Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Other Jazz Museums That Weren't, 9

In the 1960s, a group of Kansas City jazz enthusiasts explored establishing a jazz hall of fame near 12th and Paseo. The group disbanded in 1975 (part 1).

In 1983, the Kansas City Council passed a resolution to establish a jazz hall of fame in the 18th and Vine district. But a key advocate, Eddie Baker of the Charlie Parker Foundation, argued for a different vision and a different location (part 2). In 1985, he staged an induction ceremony at the Music Hall with less than successful results (part 3).

Meanwhile, a 1984 study identified different scenarios for a jazz hall of fame, including the one which opened 13 years later (part 4).

In 1989, all parties came together and announced that the hall of fame would be built in former public works buildings at 21st and Vine (part 5). But the estimated cost came in nearly $17 million over budget (part 6). So a new plan plopped the buildings into Parade Park while a committee of civic leaders was formed to move it forward (part 7).

Finally, the mayor decided there would be just one building facing 18th Street, and a 1993 study confirmed that could be developed within budget (part 8). Final planning could begin.

But they needed something to put in it….


“Early Thursday morning, the city's 18th and Vine Authority successfully bid $140,000 for an alto sax used by jazz great and native son Charlie Parker….

“Cleaver, with four aides, bid by telephone from his church office about 4 a.m. with the help of a representative of Christie's auction house in London. Christie's had estimated in its catalog that the horn would sell for $45,000 to $60,000, but…Cleaver’s spokeswoman said most items in the Parker consignment sold for two to four times the presale estimates….

“[An aide said that] 75 percent of the money for the purchase would come from a $20 million fund the city already has established for the 18th and Vine projects. The rest of the money will come from private donations the city is still soliciting.”

The Kansas City Star, September 9, 1994


I’m skipping details on a year of political bickering.

In January, 1996, an executive director was hired. Construction of the jazz museum finally began in the spring of 1996.


“More than 1,500 people flocked to the 18th and Vine Historic District on Friday night for a black-tie gala to mark the formal opening of the Kansas City Jazz Museum. Music legends and local stars capped the evening with a rousing concert at the refurbished Gem Theater.

“The occasion was one to celebrate. After eight years and $26 million, the city completed a permanent shrine to its musical heritage and one of its largest redevelopment projects ever....”

The Kansas City Star, September 6, 1997


“To Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, the new Kansas City Jazz Museum, which opened in a historically important but long abandoned neighborhood here in September, is a symbol of optimism and hope….It is the first major museum in the country devoted to jazz, intended to serve both as a monument to the music that flourished here in the 1920's, 30's and 40's and as a spur to redevelopment in the neighborhood that nurtured it.

“But to Eddie represents nothing but a disappointment, not even a shadow of what it could have been. At a mere 10,000 square feet, Mr. Baker points out, it is too small. Besides, he says, its exhibits are too rudimentary, it excludes too many musicians, it is not interactive enough and it doesn't even have its own building, really. It shares the place with the Negro Baseball Hall of Fame.

“‘It’s being run by politicians who don't even own a record player,’ Mr. Baker said. ‘It’s evident jazz wasn't important to this Mayor or anybody else….’

“Supporters of the new Kansas City museum tend to dismiss Mr. Baker as embittered because he ended up with little or no influence in the development of the project. But over the years, Mr. Baker's own vision has had the active support of jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton. And, more pertinently, of Aaron A. Woodward 3d, the adopted son of Count Basie, the musician who, more than any other, was responsible for the style of jazz known as Kansas City swing.

“Basie died in 1984, but the band is still active....Mr. Woodward is now its executive director, and in part because of his disappointment with the new museum, he has withheld permission for anything connected to Basie not in the public domain to be included in the exhibits.

“As a result, there is a prominent hole at the center of the collection. ‘They had the opportunity to create the worldwide home of jazz,’ Mr. Woodward said. ‘I don't consider that to be a jazz museum. Why would you build something not comparable to the skill of those it was supposed to honor?’….

“Unfortunately, the [Charlie Parker] saxophone turned out to be a hindrance to assembling the collection…Collectors were loath to donate or lend memorabilia to an institution that they assumed, because of the notoriety of the saxophone purchase, had a great deal of money to spend. In reality, the collection budget, after that purchase, was only about $100,000.

