Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Other Jazz Museums That Weren't, 7

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 of this series followed Kansas City’s path to a jazz museum, from initial interest in the 1960s up to the city council finding out that a project for which they had set aside $20 million would cost $36.9 million and run an annual deficit of nearly $2 million. And it would be built in an inner city park.

Meanwhile, plans for another important piece of the 18th and Vine district started separately.


“This week a City Council committee recommended that the full council approve a $2 million federal loan application to renovate and convert the Gem Theater into a performing arts and cultural arts center….

“Plans for the theater…are further along than plans for other major projects in the area….

“The theater would seat 800 to 1000 people and would be used primarily for concerts and theatrical performances.

“As planned, the theater would have a bar, a gift shop and a small art gallery on the main level, along with the stage and semi-circular seating. A restaurant, administrative offices, a rehearsal room and more seating would be located on the second level. The third level would feature two dance studios….”

The Kansas City Star, June 8, 1991


“A Kansas City Council committee passed a resolution Wednesday to design and build an international jazz hall of fame and jazz teaching academy near 18th and Vine streets….

“The resolution…appropriates $14.6 million in sales taxes to the jazz complex and related improvements.

“[The] city development director told the Finance Committee on Wednesday that the first step would be to hire architects to design the buildings.

“Construction bids would be taken in about 14 months…with buildings completed by early 1995….

“The resolution commits $9.3 million for the jazz hall and adjacent teaching academy, $3.7 million for site improvements, land acquisition and parking, and $878,000 for sidewalks, lights, and related improvements.

“An additional $689,000 would be used to design a museum for the Negro Baseball Leagues and a new building for the Black Archives of Mid-America. Construction of those buildings would occur in a $5.37 million second phase.

The Kansas City Star, September 5, 1991

An article the next day says that the Kansas City council unanimously approved the resolution, “followed by embraces among people who have promoted plans for the jazz center, the baseball museum and the black archives near 18th and Vine streets.”

The difference between the money appropriated and the projected cost, and the operating deficits, would be discussions for another day.


“A tug of war is under way to decide who will control the new institution at 18th and Vine and what it will actually contain.

“Tugging on one side is Eddie Baker, head of the financially struggling Charlie Parker Foundation.

“On the other side are people who disagree on much but are united on one thing: Eddie Baker should not be in charge of the jazz hall.

“Baker is looking to pre-empt his critics. Late last week, he said he would announce the appointment of a board of directors for the new jazz hall in a week to 10 days.

“Such a board, handpicked by Baker and his allies, would be in a position to make crucial decisions about how the publicly financed, $14.6 million jazz hall would work….

“‘We have had consultation with a lot of people relative to putting this board together," [Baker] said. "We have this prerogative....This has always been the concept of the Charlie Parker Foundation.’”

The Kansas City Star, November 27, 1991


“Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver wants to appoint a seven-person board to oversee redevelopment of the 18th and Vine historic district.

“A resolution Cleaver proposed to the City Council on Wednesday says the board would advise the council and ‘lend additional credibility’ to the project in financial and cultural communities….

“Cleaver intends to seek board members from such fields as banking, business, law, public relations and cultural activities.

“’The board will be a group of movers and shakers who will be asked to help make some significant decisions,’ Cleaver said Friday.”

The Kansas City Star, November 30, 1991


“The way is clear for Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver to name a seven-person board to oversee projects in the 18th & Vine cultural district.

“The City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved Cleaver's request to appoint the board, which is to advise the council on building and operating 18th & Vine facilities….

“A Cleaver resolution approved by the council Wednesday specifies six duties for the oversight committee, which Cleaver also calls a board of directors….

“The duties: solidify building plans, review available funds, help raise more money, advise the council on scope of the projects, recommend a marketing plan, and provide a plan for resolving differences between competing interests in the area.”

The Kansas City Star, December 12, 1991


“Mayor Emanuel Cleaver on Friday named six persons with backgrounds in business, entertainment and government to oversee development of the 18th and Vine historic district.”

The Kansas City Star, March 21, 1992


The appointment of this board will prove to be a major step in advancing the development of the 18th and Vine district, in producing an economically viable vision and in incorporating the renovation of the Gem Theater.

