. He’d always give me an idea for a couple of measures, then he’d find a little girl and go out and drink….”

Count Basie:

“I don’t remember exactly how long we had been in the Reno when Fats Waller there to see me one night, and he just flipped out over that band. He sent back to the hotel to get [his manager] to come down and listen to those cats…. Fats was crazy about that band. He was in there every night he was in town….

“He said he wanted to fire his band and take mine on the road with him. He didn’t mean he wanted to to take it away from me…. He just wanted that band to have a break….

“I don’t mean to pat myself on the back, but that band was strutting, really strutting.”

In 1935, an experimental radio station, W9XBY, at 1580 AM, started broadcasts from the Reno Club. On a clear night, they reached at least as far as Chicago, where record producer John Hammond heard them.

(The following exchange is from the documentary, John Hammond: From Bessie Smith to Bruce Springsteen.)

John Hammond:

“January of 1936, when I was out with Benny Goodman, I got so sick of listening to the same tunes every night that one night, I went out to my car and I went way to the end of the dial. I started to listen to some music from a band that I had not heard of, coming from the Reno Club in Kansas City. I couldn’t believe it. It was Count Basie and his orchestra.

“So I started writing Basie letters at the Reno Club. And I never heard a word.”

Count Basie:

“So finally, one night I looked up and John was sitting along side of me. That was really the first time that…we really ever got together, and we had a ball.”

John Hammond:

“Here was a band I couldn’t find any fault with.”

Basie’s band left Kansas City in 1936. Among the bands following them in the Reno Club were Bus Moten’s (pictured with Lips Page in the photo above) and Oliver Todd’s. The Reno Club closed in 1939.


Unless otherwise noted, quotes by Basie are from his autobiography, Good Morning Blues and other quotes are from Goin’ to Kansas City, a history of KC jazz.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Reno Club

Nothing from Kansas City’s jazz days survives in this part of town. Instead, there’s asphalt lots and unkempt fields. A federal office building is across the street, police headquarters sits next door. Interstate highways criss-cross a few blocks away. But this plot of ground is part of jazz history:

Today, it’s the police station’s parking lot. But three quarters of a century ago, 602 E. 12th Street looked like this:

That’s the Reno Club, where in 1935 Count Basie formed what would become the Count Basie Orchestra, and where in 1936 experimental radio broadcasts introduced Kansas City jazz to the world.

Basie recalled:

“...As long as I had been around Kansas City, I actually didn't know anything about [downtown]. I had spent most of my time either on Eighteenth Street or Twelfth Street or down throughout in there.... Downtown Kansas City didn't mean anything to me. All of the real action was right where I already was.

“...Then I got my chance to go into the Reno Club all the Twelfth and Cherry.... Somebody else was playing there, and he wanted to go somewhere for a few days...and asked me if I'd like to fill in for him.... I needed the job, and by that time I was curious about what it would be like to work in that part of town for a change....

“The manager of the Reno was a short little fellow named Sol Steibold, and we got along fine from the very beginning.... After I had been substituting in there for about a week, Sol...asked me if I would like to have the job on a permanent basis.... When I asked him about [the other pianist], he just shrugged his shoulders [and said,] ‘It’s your job if you want it.’

“...I started bringing in some of my old bandmates.... Since it was my band, naturally I wanted some guys down there that I was already used to playing with and who I also thought were the greatest....

“The Reno was not one of those big fancy places where you go in and go downstairs and all that. It was like a club off the street. But once you got inside, it was a cabaret, with a little bandstand and a little space for a floor show, and with a bar up front, and there was also a little balcony in there. There were also girls available as dancing partners. It was a good place to work. I liked the atmosphere down there. There was always a lot of action because there were at least four other cabarets right there on that same block, and they all had live music and stayed open late.”

