Monday, September 27, 2010

On the Periphery: Dude Langford

Wide open city. Vice. Pendergast. Depression-era jobs. Moten. Basie. Prez.

We know the big picture. We know the stories and names, the ones repeated in every book and article, of how a unique form of jazz developed in, of all places, Kansas City.

But there were also fascinating people and places on the periphery. People who may have laid a single brick of the foundation on which Kansas City jazz would be built, perhaps by their interaction with or influence on a key player. Or places integral to the community which add texture to our understanding of the times but which books and articles rarely note. Wheatly-Provident Hospital, which I wrote about in this post, is one such place.

There’s space with a blog to remember the characters and locales on the periphery of Kansas City's jazz history. From time to time, I’ll offer a post which does just that, pulling facts mostly from out-of-print books and articles.

Let’s start.


Bennie Moten’s first band, formed in 1918, was B.B. and D., for piano player Bennie (Moten), singer Bailey (Hancock) and drummer Dude (Langford). The musicians joked it stood for “Big, Black and Dirty.”

In 1977, researchers recording oral remembrances of Kansas City’s jazz history were told by musicians that Dude Langford might still be around, though nobody knew where. Through government records, the interviewers found him, blind, impoverished and forgotten. And living in Kansas City.

Dude Langford (from the book Goin’ to Kansas City):

“[When] I first met Bennie, he was playing around town, little old joints here, some of ‘em just little fronts, a bar and a gambling room in the back. Just have a piano and drums in there, [dice] and pool tables in the back there…. Bailey was a blues singer. We picked him up [in 1918].

“The Labor Temple…was the big dance hall…. We went up there and got [our first job] on a Friday night [December, 1918]. It was our first dance, and we had the bills all up, tacked up all them posters in windows and things, ‘Labor Temple...Bennie, Bailey and Dude.’ We had big placards made up, in great big letters, would put ‘em all up in windows and things for our dances. Now we got cold feet, ‘cause a streetcar strike was on, [it was] snowing and cold…. Now it was so bad we were scared to go up in the hall, and we didn’t think no one was coming, scared we wouldn’t make the limit, and we didn’t have no money to pay [the owner].

“In those days you could get dago red, dago wine. Well, we used to go to the North end and get that dago wine, a quart bottle for a quarter, and ‘twould knock you out.

“We went over there and got that wine, got a little nerve [to] go on up there to the dance. A few people are standing outside, and say, ‘Look here, these people must be fools to come out on a night like this.’ But the dance hall is so nice, big nice dance floor… We went in, took the elevator on up to the second floor, and still was kinda shaky but that wine kept us going.

“We had one of those [counters] you press like that, to count people. We had a fellow would press that thing every time a couple would come in, and at one time we had twenty-three hundred on the floor…. Things was on in them days. That place was packed, you couldn’t get in, the first floor and the second floor….

“I’ll tell you, we got blowed, knocked us out. Got about seventy or eighty dollars a piece. That was during World War I….

“B. B. and D. didn’t last too long, but I’ll tell you, we didn’t think there was going to be a B. B. and D. at all that first night we opened.

“We stayed there for over a year, I guess…. We had three nights up there, Monday night, Thursday night and Saturday night…. We gave Bailey a dollar and a half for singing them three nights, and of course me and Bennie split the spoils. I wouldn’t tell a lie, God strike me dead. I wasn’t [ashamed] then. I am now. [Bailey] didn’t care, just as long as he was singing, and there was a lot of pretty girls….

“We got to be big shots on account of making money. A hundred and something a piece [per night]…. We knew a fellow that was in show business and a pretty good friend of ours, got to be a car agent. He sold me a car and he sold Bennie a car, a Chalmers and a Peerless. Then we were big shots then, sure enough….

“We played waltzes, schottisch, all kinds of things. We never did practice. Most of the musicians [would] just come, sit in, blow their heads off…. Different people would come to sit in, just to be blowing, you know, and sharpen their stuff up.”

