Monday, March 1, 2010

And That's the Way It Was

Kansas City hosted college basketball’s Final Four at Kemper Arena in 1988. CBS televised it.

And what does that have to do with jazz?

A month or so before the tournament, a producer for CBS News came to town to prepare a story on Kansas City jazz for their morning news program, then called CBS This Morning, to air the day of the championship game. And one weekend night, she arranged for most of Kansas City jazz’s elder statesmen, our then-living jazz legends, to gather at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, at 1823 Highland, and tell their stories.

The legends came early and performed. That, too, was taped. Then, about 2 a.m., the Foundation’s doors were closed, tables were moved out of the way on the first floor, and chairs were arranged in a semi-circle, facing the bar. The producer, with her camera man and sound man, stood in front of the semi-circle, recording as she asked questions – good questions, she had done her research well – and our living jazz legends recounted their tales.

Among those in that semi-circle: Carmel Jones, Herman Walder, Ben Kynard, Claude “Fiddler” Williams, Art Jackson, Oliver Todd, Orville “Piggy” Minor, Bill Saunders. And others who I no longer recall.

Some of us watched from the back of the room, after vowing silence. I was Jazz Commission chairman at the time and was there with the Mayor, Richard Berkley (who is very much a jazz fan). We watched as the legends talked of Kansas City’s early jazz days, of Tom Pendergast’s wide open town, of gangsters and bars, of Bennie Moten and other bandleaders, of Count Basie, of traveling with Jay McShann, of young Charlie Parker. “Piggy” demonstrated playing two trumpets at once.

They talked and recorded for nearly an hour. Then the doors to the Foundation reopened and they jammed some more.

The Mayor asked that I try to get a copy of the full, unedited discussion for Kansas City’s planned jazz hall of fame/museum. I spoke to the producer that night and made a couple of follow up calls later. But CBS News doesn’t give out raw, unedited tape, even to a city’s anticipated jazz museum (which, as an earlier blog post detailed, wouldn’t actually open for another nine-and-a-half years).

In retrospect, I wish I’d tried harder. At the time, these were the guys you might find at the Foundation any given afternoon or night. These were the stories you could sit at a table and hear them tell. This night the stories were being taped, yes, but I’d heard them before. I’d seen “Piggy” play two trumpets at once a dozen times (it was, as you’d expect, much more novelty than art). Herman Walder was 83 years old then, yet he’d still energetically lead a line of people through the Foundation while playing, When the Saints Go Marching In. Then, common sense aside, he seemed like someone who would be with us forever. Then, I didn’t perceive the urgency.

But now, 22 years later, nearly all of those legends are gone. Now, you can’t walk into the Foundation on a Saturday afternoon and ask Herman about Bennie Moten. Also now gone, I suppose, is the footage of Herman discussing exactly that.

I doubt I’d have ever changed any minds and obtained that tape, anyway. But what I wouldn’t give to hear those stories today.

Only a miniscule part of the taping was actually used in the four-and-a-half minute story which aired. But what’s there is our history. You can see for yourself.

This video was digitized from a 22-year old VHS tape, recorded from the broadcast as it aired. So the quality is only adequate. Hopefully, nobody will ask that a news story seen once, more than two decades ago, be removed from YouTube. Unless that happens, here’s a taste of the way it was that night, interspersed with Clint Eastwood and archival footage, from CBS This Morning, April 4, 1988. Harry Smith opens from inside Kemper Arena:


Comments are welcome. If you prefer, you can reach me directly at kcjazzlark(at)gmail(dot)com.