Monday, October 25, 2010

Bobby Watson's Gates BBQ Suite

They brought out more chairs, though I’m not sure where they put them. The Blue Room was packed, standing room only, last Monday for the official CD release party for Bobby Watson’s The Gates BBQ Suite. The UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra was there, peppered with outstanding graduates, to perform the suite, just as they do on the CD. Complimentary Gates barbecue was available to all.

Music by Bobby Watson and the UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra and free Gates barbecue. Does life really get any better than this?

Bobby Watson leading...
...The UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra
If you weren’t there, the best you can do now is to go out, pick up the CD and some barbecue, then listen (and eat) at home. Depending on where you live (because I know this blog is seen outside of KC), no guarantees on the quality of the smoked meats. But with the CD, you can’t possibly go wrong.


This CD, The Gates BBQ Suite, is Kansas City music, happy and swinging. Watson captures the joy in compositions with titles anyone from this town will recognize: May I Help You?, Beef on Bun, Heavy on the Sauce. And he captures the sorrow of arriving just after closing time in One Minute Too Late! (been there; I can relate). You want to swing the blues? Then you want Blues for Ollie.

Yet, what may strike me most is the mastery of the UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra. Here’s some of the stellar young musicians dominating Kansas City jazz today, proving again their excellence. Watson was asked on KCUR’s Up to Date (here), why record in Kansas City and not with the better known musicians of New York? His answer:

“Well, we had lived so long with the piece, and there were a lot of intrinsic things in there that, I knew it wasn’t going to come out, so it was a trade-off. You might of had, maybe, some star power, whatever, but we wouldn’t of had as much time to work on it. I mean, we worked on this piece for quite some time, and to me, nobody right now plays it better.”

He’s right. Just listen on this CD, to the frenetic yet precise sax back-and-forth between Will Sanders and Steve Lambert on Beef on Bun, that wicked bass by Ben Leifer and driving drums of Ryan Lee on Wilkes’ BBQ, the intelligent and swinging trumpet by Hermon Mehari on May I Help You?, or the swinging trombone of Ben Saylor on Heavy on the Sauce!

Hermon Mehari rejoined the UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra for The Gates BBQ Suite...
...As did Will Crain, here soloing on Blues for Ollie
Will Sanders and Steve Lambert also returned, here in a battle of the saxes on Beef on Bun
This may not be the star power of today. But it is the jazz star power of tomorrow.

(And let’s not forget Bobby Watson’s solos on One Minute Too Late! and Heavy on the Sauce! But why’d he get to solo on all the titles with an exclamation mark?)

There’s a spirit of fun fueling all of these compositions, with the right mix of musicians to envelop and throw right back at us that special feel of Kansas City barbecue and jazz.


Bobby Watson and the UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra leave this Friday for an 8-day trip to Kurashiki, Japan (a sister city of KC) to share some real Kansas City jazz. The Blue Room show opened with a half hour preview of some of the swing they’ll be performing there along with movements from The Gates BBQ Suite.

Kurashiki, Japan, I can tell you that you are in for a treat.

(But before they leave, you ought to make sure they bring some sauce.)

Bobby Watson solos on Wilkes' BBQ

(Clicking on any photo should open a larger version of it.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Kansas City Jazz and Blues: Ready For Its Closeup

There was a certain leap of faith last April when I wrote about the passion and potential going into Sue Vicory's film, Kansas City Jazz and Blues: Past, Present and Future (here). But after talking with Sue for a couple hours, I didn't feel then like I was stepping out on too fragile a limb.

At what was billed as a premiere at The Gem in early May, we saw an incomplete, choppy film which was overshadowed that night by Marilyn Maye's unforgettable performance. Since, some musicians have questioned what little they had seen or heard about the documentary, wondering how accurately it would actually represent Kansas City jazz.

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of viewing the just-about-finished product at Sue's home. And two points I can now state definitively: (1) My leap of faith was well placed and (2) worried musicians, you have no cause for concern.

The film now strikes a markedly different feel than the Gem preview. It starts by explaining what is jazz, what is blues, how they differ, how they overlap, from a variety of musicians, educators and students. Words and images build a texture and depth and, most importantly, an understanding rarely found elsewhere. A baseline is laid which will pull any novice into a greater realization and sense of what this music we cherish is all about.

Sue is a Johnson County suburbanite who four years ago discovered Kansas City's amazing heritage. In many ways, the film begins by immersing us in that exhilaration of discovery, and in doing so builds a structure from which to flow.