John Hammond, the record producer who discovered Basie, remembered:

“…I’ll never forget that first night I went to the [Reno]. Basie had a show at eight o'clock...eight p.m. to four a.m. They did three shows a night. There were about four chorus girls, and there was a whorehouse upstairs, and Basie got eighteen dollars a week and the other guys got fifteen dollars a week….”

Saxophonist Buster Smith:

“[The Reno] was nothin’ but a hole in the wall. Just mediocre people mostly went in there, a lot of the prostitutes and hustlers and thugs hung out down there. And the house was packed. They had a show down there we had to play. Dancers and comedians and things like that.”

Trumpeter Buck Clayton:

“[At] the Reno, beer was a nickel, scotch was fifteen cents, and the other whiskey in there was a dime. That's all it was.... And it was great, you know, it was really nice. You didn't have to wear any [uniforms]. You just put on a shirt, whatever you wanted to do. But it was hot as hell.

“If you wanted to get up for something, you just get up and walk out in the back and the band would keep on playing.”

Count Basie:

“I got Sol Steibold to put an elevated band shell in the Reno.... That showed the band off very nicely, but it got pretty crowded up there, too, because they also brought in a baby grand in there. And we also forgot that the tuba player couldn't quite fit in there, either. So old Big ‘Un [Walter Page] used to have to go outside and reach in through the window. He'd leave the horn inside, but he was outside, sitting on a stool or something if he wanted. But he didn't mind that at all, because he had his little action going on out there. He could take his little nips. He had a ball out there. But, of course, when we used the bass fiddle, he was inside, right next to the piano.”

Like most KC clubs of the time, the Reno was segregated. The main floor was for white customers. The balcony and a small space behind the band were for black customers.

Trumpeter Richard Smith in a 1973 story in The Kansas City Star's Sunday magazine:

“Standing room at the back alley was a bleacher of sorts, for the overflow of patrons on heavy nights, and for musicians, black and white, who wanted to listen ‘closer’ to the band.

“The repartee between those on both sides of that back door was often more entertaining than the floor show on the inside. Drinks purchased by the bandsmen could be shuttled through the door at half price. Some outside purchases would sometimes meet with disaster on the return trip by falling into the hands of Big ‘Un who would down it with one gulp, throw the glass out the door and tell the luckless buyer to ‘Go to hell.’

“With [a] lunch wagon parked at the alley’s Cherry Street entrance, there sometimes was more business transacted through the back end of the Reno Club than through the front door.”

John Hammond:

“...There was a window in the back of the bandstand...and people used to just shovel up pot through the back window and it didn't seem to affect the guys at all.

“It was still the best band I ever heard.”

The Reno Club closed in 1939 when reformers “cleaned up” Kansas City. It was progress, I mused, while looking at a cracked asphalt lot and unkempt fields.


Quotes by Basie are from his autobiography, Good Morning Blues. Unless otherwise noted, other quotes are from Goin’ to Kansas City, a history of KC jazz.

Monday, November 1, 2010

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Boo! The Shay Estes Quartet on Halloween

A chicken that sings?

The musicians backing Shay Estes have changed since the last time I photographed the group, with two-thirds of Trio ALL bolting for the coasts. So I’ve intended to photograph again when the revised band took the stage. What I didn’t count on was that night being Halloween eve, and a costumed quartet.

But that’s what we got, on an incredibly fun night last Saturday at Jardine’s. Singer Shay was dressed as a chicken, for a show with feathers floating about. Pianist Mark Lowrey came as a member of another local group. Bassist Bill McKemy wore red overalls and a seriously disturbing mask. Drummer Sam Wisman was the Dos Equis guy from commercials I’ve never seen (apparently, I watch too much PBS).

All this means, of course, that I’ll just need to take photos again, on a night when everyone looks a bit more normal. But until then, just how much fun was Saturday night? Take a look for yourself (as always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it).