Details in the next installment, next month.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Other Jazz Museums That Weren't, 6

In parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of this series, we traced the path of establishing a jazz museum in Kansas City from initial ideas in the 1960s up to a 1989 press conference announcing a solid plan of placing the complex between 20th and 21st streets on Vine.

Now, let’s follow as that plan dissolves into one to plop the complex down into…well, you’ll see.


“…With a recent $20 million boost from the city, longtime plans for revival of the [18th and Vine] area have never stood a better chance of succeeding….

“But some people are wary, particularly of the jazz hall….

“Councilman Emanuel Cleaver, who recommended to the council that money be spent on the jazz hall, said he knew many people had doubts.

“‘The doomsayers are out in mass to do damage to this before it gets started.’ Cleaver said….

“The city is prepared to issue $5 million in bonds for the hall project in April, but only if the other financing and construction plans are solid….”

The Kansas City Star, December 31, 1989

A map accompanying the article shows the Jazz Hall of Fame between 20th and 21st Street on the west side of Vine, in the public works buildings across from the castle where the Black Archives would be housed. The Negro League Museum is pictured in a smaller building on the northeast corner of 21st and Vine.


“Almost a year after Kansas City civic and arts leaders announced a site for an International Jazz Hall of Fame, directors have yet to be named and little consensus exists on how to proceed….

“The money for the jazz hall – $8 million – was appropriated sooner than supporters expected and before they had plans in place. Now plans for the hall will have to be developed together with 18th and Vine.

“‘We need to broaden the concept so we can look at the area as a whole,’ [the city manager] said….

“A master plan would recommend the exact location of the hall, now proposed to be in vacant public works buildings near 20th and Vine, and how it would fit into the overall 18th and Vine project….

“The Vine Street site was announced last March, but city officials have since said new buildings may be cheaper and more practical….”

The Kansas City Star, February 26, 1990


The city then hired a Boston firm to conduct a study on redeveloping the entire district. I have few articles on it, but from what I can tell that study took at least the remainder of 1990 to complete.


“Under plans unveiled to a City Council committee Monday, the jazz hall and black history museums would be built north of 18th Street between the Paseo and Woodland Avenue at the south end of Parade Park.

“Until recently, plans were to put the jazz hall and other buildings along Vine just north of 21st Street.

“A consultant and several groups involved in the project now recommend the Parade Park site….

“The council's Rules and Audits Committee reviewed plans for the jazz hall on Monday and passed a resolution asking the city manager for a report within 90 days on the cost of building and operating the center….

“As now conceived, the jazz hall would be on the corner of 18th and Vine. The academy and performing arts center, black history museum, and the baseball hall would be north of 17th Terrace on the perimeter of a rectangular plaza area.

“About one-fourth of Parade Park would be used, but the outdoor swimming pool would remain….”

The Kansas City Star, April 30, 1991


“Kansas City's parks and recreation commissioners are voicing cautious enthusiasm about plans to place a proposed jazz hall of fame complex on park property.

“’I’m not objecting to anything, it's just that I wasn't quite aware of it," said [the] chairman of the parks commission. ‘It’s been a surprise.’”

The Kansas City Star, July 4, 1991

Parks commissioners approved the Jazz Hall of Fame being built in Parade Park on August 6, 1991.


“The estimated cost of building and operating a jazz hall of fame complex at 18th and Vine streets in Kansas City wasn't music to the ears of the City Council Thursday.

“The jazz hall, a Negro Leagues baseball museum and new black archives would cost up to $36.9 million to build and furnish, planners told the council. And the complex would need an operating subsidy of about $1.9 million a year, they said….

“[Mayor] Cleaver…said one way to save money would be to put the jazz hall, baseball museum and archives under one roof.

“As now designed, the jazz hall and baseball museum would be in separate buildings east of the Paseo on what is now the south end of Parade Park. A jazz teaching academy would be on the same site….

“Cleaver and other council members were sobered by estimated operating deficits of $1.92 million annually, including $883,125 for the jazz hall, $547,000 for the baseball museum and $855,000 for the archives. The academy is projected to have a $366,000 surplus.