Trumpeter Booker Washington:

“Dude was an excellent drummer in those days. In fact, he was one of the top drummers in those days, ‘cause he had the experience and the knowledge…. Bennie started out as B. B. and D., Bennie, Bailey and Dude, and then kept adding to the orchestra. He come up with five [pieces, by 1922], then he come up with seven, until he got to fifteen pieces.”

And there it is, the start of the Bennie Moten Orchestra which would lead, of course, to the Count Basie Orchestra. The story isn’t much different from how many musicians start out today.

The interviewers wrote that when they found Dude Langford, they found a lonely man, but a stroyteller with a vivid memory. In particular, in Goin’ to Kansas City, they recount this:

“His greatest interest was in chasing women and he regaled us for hours with tales of exotic days on the road. Particularly interesting was his winter-long interlude as a house guest of a Montana brothel. It was too cold to go outside.”

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Magic Jazz Fairy

I tense up when I think of this. I tug my shoulders in, roll my fingers into fists, tighten my jaw and furrow my brow in a scowl. Because I’ve seen this happen more times than I can recall and it’s happening again.

A restaurant, bar, someone, someplace, books jazz. But they don’t promote, they don’t tell anyone, word barely gets out that there’s good jazz in a place you never knew about, so few customers show up and the owner declares nobody in Kansas City listens to jazz anymore. He knows because he booked it in his restaurant or bar or wherever and nobody came. But it’s not his fault for not telling anybody. It’s the musicians’ fault, or it’s the music’s fault.

Or, I know, it’s the fault of the magic jazz fairy!

Because if somebody books jazz and doesn’t tell anyone and then complains that nobody shows up but it’s not his fault, it must be the fault of some mystical being expected to fly around and tell all jazz fans in Kansas City that there’s a new place with jazz, so we wake up flush with that knowledge. And that mystical being who whispers jazz secrets to us at night must be the magic jazz fairy.

Damn slacker jazz fairy.

The new location, as far as I know, is featuring jazz only on Wednesday nights. I say “as far as I know” since there is no mention of music anywhere on the venue’s web site. Now, there is one mention of one jazz show on their Facebook page, which the 145 people who have clicked “Like” for the page should have seen. Given that returns on Facebook marketing are comparable to direct mail, that posting could have accounted for up to four people at the show.

But, let’s face it, if this city had a decent magic jazz fairy who would have picked up on this posting and whispered it in the ear of every KC jazz fan while we slept, we would have all been at that show, wouldn’t we? Clearly, the problem is not with the venue. Clearly, the problem is with this city’s magic jazz fairy failing to produce.

I understand, completely, that this venue is new. The night I was there, it had been open just two months. I understand the owner is putting in 16 hour days running the place. I don’t envy that pace. I understand the expertise and focus brought to this new venture is in operating a restaurant and bar. That expertise is crucial to success.

But booking music and expecting the musicians to be the promotors – and that, to date, is what’s happening here – is an abdication of responsibility. There’s nothing wrong with the musicians placing a notice on their Facebook page, too. There’s nothing wrong with asking the musicians for promotional help. But there’s everything wrong with expecting the musicians to shoulder the complete marketing responsibility. After all, they receive a set fee. It’s the venue that gains the most financially by building an audience. It’s the venue that benefits most from a crowd. It’s the venue, then, that holds the greatest incentive to promote. Hiring musicians once a week is a welcome start. Next, tell people you hired them, and to come out and hear great music.

Never mind that Jardine’s, The Blue Room, The Phoenix and The Majestic all maintain online calendars. Never mind that each also promotes through some combination of Facebook posts, tweets and emails. Never mind that even the Record Bar lists twice monthly jazz and R Bar lists occasional jazz on their web sites. Never mind that there’s your competition and that’s how we know what they’re hosting each week.