It flows into a historical outline, touching on major players and why here (though if you want more historic depth, you want Last of the Blue Devils). It flows to the types of people – club owners, educators, musicians – who have cultivated an active jazz and blues scene in Kansas City. It flows into revealing profiles of several musicians and bands, from Bobby Watson and Karrin Allyson to the spectacular young blues band Trampled Under Foot (to name just a few). Mixing discussions of KC influences with performance, these profiles continue to ride the sense of discovery. And through the concluding profile of Leon Brady and his wonderful educational programs, we're left with confidence that this magnificent heritage really will continue beyond any of us.

The story is not perfect. Some musicians declined to participate. That loss is theirs and ours. Others simply did not make the slightly-over-one-hour running time (a time which keeps the film moving tightly). Aficionados could argue for hours (prediction: and they will) over who is included and who is not, but ultimately that’s the editor's choice based on available footage and the story she wants to tell. And while some scenes were filmed in the Mutual Musicians Foundation and its significance is discussed, the Foundation was undergoing a leadership transition during the time of filming and plays less of a role than it now deserves. 

But when, eventually, viewers have a chance to see Last of the Blue Devils then Kansas City Jazz and Blues: Past, Present and Future, they will walk away understanding what is Kansas City jazz, its origins and how it has been maintained. And they will know a large breadth of the musicians who have curated the magic for nearly a century. In many ways this film is, as I surmised in my original post, a snapshot of blues and jazz in Kansas City today, providing a valuable bookend to the thirty years since Blue Devils

Sue recorded countless hours of interviews and performances. Importantly, she will donate all of the original footage to UMKC's Marr Sound Archives, where it will be available to researchers and everyone forevermore.

But the one thing I can't tell you yet is when you can see the film. It's been submitted for competition in the Sundance Film Festival. We'll know in early December whether it's accepted. If it is, the documentary will see its real premiere at that festival in January to exposure (and maybe distribution) far beyond Kansas City. Regardless of what happens there, plans are to submit it to other internationally-recognized film festivals, such as Toronto and TriBeCa.

Worldwide distribution requires resources beyond those in Sue's home in Stillwell. Don't forget, this film was financed entirely out of her pocket, and any money it makes will be donated to jazz education.

What has come together in that home, and in jazz and blues venues throughout Kansas City, is a gift made when one person discovered the music that Kansas City uniquely birthed and continues, a wonder that all too few of those around us know and appreciate.


Here's a trailer (though, frankly, these 92 seconds don’t do the final film justice):

Monday, October 11, 2010

Block Party

I’d never seen her before and I wasn’t sure why. Maybe she goes out to hear jazz all the time and I just never noticed her. Or maybe she was a tourist, in town visiting. Either way, she probably heard about what was going on, and convinced her boyfriend or husband or brother or whoever was with her to bring her down there, that night, to see and hear for herself.

The twenty-something girl caught my eye because she was swaying to the music, smiling broadly, so obviously having fun, taking in the surroundings, the musicians, the music, all night. She was still there when I left around 4 a.m. 

It begins like that, with one person. You win over one person and then she tells a friend about her fantastic night/morning at the jam session, downstairs at the Mutual Musicians Foundation that Friday night (September 24/25), then that friend tells someone else, and word spreads.

That’s what The Sound has started.

Mutual Musicians Foundation downstairs jam, September 25, 2010, around 2 a.m. She's standing on the left.

I’ve made no secret of my enthusiasm for the astounding young talent dominating Kansas City jazz today. And now some of those young musicians are pushing a step further by incubating a new organization to reach out into and connect with the community.

Their initial effort is spearheading those you-have-to-be-there-and-experience-it-to-really-understand fresh Friday night jam sessions at the Foundation, which I raved about here, and which entranced that girl that Friday night. There, they’ve reignited tradition, melding Kansas City’s past with 21st century technology (webcasting). It’s never been possible to walk into the Foundation’s downstairs room without feeling the history. Now, early on a Saturday morning, it’s not possible to walk out without having been struck by the room’s energy and vibrancy. Ask that girl.

And that’s only their start.

They’ve dubbed themselves The Sound (a web site with updates is here). A fledgling partnership of civic-minded musicians, their long-term plans are to touch the city through educational and cultural programs. Wisely, they’re approaching those goals one realistic step at a time, building out from our richest, most internationally renowned and most historic cultural vein. They recognize this city’s exquisite heritage and that there is no more deserving place to begin.

The next step is participation in a block party on October 22nd. Highland Street, where the Mutual Musicians Foundation sits, will be closed between 18th and 19th Streets from 8 p.m. to midnight. A stage will be set up outdoors, next to the Foundation, for music and dance. Artists and businesses can arrange to bring in info, art and wares, from paintings and drawings to jewelry to cigars to CDs, though it’s BYOTCL&EC (Bring Your Own Tables, Chairs, Lights and Extension Cords).