“Cleaver and [the city manager] said they expected some city subsidy, but not $2 million annually….”

The Kansas City Star, August 23, 1991


That took a nasty turn. Its resolution (well, sort of) then more turns in the next post, up later this week.

Monday, May 17, 2010

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Shay Estes & Trio ALL

These photos are already KC jazz history. Almost.

Shay Estes and Trio ALL are a key example of the spectacular young jazz talent gracing Kansas City today, the type of talent which inspired me to start this blog. Shay sings, while ALL is an acronym for drummer Zack Albetta, pianist Mark Lowrey and bassist Ben Leifer (note the first letter of each last name).

But, alas, later this summer bassist Ben is bolting to New York City, after a stint in Paris. I wish Ben the best but, damn, I hate to see him go. New York, you may not know it yet, but your jazz scene is about to get even better.

You'd know it if you heard this group. The camaraderie and the respect they hold for each other, from years of performing together, shines through on stage. And all the while that talent plays through in a blend of modern takes on jazz classics and jazz takes on modern pop, deftly arranged, spiced with solos of imagination and wit, topped by soaring vocals.

Of course, we’ll always have their CD, Despite Your Destination, released last year (I’ll always have it, anyway). Now we also have photos of their performance on April 21st at Jardine’s. And a straggler shot of Shay and Ben from a February 13th show at the same locale.

You can find out where to find Shay Estes and Trio ALL's remaining shows together – and upcoming shows with an updated group – on Shay's web site, here (music plays when you open it, so take care if opening at work). For now, here's how their April gig looked (as always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it):

Left to right: Mark Lowrey, piano; Shay Estes, vocals; Ben Leifer, bass; Zack Albetta, drums

Shay Estes

Shay and Mark

Mark Lowrey on Wurlitzer

Shay and Ben

Ben Leifer on bass

Zack Albetta on drums

Shay Estes and Trio ALL

From a February show at Jardine's, Ben and Shay

Monday, May 10, 2010

This 'n That 'n Fiddler in '90

Usually the headline above references the opening item. Today it ties to the final part of this post. But stick with's worth the wait.


My recent post on Milton Morris (here) noted the play money adorned with his visage that he bandied about. Rick in PV still had one in his possession and graciously scanned it to share. Any who had the fortune to visit Milton's will no doubt remember this:

Rick adds:

The back has “7” in the corners, and the poem:

IF (three lines tall)
I've been out of line!
I've given you credit!
I've cashed a bad check for you!
No matter what the reason that I haven't
seen you COME BACK HOME!

Thank you, Rick.


Congratulations to Sue Vicory on last Thursday's premiere of her film, Kansas City Jazz and Blues; Past, Present and Future, at the Gem Theater.

The documentary was not yet complete and became a sneak preview (the Future clearly has some fleshing out to come). But that was more than compensated by Marilyn Maye performing for a full hour, three times the time promised. She captured the Gem and, audience in hand, didn't want to let that stage go. We were thrilled she didn't. Her fresh stylings on Ray Charles and jazz songbooks delightfully evoked passion for the days of Ella and Sarah.

Also evoking delight: the night's opening act, one of my favorite groups, Diverse, joined by Matt Otto, Stan Kessler and Lonnie McFadden (and T.J. Martley filling the piano bench). Showcasing a new Ryan Lee composition then bop, they celebrated jazz's more modern styles joyously.

Marilyn Maye stormed the Gem with over half a century more experience than some of the musicians in the opener. In a night celebrating jazz's past, present and future, it was an ideal contrast. Though with the vibrancy Marilyn kicked around that stage, I'm not sure which act actually looked younger.


Now, about that headline.

I previously posted one TV news story to YouTube (blog post and video here) which, last I looked, nobody had yet requested be removed. So let's try one more.

On the same old VHS tape as the last posted video, I also saved a story from CBS Sunday Morning which aired September 16, 1990 on Claude “Fiddler” Williams. Dr. Billy Taylor, who then contributed regular stories on jazz to the program, profiled our Kansas City legend.