“The museum is small, to be sure, and its collection, assembled after the design was already complete, has a catch-as-catch-can feel to it. For example, Billie Holiday was initially chosen, by a panel of consulting musicians and scholars, as one of the four masters at the heart of the collection, but when memorabilia of Holiday's life proved difficult to collect [others] decided to replace her with Ella Fitzgerald.

“Some prominent local musicians have…[expressed] the sentiment that the current museum is far better than no museum at all. Among these is Jay McShann....

“‘If a guy does you a nice favor, all you can say is thank you,’ Mr. McShann said, referring to Mayor Cleaver. ‘Maybe things could've been done a little differently, but the fact is he got it done. Ain't nothing to do but go along with the scene, I guess.’”

The New York Times, January 5, 1998.


Next week, final thoughts.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Other Jazz Museums That Weren't, 8

Groups began working to establish a jazz hall of fame/museum in Kansas City in the 1960s. This series has traced the torturous path into 1992 (in parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7), when the mayor appointed a committee of civic leaders. By September, the mayor was ready to act.


“Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver said Friday that he favored construction of one cultural arts building instead of three in the 18th and Vine historic district.

“Cleaver’s position…represent[s] a dramatic change of direction and downscaling of plans for development of the area….

“The mayor's statement drew quick criticism….

“Cleaver defended his position, saying he didn't think separate buildings would draw enough visitors for each to be successful.

“If built, he predicted, they would stand as ‘empty monuments to the inability of people to work together.’

“Cleaver said he now favors: Building the single cultural facility on 18th Street. The 1991 study recommended that most of the cultural facilities be grouped in Parade Park….

“Renovating the Gem Theater on 18th Street, mostly at city expense, and making it the principal jazz performance hall, instead of building a separate jazz hall. The Gem was to be renovated with about $2 million in public funds and matching private funds.

“Locating Count Basie Enterprises in the cultural facility….

“Cleaver said one reason for his change of position was his belief that philanthropic and corporate funders would not contribute to a project that appeared economically unfeasible.”

The Kansas City Star, September 26, 1992

A new consultant was retained to consolidate development and prepare a report on the single building concept.


“Cleaver has been talking with [Count Basie Enterprises] officials about the band relocating here. Under discussion, besides office space, is city assistance with construction of a state-of-the art recording studio that would be used by the Basie band and other musical groups.

“Some officials at Hallmark Cards Inc…are said to be keen on the idea of the Basie group moving here….

“Cleaver said Aaron Woodard, chief executive officer of Count Basie Enterprises, has met with Hall Family Foundations officials.”

The Kansas City Star, September 29, 1992


“…A new consultant's report recommends a scaled-down project. City leaders…embraced the change in direction.

“Although past plans called for separate buildings for the International Jazz Hall of Fame, Negro League Baseball Museum and Black Archives of Mid-America, [this] report calls for one building to house all three, plus the refurbishing of the Gem Theater.

“The proposals that included construction of three buildings would have cost more than $30 million. But the new plan fits the budget for construction and exhibits into the original $20 million price tag….

“The city has spent about $700,000 on consultants, a planning center and some land without a clear idea of what to produce. The participants were in agreement on one point, however: Whatever was built at 18th and Vine, it couldn't be done for $20 million….

“ changes an initial group of three structures...totaling 85,000 square feet, to one 50,000-square-foot building housing two museums and a Black Archives visitors center.

What's dropped are a jazz academy and offices for the Black Archives. The report proposes offsetting the loss of the auditoriums with additional renovation to the Gem Theater, plus the possible inclusion of Count Basie Enterprises' publicly subsidized performance and recording facility.”

The Kansas City Star, May 22, 1993


“Not much remains on 18th Street these days to remind old-time Kansas Citians of the jazz years, except maybe the sidewalks….

“It has reached a point now where 18th and Vine has become a shell of its original conception, and many of the participants find themselves unhappy with their roles.

