Monday, January 18, 2010

Festival Tales 4

From time to time I recount stories from my days with the Kansas City Jazz Festival and the Kansas City Jazz Commission. Times like today.


Many don’t know that Andy Kirk led what once was the most popular band to come out of Kansas City, Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy. Their 1936 recording of Until the Real Thing Comes Along was the year’s top hit. Count Basie would leave Kansas City that same year, and by 1937 Basie’s band was recording a string of tunes which not only eclipsed the Clouds of Joy’s popularity but which remain jazz standards today.

For the 1985 festival, we brought Andy Kirk back to Kansas City to honor him. The original idea (mine, actually) was to celebrate Kirk and fellow KC jazz era bandleader Harlan Leonard with a battle of the bands, groups we would assemble and they would nominally lead. But we found that Leonard had passed away a year-and-a-half earlier in California. So we flew in 87-year old Andy Kirk and scrapped the mock battle.

I would introduce Andy on stage. I’d prepared remarks, but wanted to make sure all the facts were right. The Nelson Museum hosted our hospitality room that year, and that’s where I sat down with Andy.

I’ll never meet anyone nicer, or more delightful. I intended to cover my list of facts in a few minutes. But as I read off each, Andy asked, “Can I tell you a story about that?” For half an hour he regaled me with tales of Kansas City in the 1920s and ‘30s, of life on the road, of legendary pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, of the beginnings of Kansas City jazz. Among my great regrets from those festival years is that I didn’t have a recorder on the table that day.

All that Andy told me is in his autobiography, Twenty Years on Wheels (1989, The University of Michigan Press). Yet, for some reason, one particular story sticks with me still.

When Andy took over as bandleader in 1929, a promoter dubbed the group Andy Kirk and his Dark Clouds of Joy, with “Dark” in there to insure no confusion that this was a band of black musicians. But Andy didn’t like “Dark” in the name. As he explains in his book:

“I’d heard that expression back in Denver. It usually came from men hanging around in front of a saloon with nothing to do. When some of us came down the street towards them they’d remark, ‘Looks like it’s gonna rain. Dark clouds comin’.’”

Upon taking charge, Andy’s first change was to rename the band, Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy.


Few who know Kansas City jazz will ever forget Claude “Fiddler” Williams. His first recording (as far as I know) was with Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy in a 1929 session at KMBC radio. Coincidentally, “Fiddler” played in a jam group just ahead of Andy at the 1985 festival. Of course, I know that over the years many people older than I saw “Fiddler” Williams and Andy Kirk together. But I was young and impressionable. And as I watched them greet each other on stage and chat, I was taken by the Kansas City jazz history standing before me.

I still am. I may not be young anymore, but I remain quite impressionable.


The next day, some of the wonderful folks from Kansas City Parks and Rec, who booked the festival that year, took Andy on a tour of downtown. He wanted to see what this city had become. They stopped on 12th Street, in front of the then-brand new Vista International Hotel (today, it’s the Marriott). This, they told him, replaced a strip of old buildings and clubs where he once played. Andy, they later told me, was amazed.

That would turn out to be Andy Kirk’s last visit to Kansas City.


The Kansas City Jazz Commission was a separate organization. And it was an organization, in retrospect, unlikely to survive. It asked the leaders of each of the city’s then too numerous jazz organizations to come together under a chairman who, following the initial chairman (Mike White), had less experience leading a civic organization than they did.

Some of my most memorable experiences as one of those subsequent Jazz Commission chairmen involved just being at the right place at the right time. Or, sometimes, being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But those are stories for another blog post.

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