Never mind all that. Instead, blame the magic jazz fairy. Because if our magic jazz fairy was doing its job, we would know, we would just know without seeing it on a venue’s web site, or hearing about it because they put out a simple press release, or seeing it in a small ad somewhere, or by catching regular posts that build a Facebook following, or by seeing tweets. We would know if the magic jazz fairy would just get off its magic jazz fairy butt and whisper the news to us while we sleep. Then we would know. Blame the magic jazz fairy.

But don’t blame the music or the musicians. Maybe jazz will draw people to this venue, maybe it will not. So far all that’s been proven here is that (A) if you book jazz and (B) you don’t tell anyone that you booked jazz, then (C) nobody knows that you booked jazz and (D) nobody shows up.

Or, (E) Kansas City has a lame magic jazz fairy. That’s it. The problem must be (E). No wonder I tense up.

So where is this place? Who’s playing there? When is the music (hint: it goes on later than their web site says the place is open)?

What is this new restaurant and bar showcasing jazz on Wednesday nights?

I’m not telling you.

Go ask the magic jazz fairy.

Monday, September 13, 2010

In Lieu of 1000 Words: The Prairie Village Jazz Festival

As far as I can tell, the organizers of the first Prairie Village Jazz Festival last Saturday made only one error.

A friend asked if I’d volunteer the day of the event, and I agreed. Then I found they put me on security.

Security? Me?

But if any other mistake was made, I didn't see it.

The inaugural Prairie Village Jazz Festival was a magnificent success. The community where I grew up (just a few blocks from the festival grounds, actually) assembled a perfect day of jazz. The park was ideal. The organization seemed flawless. The weather could not have been better (okay, that one’s thanks to someone other than festival organizers). More of the crowd even seemed to be listening to the music than on a typical night at Jardine’s.

The music they heard, start to finish, was Kansas City at its best. I was at my volunteer post during the first two sets, but what wafted there of Killer Strayhorn and Sons of Brazil proved ideal openers. David Basse’s group, a superb mix of KC veterans and youth, swung his vocals hard. Eldar’s return is always welcome, though I wondered going in if a piano trio would play well to a large outdoor setting. He knew what would work here and engaged the crowd in his mastery. The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, which struck me as a a bit tepid when I heard them last January, this night brought the figurative house down, partly with the help of guest Miguel DeLeon. And Grammy nominee Karrin Allyson, another returning KC jazz hero, joined the Jazz Orchestra, never sounding better.

Below are photos of how it looked, mostly of the headliners. As always, clicking on a shot should open a larger version of it.

By the way, turns out security just meant making sure nobody entered with a cooler. So, my official security report: Prevented three people from bringing in a banned cooler (the Prairie Village police officer behind me may have helped).

Karrin Allyson sings

Eldar Djangirov on piano

The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra

Left to right: Zach Beeson, Joe Cartwright, David Basse, David Basse's signature hat, Brian Steever

Karrin Allyson

Miguel DeLeon


In the mid-1990s, I went to The Phoenix nearly every Tuesday night for Karrin Allyson on piano and vocals and Rod Fleeman on guitar. It's still some of the best jazz I've heard. The musical chemistry they share is just as delightful to see and hear today.

The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra and two (maybe three) new fans

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Friday Night at the Mutual Musicians Foundation

First temptation is to call it something new at someplace old. But reality is, it’s a revitalization of what always was.

The Mutual Musicians Foundation is known for jam sessions that start when the clubs close then run the night. Once the black musicians union hall, any name associated with Kansas City jazz has jammed inside the building at 1823 Highland. In 1982 it was named a National Historic Landmark, recognizing its significance to American history. Walk through the door and that history embraces you.

But this is no museum. This is a thriving jazz venue which still hosts jams on weekend nights from 1 to 5 a.m. Everyone is invited.

Especially Friday nights (Saturday mornings, really), when the younger musicians in town have started something new. They’ve organized a second jam session, downstairs. Upstairs is more spacious and sports the new piano. But downstairs, with walls lined by photos of the musicians who made jazz and Kansas City synonymous, is where history lives.