“The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum wants to open a larger facility, possibly at the Truman Sports Complex. The Charlie Parker Foundation's jazz hall of fame concept and the Black Archives of Mid-America have been scaled back significantly. And now Count Basie Enterprises, a possible supporting development, has decided to look elsewhere….

“When the city approved $20 million for 18th and Vine in 1989, Cleaver declared that "this will be the Midwest's answer to Bourbon Street,” referring to New Orleans' historic district.

“The idea lacked just one thing: a development plan that could meet that cost.

“The city opened a planning center, committed two planners full-time and hired three consultants to get started. The consultants created plenty of plans: separate buildings for a jazz hall of fame, a jazz academy, the Black Archives and the Negro Leagues. The cost ballooned to $32 million.

“Meanwhile, different factions within City Hall pushed for one plan or one consultant over the others, creating no sense of direction….

“Finally, Cleaver halted the project this year because of ‘unreal expectations.’ He brought in a fourth consultant to review the plans, and it was compressed into just one building.

“Gone is the elaborate jazz institute that was envisioned for the jazz hall of fame. As a separate building, it had included a museum with nightclub exhibits and a jazz story line, plus an academic side with classrooms and a music laboratory. It was 24,000 square feet.

“Now it is just 12,000 square feet, and the academy is out.

“In reaction, Eddie Baker, executive director of the Charlie Parker Foundation, took back his chosen name for the museum, the International Jazz Hall of Fame, and threatened to block memorabilia donations to the city.

“Now, though, he is willing to help the city stock the museum, although he has doubts about its success.

“’I think it's been shown this city doesn't have a commitment to jazz,’ Baker said….

“Meanwhile, Count Basie Enterprises has decided to take its idea for a jazz music and management complex out of the historic district.

“Last year, as a way of pushing the city to accommodate Basie, the 18th and Vine Oversight Committee wrote Cleaver: ‘Without CBE we have doubts about the drawing power of the project.’

“‘We’ve worked with them for two years, and little if anything has materialized,’ said…Basie’s local representative…’I don't think it's ever going to work.’”

The Kansas City Star, November 14, 1993

This time, the Basie Orchestra was out for good.


The decision to build the museums we have today has been made because it’s what we could afford. But it’s not what the groups involved dreamed.

The story concludes later this week.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Selling Jazz Fests (Rhythm & Ribs, Listen Up)

As an organizer of the Kansas City Jazz Festival, staged in Volker Park through much of the 1980s, I learned early on that there are not enough jazz fans in KC to support a large outdoor jazz festival.

(In fact, Kansas City today is much more a blues town. When the jazz and blues festivals merged and moved to Penn Valley Park, after my involvement, the blues stage consistently drew larger crowds. At the least, KC has more blues fans willing to attend a large outdoor festival.)

Selling a festival isn't like the jazz marketing outlined in earlier posts. This isn't about drawing a targeted audience. This is about drawing everybody. This is about drawing tens of thousands of bodies to impress sponsors so they'll return and there will be a festival for those tens of thousands of bodies – including jazz fans – again next year.

So, despite the name Kansas City Jazz Fest, despite starring acts like the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Joe Williams, Bob James and Wynton Marsalis, to name a few, and despite booking every local jazz act the schedule could hold, we did not market the weekend as a jazz festival. We didn't hide it. But we sold the idea that this festival was the biggest thing happening in Kansas City its weekend, and you sure didn't want to miss what everyone would be talking about come Monday morn.

(I'm not pretending we were always successful in pulling that off. But it was always our marketing goal.)

We recruited the most popular radio outlet in town, a rock station, as a sponsor. They talked us up then broadcast live festival remotes where they threw free frisbees to their partying fans.

Our volunteers plastered Westport with posters in the window of every restaurant and bar that would have us. And our volunteers returned weekly to replace posters stolen (hint: the promotional value of posters far exceeds the dollar value of posters sold at the event, so we didn't care if they were stolen).

We covered any agreeable shopping area with posters and flyers then returned regularly to replenish. We even knew the one building on The Plaza which was then not owned by the Nichols Company, where shops would jump at the chance to display a festival poster in their window (maybe as much to tweak Nichols as to promote the event, but we didn't care).