The Shay Estes Quartet. Left to right: Mark Lowrey on piano, a masked Bill McKemy on bass, Shay Estes singing and Sam Wisman on drums

Shay Estes, dressed as a chicken for Halloween, sings

Shay Estes and Sam Wisman

Masked, mustachioed – and surprised – pianist Mark Lowrey

Mark Lowrey, an eerily masked Bill McKemy, and Shay Estes

Bassist Bill McKemy. He doesn't really look like this (he doesn't usually wear a hat).

Shay Estes and, behind her, a creepy-looking bassist

 Drummer Sam Wisman with fake gray in his beard

Shay Estes with Sam Wisman and Bill McKemy

Bill McKemy, unmasked. Here's what he really looks like.

On Halloween, Mark Lowrey, apparently, levitates behind the piano

Shay Estes on Halloween

Monday, October 25, 2010

Bobby Watson's Gates BBQ Suite

They brought out more chairs, though I’m not sure where they put them. The Blue Room was packed, standing room only, last Monday for the official CD release party for Bobby Watson’s The Gates BBQ Suite. The UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra was there, peppered with outstanding graduates, to perform the suite, just as they do on the CD. Complimentary Gates barbecue was available to all.

Music by Bobby Watson and the UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra and free Gates barbecue. Does life really get any better than this?

Bobby Watson leading...
...The UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra
If you weren’t there, the best you can do now is to go out, pick up the CD and some barbecue, then listen (and eat) at home. Depending on where you live (because I know this blog is seen outside of KC), no guarantees on the quality of the smoked meats. But with the CD, you can’t possibly go wrong.


This CD, The Gates BBQ Suite, is Kansas City music, happy and swinging. Watson captures the joy in compositions with titles anyone from this town will recognize: May I Help You?, Beef on Bun, Heavy on the Sauce. And he captures the sorrow of arriving just after closing time in One Minute Too Late! (been there; I can relate). You want to swing the blues? Then you want Blues for Ollie.

Yet, what may strike me most is the mastery of the UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra. Here’s some of the stellar young musicians dominating Kansas City jazz today, proving again their excellence. Watson was asked on KCUR’s Up to Date (here), why record in Kansas City and not with the better known musicians of New York? His answer:

“Well, we had lived so long with the piece, and there were a lot of intrinsic things in there that, I knew it wasn’t going to come out, so it was a trade-off. You might of had, maybe, some star power, whatever, but we wouldn’t of had as much time to work on it. I mean, we worked on this piece for quite some time, and to me, nobody right now plays it better.”

He’s right. Just listen on this CD, to the frenetic yet precise sax back-and-forth between Will Sanders and Steve Lambert on Beef on Bun, that wicked bass by Ben Leifer and driving drums of Ryan Lee on Wilkes’ BBQ, the intelligent and swinging trumpet by Hermon Mehari on May I Help You?, or the swinging trombone of Ben Saylor on Heavy on the Sauce!

Hermon Mehari rejoined the UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra for The Gates BBQ Suite...
...As did Will Crain, here soloing on Blues for Ollie
Will Sanders and Steve Lambert also returned, here in a battle of the saxes on Beef on Bun
This may not be the star power of today. But it is the jazz star power of tomorrow.

(And let’s not forget Bobby Watson’s solos on One Minute Too Late! and Heavy on the Sauce! But why’d he get to solo on all the titles with an exclamation mark?)

There’s a spirit of fun fueling all of these compositions, with the right mix of musicians to envelop and throw right back at us that special feel of Kansas City barbecue and jazz.


Bobby Watson and the UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra leave this Friday for an 8-day trip to Kurashiki, Japan (a sister city of KC) to share some real Kansas City jazz. The Blue Room show opened with a half hour preview of some of the swing they’ll be performing there along with movements from The Gates BBQ Suite.

Kurashiki, Japan, I can tell you that you are in for a treat.

(But before they leave, you ought to make sure they bring some sauce.)

Bobby Watson solos on Wilkes' BBQ

(Clicking on any photo should open a larger version of it.)