There’s no vendor charge. This is planned as an informal, New York-style block party, intended to continue a post-Rhythm and Ribs Festival/pre-winter jazz district and arts focus. And, of course, at 1 a.m., jam sessions start inside the Foundation. Everybody in the world is invited to come. If it rains, only the jam sessions go on.

Contact information for the block party is on a Facebook page here.

Isn’t this a small next step? Sure it is. Is this really a building block to something more grand? You’ll know it is when you know the people involved. Then you’ll recognize ability and ambition supported by a broad circle of friends that you do not underestimate.

Over the years, I’ve seen enthusiasm birth numerous arts not-for-profits, some of which thrive, others of which end when the creative forces behind them dissipate. I’ve been a part of my share of them. I’m not a part of The Sound, but I am an unabashed fan of the musicians behind it. And I see ideas that are controlled and obtanable being taken in measured steps. Smarts power this group. Here are some extraordinarily talented people building towards greater community involvement, young musicians ready to fly beyond the stage while bringing the bandstand with them.

Check out the block party on the 22nd and the downstairs Foundation jam any Friday night/Saturday morning. And keep your eye on The Sound. My bet is we’re seeing the start of something remarkable.

I bet that girl would agree.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

This 'n That 'n Saturday Night Blues

Saturday night is prime time for jazz in jazz clubs. Except where it’s not.

I’ve previously quoted others questioning whether The Phoenix is really a jazz club. Now, by their own admission, on Saturday nights, they’re not. From their October email newsletter:

“On Saturday nights we got the BLUES 

“Saturdays are trending towards more blues bands, such as the Rick Bacus Trio, Mark Montgomery & the Sofa Kings, Brody Buster Band, and Shannon and the Rhythm Kings to name a few. The Phoenix will always have great jazz, but that’s not the only trick in our bag… ”

I wonder what time on Saturdays they’ll shut off the “Live Jazz” neon window sign?


But there is good live jazz to be found downtown on Saturday nights. The Majestic’s October schedule shows the Bram Wijnands Trio there each weekend with top-tier names like Rod Fleeman, Hal Melia and Tommy Ruskin joining him. And the last couple Saturdays of the month you can catch singer Megan Birdsall at the Drum Room.

Newly booking jazz is The Marquee Lounge inside the AMC Theaters in the Power and Light District. The club just opened on October 2nd, so we’ll momentarily forgive them for offering no place online to find out who’s there. But an email submitted via their web site (here) asking about the lineup elicited a very nice response, received yesterday (Wednesday):

“There is a rotation in place, let me know what dates you're thinking of stopping in and I can let you know who is playing. We book some of our acts through Beena at Jardine’s so it depends. Tonight we have the Jazz Disciples, Friday The Warner Project is playing and Saturday Stan Kessler is playing. Hopefully we'll see you in!!”

Shay Estes’ web site shows her and Mark Lowrey there each Wednesday next week through the end of the month, from 7 to 10 p.m.

That’s a nice lineup indeed. Good enough, even, to make up for another downtown club which has succumbed to the Saturday night blues.

Open less than two weeks, The Marquee Lounge is no doubt addressing a plethora of priorities. But I sincerely hope they’ll soon make publicizing that talent one of those priorities. How about starting with a daily talent tweet (which, so far, they’ve done once; their Twitter feed is here)?


Many thanks to the blog KC Stage, which you can find here. They not only linked to The Magic Jazz Fairy post, but included a drawing of the jazz fairy which I absolutely adore and share here (without permission…I hope the artist doesn’t mind).


Hearty congratulations to Bill Brownlee, who has been named by The Pitch as Kansas City’s 2010 Best Blogger. It's an honor hard earned and well deserved.

(Next time I see you in a jazz club, Bill, I'm buying you a celebratory drink.)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Classic Shots: Rhythm & Ribs Past

Alas, I will not be at this year’s Rhythm and Ribs Festival, next Saturday, October 9th, 11 to 11 behind the American Jazz Museum complex. A wedding in the family takes priority. So everyone else out there, I’m counting on you to attend and let me know how it goes.

This also means I will have no photos from the fest to later post. So, instead, today I offer shots I’ve snapped from Rhythm and Ribs past, of some of the terrific headliners Kansas City has had the delight to hear.

As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

Pat Metheny, 2007. Note the guitar.

Lonnie Smith, 2007

Christian McBride, 2007

Shemekia Copeland, 2006

Al Jarreau, 2007

George Benson, 2007

James Cotton, 2007

Al Green, 2006

Lonnie Smith, 2007

Al Jarreau and George Benson, 2007

Pat Metheny, 2007

Koko Taylor, 2005