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):

1 comment:

Comments are welcome. If you prefer, you can reach me directly at kcjazzlark(at)gmail(dot)com.