In particular, note the session at the Mutual Musicians Foundation at about 3:50 into the 10 minute video, with “Fiddler” backed by Frank Smith on piano, Milt Abel on bass and Tommy Ruskin on drums. Of that group, only Tommy is still with us. Watching them again brings back the most wonderful of memories (watching them in the video: a very young David Basse).

Later, we hear Claude at City Light Restaurant. KC jazz fans, see how many faces in the audience you recognize there.

As you watch the vigor, energy and pure joy that Claude “Fiddler” Williams radiates in every performance, remind yourself that at the time he was 82 years old (not 86 as is misspoken in the introduction). And he would continue to swing Kansas City clubs and festivals – and tour the world – for another 14 years.

The piece opens with host Charles Kuralt and Dr. Billy Taylor talking jazz violin and Kansas City jazz. Hopefully, nobody will object to the posting of a news story aired once two decades ago. Unless that happens, enjoy:

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Happy 100th Birthday, Mary Lou Williams

Many cities can lay claim to jazz legend Mary Lou Williams. Without a doubt, Kansas City lays a prime claim. Because it was here she first met fame, as The Lady Who Swings the Band, as pianist and arranger for Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy from 1929 to 1942.

Mary Lou Williams died of cancer in 1981. Today would have been her 100th birthday.

In his autobiography, Twenty Years on Wheels, Andy Kirk wrote of the audition for his band's first recording contract:

“We were all set up and ready except for Marion Jackson, our pianist. Nobody seemed to know where he was. Things were getting tense. We'd have to start soon or blow it. [Saxophonist] John Williams said, ‘How about getting Prelude?’ Prelude was our name for his wife, Mary Lou. When John first came to the band he had asked me to hear her play. I did and agreed with him that she was a fine pianist, but we already had one that met our requirements. And we were making a lot of road trips and I always thought doing one-nighters would be hard on a woman. But this was an emergency. I told John, OK. When Mary Lou came in and sat down at the piano to audition with us, no one had the wildest idea she'd be a big factor in our landing an excellent two-year recording contract, or, wilder yet, that she would make jazz history.”

Andy also offered these insights:

“Recordings in the 1930s were made on wax. There'd be A, B, and C wax. On our Chicago sessions the A & R man supervising the date would say, ‘All right, let's do some with the girl and the rhythm section.’ They'd make a master pressing – the A wax. It would eventually wear out, then they'd have to go to the B or C wax. Mary Lou would of course be improvising on all three. So when the B or C sides came out people who bought them would say, ‘That doesn't sound the way she did before.’

“Of course not. Her ideas were new all the time.

“From the start she wanted to write. She would have certain chords in her mind but she didn't at first know how to voice them. She had a good ear and tried to write down what she heard. If she wasn't out all night at the jazz clubs in Kansas City, listening and getting ideas, she'd be sitting at the foot of her bed, legs crossed like an Indian, just writing and writing, while John was sleeping. Sometimes she'd stay up all night working at her arrangements. She'd try one thing, then another, get mad, and start over. As time went on she learned voicing for the different horns from things I showed her from some arrangements I'd bought.”

A collection of links to online NPR stories and recordings of and by Mary Lou Williams is on their jazz blog, here. Specifically, NPR's profile aired this morning can be found here.

Happy birthday, Mary Lou Williams.

Monday, May 3, 2010

This 'n That 'n Inflatable Hamster Cages

Last week, our friend Plastic Sax pondered why jazz groups can't try for showmanship like some popular music acts, citing a recent rock extravaganza full of falling confetti and the vocalist in an inflatable hamster cage. You can find the commentary here.

Now, I have no qualms with proper showmanship. But when Plastic Sax compares the raucous 5000-attendee Flaming Lips show with jazzman Lionel Loueke’s more sedate Blue Room performance last year seen by a mere 50, the statement I find key is this:

“…I refuse to believe that one out of twenty Flaming Lips fans wouldn't be completely down with Loueke's slightly psychedelic sound if they only knew of him.”

“If they only knew of him.” That is a failure of marketing.

It’s a failure of marketing by the venue. It’s a failure of marketing by the artist.