Downstairs, for this new jam session, the younger musicians have turned on the lights. They’re streaming the session live on the web. They’re drawing more musicians their age. They’ve brought new spirit and energy and youthful fun into Kansas City’s most historic space.

And it fits. Put it in perspective: When Lester Young, Herschel Evans and Ben Webster (all born in 1909) took down Coleman Hawkins in a 1933 cutting session at the Cherry Blossom, a block from here, with Mary Lou Williams (born 1910) on piano, each was 23 or 24 years old. Basie was five years older. When, on other nights, those same musicians walked into this building and jammed, they were around the ages of most musicians playing today’s downstairs jam.

Sit there, downstairs in the Foundation, on a Friday night/Saturday morning, and close your eyes and listen. You’re in the same spot, exactly, where Lester and Herschel and Ben and Mary Lou and Basie played. You’re hearing music with the same verve and vitality from musicians the same age they were when they jammed here three quarters of a century ago. This music is new, but the experience is not. You’re hearing what the Foundation always was.

You’re hearing history, revitalized, repeat itself.

I was there the night of August 27th (28th morning). Alto sax great Bobby Watson joined the jam that night, playing, mentoring, organizing riffs. And raising the musical bar, because everyone wanted to prove they belonged on that stage.


Upstairs, another jam is happening at the same time (Saturday nights, it's the only jam), and it's jazz you want to hear.

(Clicking on any photo should open a larger version of it. The live web stream can be seen and heard each Friday night/Saturday morning from 1 to 5 a.m. Central time here. An archive of previous downstairs jams is also found there. The musicians hosting the jam are on Facebook here and on Twitter here. The Mutual Musicians Foundation web site is here. The Foundation's Facebook page is here, and its Twitter feed is here.)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Jazz Under Former Brothels and Other Fall Highlights

Why is it Kansas City jazz clubs seem to thrive under former brothels?

When the building which today houses The Majestic was built in 1911, the first floor was a saloon and the top two floors a brothel. The lower level, where the jazz club now resides, was a Prohibition-era speakeasy.

And the 1888 building which today houses The Phoenix once featured a first floor saloon and second and third floor brothels.

The Phoenix is getting ready to celebrate 20 years as a jazz club beneath those one-time brothel floors. On Saturday, September 18th, from 2 to 10 p.m., they’re throwing a street party with bands, drinks and food. They suggest you bring a lawn chair. More details are on the poster at the left (a larger and more legible version of which should open if you click on the image).


The week prior, on Saturday, September 11th, I’ll be taking that lounge chair to Harmon Park at 7700 Mission Road for the first Prairie Village Jazz Festival. I know no more about it than what’s on their web site, here. But that lineup, headlining Eldar Djangirov and Karrin Allyson with the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, looks stellar.


Having absolutely no relation to brothels (and probably embarrassed to be listed under the same headline), Johnson County Community College has announced six weeks of noon concerts in their Carlsen Center Recital Hall. The fall season includes:

Sept. 28: Jazz Disciples
  Gerald Dunn, alto saxophone
  Mike Warren, drums
  Tyrone Clark, bass
  Everett Freeman, piano

Oct. 5: Matt Otto Quartet
   Matt Otto, tenor saxophone
   Gerald Dunn, alto saxophone
   Jeff Harshbarger, bass
   Mike Warren, drums

Oct. 12: Steve Rigazzi Trio
   Steve Rigazzi, bass
   Paul Smith, piano
   Ray DeMarchi, drums

Oct. 19: Ervin Brown Quartet
   Ervin Brown, guitar
   Joe Cartwright, piano
   James Ward, bass
   Mike Warren, drums

Oct. 26: Gerald Spaits Quartet
   Gerald Spaits, bass
   Roger Wilder, piano
   Rod Fleeman, guitar
   Ray DeMarchi, drums
   (This one is in Polsky Theatre)

Nov. 2: Megan Birdsall Quartet
   Megan Birdsall, vocals
   Paul Smith, piano
   Bob Bowman, bass
   Matt Leifer, drums