We courted the media, learning who would invite us on their TV or radio shows to promote, and who would not (an appearance on Channel 5's noon news then was best facilitated by contacting the host sympathetic to your cause). And sometimes you just got lucky, like the year Bryan Busby, unscheduled, dropped by and broadcast the weather from the festival grounds (though I'd argue that with sufficient promotion, you create luck).

Stories in The Star were important, especially a Preview cover or Sunday feature, but so were mentions in The Pitch.

We wanted everyone to know that Kansas City had a (jazz) festival approaching, and you'd better be there or be left out of the Monday morning buzz.

That's how you promote a jazz festival in Kansas City.

(Though today a web site with embedded video and mp3s, and a Facebook page and a Twitter feed with regular updates, are mandatory additions to the marketing plan.)

I bring this up now because we've learned that the Rhythm and Ribs Festival will return to 18th and Vine on October 9th.

I've attended every Rhythm and Ribs. Let's say it clearly, from someone who spent years helping to organize jazz festivals: Rhythm and Ribs is a consistently outstanding event, a jazz festival of which Kansas City jazz fans, the American Jazz Museum and Kansas City at large can be supremely proud. 

Festivals rely on corporate largess for large chunks of funds. I'm neither surprised nor disappointed that, in this economy of corporations losing largess, it will have taken an extra year-and-a-third to identify the dollars to stage the next event. I'm disappointed but not surprised by the announced reduction of the fest to a single day.

But this festival cannot let disappointment become any part of its promotional discussion. On the contrary, the delay provides prime opportunity to reintroduce the event with the excitement and anticipation selling a (jazz) festival in KC demands.

Back in the '80s, we’d start our promotion with a well-attended press conference announcing the line-up, about a month before the fest. Given all involved with a need to know, it's tough keeping a secret headliner secret. And with today's abundance of social media, it's no doubt tougher now. But if info can remain clandestine, a press event to announce a big name or two starts promotion with a bang.

Next day, put posters in windows. And that takes a volunteer army. I don't know whether fest organizers have the troops for this mission, but if not, now's the time to recruit. Ask on Facebook. Ask on the web site. Ask from The Blue Room stage every night it’s open. Folks will sign up for festival duty who may not volunteer at the museum.

The Prairie Village Jazz Fest is staged about a month prior, headlined by Eldar Djangirov then The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, perhaps with Karrin Allyson. That lineup is strong and so is the marketing opportunity. I'd be talking to them now about cross-event affiliations. You want to be passing info to their guests in return for a presence (perhaps to sign next year volunteers?) at your festival.

I'm not privy to what is or is not happening now. I don't have any reason to suspect the fest is coming together any way but perfectly. But I know that this year's festival is an opportunity to reestablish excitement for an event which deserves this city's attention. And I know marketed right, the number of jazz fans in KC doesn't matter a bit.

I also know I can't wait.

Monday, June 14, 2010

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Bobby Watson at Jazz in the Woods

Jazz in the Woods was started by two people who were on my board of directors the year I was president of the Kansas City Jazz Festival.

They didn’t like the person who followed me as festival president, so they left to start a new jazz festival in Corporate Woods.

(I don’t know what either is doing today, but the last time I ran into one of them, she was studying to be a rabbi.)

Jazz in the Woods, also known as the Corporate Woods Jazz Festival, hasn’t always been embraced by the KC jazz community, at least not since the late Vince Bilardo booked the bands. These days it mostly features commercial smooth sounds. And wasn’t it last year that they handed over one night to country music? That was dumb.

But let’s give due credit: They have produced an outdoor jazz festival, with every performance free to the public, for 21 uninterrupted years. I’m not sure any other KC area event – much less a jazz festival – can lay claim to such an envious record.

Besides, any festival that books Bobby Watson is clearly doing something right.

Last Saturday night, Bobby Watson’s quartet entertained thousands. If a group Bobby assembles has ever delivered anything less than superb jazz, I haven’t heard it. This one starred Bobby’s long-time friend and outstanding bassist Curtis Lundy, plus pianist Chris Clarke and drummer Michael Warren.

Here’s a sampling of how it looked (as always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it).