Where was the push to show us just how good Loueke is? Where were mp3s on a web site? Where were embedded videos? Where were the media interviews? Jazz will rarely be a matter of if-you-book-him-they-will-come. The show must be marketed. And these days much of that marketing can be done virally and cost-effectively if an artist and venue have made the effort to develop an interested base

I had the same rant when Kurt Rosenwinkel played The Blue Room. Here was an artist with crossover appeal that nobody made the effort to cross over and sell.

Showmanship is marketing. We don’t need to throw confetti or crouch singers in inflatable hamster cages to draw audiences to jazz shows. But we do need to market. And at that jazz is, at best, rather pathetic.

Besides, I’m having trouble with the image of Karrin Allyson or Marilyn Maye in an inflatable hamster cage.


One staple of rock showmanship is fireworks. For jazz, though, I find that a mix warranting caution. True story:

It was probably the mid-1980s when Kansas City Parks and Recreation staged an evening event on the lawn of the Nelson Museum. Back then, the Nelson’s south lawn was actually park land maintained by Parks and Rec. The evening was to culminate with a performance by Claude “Fiddler” Williams backed by fireworks.

I knew the folks from Parks and Rec from my work with the Jazz Festival, though the fest had no involvement with this production.

It was a beautiful evening. People filled the Nelson lawn. Volker Park, across what was then Brush Creek Boulevard, was even more tightly packed. A cross-section of Kansas City had the chance to hear “Fiddler” play his magnificent jazz.

Then it was time to light the fireworks behind him.

And they caught the Nelson lawn on fire.

I don’t remember now if it happened while the fireworks were still on the ground, or if something went up then inappropriately came down.

But they caught the Nelson lawn on fire.

I don’t recall panic. It was quickly extinguished. And that was the inglorious end of the night’s entertainment.

I do remember walking by the next day and seeing an impressive patch of toasted grass on the Nelson’s south lawn. Parks and Rec, of course, replaced it.

I don’t think it was long afterward that the Nelson negotiated with Parks and Rec to assume control over their own lawn. They later landscaped it as it’s known today.

But ever since, I’ve been wary of mixing jazz and fireworks.

I’m not sure we jazz people are very good with with fireworks.


I returned to R Bar, the still new West Bottoms restaurant and nightspot, a couple weeks back.

Drinks were good. Food was decidedly on the pricey side but, unlike a certain jazz club, quality met the cost. Music that night was a favorite, Shay Estes.

Also unlike a couple of local jazz clubs, the music was delightfully easy to hear. What a remarkable difference a good sound system makes to an evening’s enjoyment.

I thought a long, narrow space of high ceilings and brick walls would prove difficult for managing music. But an audio engineer coincidentally sitting a couple chairs down explained that a series of speakers hanging from the ceiling provided sound only to the area between that speaker and the next one down. No speaker was trying to fill the room, just its small area. Additionally, because sound and current travel at different speeds, the speakers were wired with a slight delay, so that as one walks down the long, narrow space, the timing of the music coming through each speaker sounds natural.

R Bar features jazz each Thursday and some weekend nights. It’s not an inexpensive place to eat. But it is a wonderful space to enjoy drinks and music.

Their web site is here (and though you must still needlessly scroll through dated press clippings before finding the acts, they’ve brought the calendar section up to date since I complained about it in a post a few weeks ago).


Remember, this Thursday is the premiere of Sue Vicory’s film Kansas City Jazz and Blues; Past, Present and Future. It’s 6 p.m. at the Gem Theater. If you don’t remember, you can refresh your memory from my blog post on it here.


Copy was cut from last week’s entry on Milton Morris to keep the post under 1000 words. But Milton stories could go on far longer than that. For instance, I made little mention of Milton’s wife.

He was married twice, both times to the same woman, and both times on Valentine’s Day in Las Vegas. Shirley is remembered as a beautiful blonde, much younger than Milton (perhaps 20 years). Stories say she and Milton disagreed often. Stories also say she got a substantial settlement from the divorce which separated their marriages.

When asked why he wed her a second time, Milton replied: “I'm trying to get my money back.”