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.”

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