Left to right: Michael Warren on drums, Chris Clarke on electric piano, Curtis Lundy on bass, Bobby Watson on alto sax

Bobby Watson on alto

Bassist Curtis Lundy

The Bobby Watson Quartet

Bobby plays

Chris Clarke on electric piano

Drummer Michael Warren

Curtis Lundy

Bobby Watson

Monday, June 7, 2010

This 'n That 'n Marketing Right

This is how it’s done, kids.

The day before the show, Shay Estes posted to her Facebook page and emailed to her 740 Facebook friends an invitation which sells:

“This Saturday, June 5th, two amazing vocalists and musicians will be in town and appearing live at Jardine’s. Brilliant cellist/vocalist Helen Gillet from New Orleans and chanteuse Annie Ellicott from Tulsa, along with Shay Estes, will be performing....This is an event not to be missed. For those of you who have heard either Helen or Annie, you know the amazing talent and beauty in the voice and musicianship of each. For those of you who have not, do not deprive your ears and eyes the opportunity of doing so this weekend.

“For fans of beautiful music sung and played by beautiful women with beautiful voices, Jardine’s this Saturday night is a pilgrimage you must make. It will be a VERY rare treat to see such astonishing women as Annie and Helen share a stage with each other and with the added bonus of such talented musicians....Links to the music of these lovely ladies are provided below.”

Well written sell copy, links to the music, to 740 potential patrons with a day to plan. What more could you ask?

How about an emotional appeal on Facebook walls later the same day:

“Shay so excited about this show, and REALLY wants you to come out and support these awesome ladies from out of town. Let’s show them a good time, KC!”

Then add a detailed message full of info on the artists, times, and food and drink specials, posted the next day by the venue, Jardine’s, to its 3700 friends.

Finally, one more reminder from Shay on Facebook the night of show. A show which, per Shay, came together last minute.

The result? As late as midnight, when KC jazz clubs are often entertaining the remains of the day, every table in Jardine’s was occupied and most bar stools filled. If we assume most friends on Shay’s list also claim a spot on Jardine’s, the response rate was as good as a successful direct mail campaign, but without the cost of printing or postage, and assembled then disseminated in a last moment instant.

How do you draw an audience to jazz in Kansas City? You market. You build a database – a collection of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, an email list, they're are all databases – then you market to it. You market with sell copy. You market with personal appeals. You message repeatedly to press the point. You message with time to plan. You message the day of the show so nobody forgets. And “you” means both the venue and the artist. It’s a shared responsibility.

And to anyone not at Jardine’s late last Saturday: You missed one helluva great show.


This is an unexpected treat.

A friend asked me to digitize a video tape for her. She no longer owns a VCR and wanted to know what’s on it.

What’s on it is several jazz news stories and documentaries. The last piece is the gem below, a news story I’d never seen on Kansas City jazz from CBS Sunday Morning. No date accompanied the piece, but based on information in it (Claude “Fiddler” Williams’ age, the recent release of Last of the Blue Devils), I place it at 1980.

It’s a rare opportunity to enjoy snippets of some of KC's jazz greatest: “Fiddler”, The Scamps with Art Jackson and Earl Robinson, Herman Walder, Milt Abel, a young Eddie Saunders. That’s for starters.

The quality of the video isn’t great but it’s better by far than not seeing it at all. Hopefully, nobody will object to the YouTube posting of a news story not seen in three decades. Unless that happens, embedded below is an unearthed KC jazz delight.

(Oh, and the best from that now-digitized tape is yet to come.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Club Branding in KC

A friend argued recently that The Phoenix, a KC jazz club in the listings on the right, is not really a jazz club, that it’s just a noisy neighborhood bar with music you can’t hear. I responded that it’s a jazz club because we need it to be a one, because without it KC claims just an embarrassingly paltry two instead of an embarrassingly paltry three jazz clubs.

Or maybe three instead of four, if you count The Majestic’s downstairs club and its weekend jazz trios. But it’s unlisted on the right because it offers no calendar. Daily Twitter and Facebook posts, yes, but those provide no opportunity to plan ahead. So maybe The Majestic desires to be just a steakhouse with ambient music?

