Monday, March 8, 2010

Some Things Never Change

They could have been written yesterday.

While digging through old news clippings and documents recently, dating to the 1970s and ‘80s, I was struck by the issues raised, by the situations and perceptions and wrong perceptions described, which still plague Kansas City jazz.

I vaguely remembered the cover story in The Kansas City Star’s Star Magazine from May, 1987. The jazz community buzzed over it at the time. When I was named Jazz Commission chairman, one new board member set a goal that we would turn things around enough for the magazine to later publish an update. It was a noble if naive ambition.

The cover cried, “Gone Begging – The truth about Kansas City jazz. It’s enough to give you the blues.”

A page five editorial read in part: “Horace Washington, the sax still smoking in his hands, smiles and nods towards the audience which…comes to fewer than 12. I try to imagine what it’s like for Washington and the rest of his group to perform for such a tiny crowd. Must be like Matisse showing his paintings in the dark.”

It went on: “There are more organizations dedicated to preserving or restoring jazz in this city than there are for any other cause. Too bad they’re failing.”

As a then-organizer of the jazz festival and then-treasurer of the Jazz Commission, who two months later would be named chairman of the Jazz Commission, that made my Sunday.

It continued: “Who gives a honk. Jazz is and has always been – in my lifetime, at least – an esoteric music form. If it can’t exist in the free marketplace perhaps it should disappear. Sort of America’s musical dodo bird. Let jazz buffs (who as a whole are sort of looney anyway) buy old records and dream of what might have been.”

He later said not to “junk jazz” because it’s our history, but that attempted save seems mostly insincere. I looked at the photo of the editor, with his smirk and handlebar mustache, and decided, add a couple horns and there’s the devil.

It’s the “jazz is dead” cry, that time with spit. That’s why when our friend Plastic Sax threw the cry before us late last year, though more respectfully, I replied (here). I’ve heard it for decades. And I heard it when I was in a position to do more about it than write a blog post.

It was an argument parried often. After the 1985 jazz festival, Tom Leathers, publisher of The Squire, a now-defunct Johnson County weekly, opined that we festival organizers should give up on jazz and put our efforts into an event Kansas City would appreciate: a free country music festival.

Leathers never backed down.

After a jazz event held in conjunction with 1988’s Final Four in KC drew half the anticipated crowd, an organizer said, “We thought people from out of town would want to hear Kansas City jazz after the games Saturday night. But maybe our assumption was wrong.”

Leathers pounced: “Unfortunately, it was – not only for them but for virtually everyone in recent years who’s tried to push jazz locally. And we wonder why they keep trying so hard to promote interest in something – when there’s so little enthusiasm for it.

“It would be nice if Kansas City still loved jazz. What a good symbol it would be! And something we could could really cling to and promote.

“But the sad truth is that jazz is all but dead in Kansas City – just as it is elsewhere...."

Hey, you want to say jazz is dead? I have decades of pugilistic experience with that canard. Jazz may never again live in the mainstream, but it’s music KC writers wrapped for burial in 1985, '87 and '88 that's still with us.

That’s not the only battle from decades past still being waged. A study on redevelopment in the 18th and Vine district, conducted October through December, 1979 for the Black Economic Union, raised this flag:

“….To attract people, the leaders of the jazz effort…must face the issue of [the] safety reputation of the 18th and Vine area. Half of the white population and nearly three-quarters of the black, are nervous about the assumed dangers of the neighborhood; our researchers noted that white patrons interviewed at Gates’ and Bryant’s, who had come to the neighborhood mid-day, were nervous about coming back at night. There would need to be a major public relations effort, to convince black and white customers that the [area] is a safe place to be.”

I wrote about those perceptions, still unjustly felt, here.

A couple lines from the Star Magazine story also caught my eye.

Like this one: “The city also spent $200,000 on jazz films that, three years after the purchase, no one can watch.”

Now, a quarter century after the purchase, we can watch damn few of them.

And a rep of Friends of Jazz, the organization which then staged KC’s paid jazz series, said: “We try to put jazz in the Folly and we’re lucky to get 200 to 300 people out for a jazz concert.”

I’ve chastised the Folly for similar sized crowds today. I recall larger audiences, but perhaps I’m just remembering the big names.

In 1987, the small audiences were blamed on a preponderance of free summer jazz in KC (the jazz festival, the 18th and Vine festival, the Spirit festival, weekly concerts in the parks mostly featuring national jazz figures). Today, we can more clearly see that KC claims no greater percentage of jazz fans among the populace than any other city. Actually, in retrospect, the signs were clear then: We weren't drawn by the jazz, we were attracted to big names and free.

(I still maintain, though, that the Folly jazz series base can grow through proper use of social media.)

Jazz will likely always face an uphill slog. But today's challenges are no worse than those it faced when I got involved.

Fact is, too many of them are the same.


  1. Nice post. It seems like jazz will always have a small audience in KC and that's just how it is. Despite criticism to the contrary, a lot of jazz events are well publicized on the Internet and in the KC Star (thank you Joe Klopus) - the turnout is usually pretty meager - unless (as you pointed out) there's a big national name or it's free.

    I think a part of the attendence problem may be geographical... a large percentage of people in the KC area live in Johnson County, but most of the prime jazz gigs are at the Plaza or points north of that. Aside from a few JoCo restaurants that occasionally do jazz, there's not much out here.

    I live and work in southern JoCo and I'm a big jazz fan. I go to jazz events at least once or twice a week, but sometimes it's hard to fit it in - and weekends are as busy as the work week. I would go to more Folly jazz events if it weren't at the Folly. It's not a perceived safety problem for me, it's a matter of time and the hassle of getting there and back. Bring it to the Plaza or some other more central place and it's easier for us people out south. I've talked to other JoCo residents who feel the same way. Just a thought.

  2. Well put 'lark... jazz afficiandos are really sick of the "jazz is dead" arguement. Here's one persons take to the contrary:


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