But Jardine’s, that’s unquestionably a jazz club. They offer the best web calendar and push weekly emails, even have a Facebook page with over 3600 friends. Just think, an interested audience of over 3600 to which they can market and drive free messaging daily to build business. They do regularly use that page to push messages, right? Um, well….

But The Blue Room, everybody knows the Blue Room is KC’s jazziest jazz club. They maintain an online calendar. And other than scouring the web for that, the way they regularly inform a jazz fan of the acts they feature is, um, well, they, uh….

Welcome to jazz branding and marketing in Kansas City: from mixed messages to messaging too little.

Start with The Phoenix. They email a monthly schedule, host a Facebook page with nearly a thousand likes (here) and tweet almost daily to 600 (here). Not a bad start.

But what’s their brand? Featuring nightly jazz (or music somewhat related to the genre) amid framed jazz photos and a neon window sign shouting Live Jazz, does suggest jazz club. Yet on a recent Saturday night, I could barely hear the vocalist even while sitting at the piano bar. Still, the place was packed. So maybe there’s a market for a jazz club where you can’t actually hear the jazz?

More likely, there’s a market for people who like the idea of a jazz club. Nothing wrong with that if it’s a business model that works. But it’s not the business that The Phoenix once was: A jazz club, without question or doubt.

(In fairness, what The Phoenix once was, also, was a failed business. So the current operation could be taken as evidence that the audience for enjoying jazz in KC is indeed more limited than some of us are willing to admit.)

Next take The Majestic. I’m not entirely certain what they’re trying to be. They tweet daily to 300 (here) and their messages appear on the walls of nearly twice that many Facebook friends (here). Both are solid marketing techniques. I particularly like that they often tweet info a few times a day, more effectively breaking the Twitter clutter.

But who’s there next Friday night? Or Saturday? Other than awaiting a weekend tweet, or phoning the restaurant, I don’t know how to find out. Their web site (here) doesn’t help. There’s no published calendar. Some groups they’re featuring are worth seeking out. But by the time that tweet appears, seeking weekend entertainment is likely a deal long since done.

So maybe they don’t want to be a jazz club? Maybe they want the jazz to just be part of the ambiance? Maybe the reason to go to the The Majestic – their brand – is a steakhouse with the idea of a jazz club?

Or maybe they could draw more by making known in advance who’s there?

Like Jardine’s, with the most accessible and best maintained club calendar in town (linked at the right). They push emails at least once a week to those on their growing list (and do a good job of collecting email addresses from we who visit the club). You can tell when a big show is underselling by a rash of emails pushing it. But if that proves effective in building reservations, it’s good marketing.

Their Twitter feed is moribund, but their Facebook page (here) is a collection of over 3600 friends that competitors can only envy. Musicians and fans in far-away places are part, but also part is an avid group of potential patrons. Among the most effective marketing is repeat messaging, and here’s a chance to keep Jardine’s before those with an interest, by having a message pop up on Facebook walls daily. But Jardine’s use of that messaging is sporadic. Too often they don’t bother to poke. And every day their name doesn’t poke 3600 Facebook walls, an opportunity to promote is lost. The medium demands more frequent use.

It’s a lesson The Blue Room could stand to learn. Clearly the classiest of KC’s jazz clubs, and in one of the world’s most historic locations, marketing is where The Blue Room fails most. Their online calendar (linked at the right), a good one, and an ad in JAM (the local jazz magazine) seems their only efforts. Have they even printed calendars to hand out the last couple months? If so, I didn’t find them on my visits.

Tweets and Facebook postings are free (The American Jazz Museum, of which The Blue Room is a part, has a Facebook page here, but it’s rarely used to promote the club. In fact, it was last used to promote anything two-and-a-half months ago). Building a fan base on both Facebook and Twitter takes time. It takes repeated messaging. It takes promotion in the club. It’s work. But once done it’s a valuable base welcoming Blue Room news, promotions and messages with which the club can communicate daily. As The Blue Room’s competitors already know.

Let’s be clear: I’m not quite naive enough to suggest that were all this addressed, all would be well with jazz in KC. I’m not suggesting lines out the door would greet each club owner nightly.

But I’m naive enough to believe it would help.