Monday, November 29, 2010

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Alaturka at R Bar

Turkish jazz in the stockyards? I dare you to find that outside of Kansas City.

You could certainly find it here earlier this month when Alaturka, a quartet blending Turkish music with jazz, played R Bar in the city’s West Bottoms, less than a block from where cattle once roamed.

There’s much to explain in that sentence.

For a year I declined to head out to Alaturka’s monthly Sunday night shows at Jardine’s. Turkish music and jazz? What could be more odd a combination than that? Surely I wouldn’t like it.

I could not have been more wrong.

I finally attended an Alaturka performance a few months back. The room was packed, and I grabbed a seat up front.


Seeing Sait Arat’s hands glazing the darbuka faster than the eye can focus – you’ll see what I mean in a photo below – while hearing musical perfection was a revelation. Previously, I’d only heard Rich Wheeler on short sax solos in a contemporary big band. But here, extended tenor of magnificent tone and soulful feel filled the room, intimately. This night, Beau Bledsoe’s guitar and oud and Bill McKemy, sitting in on bass, took occasional expert solos but mostly underlaid solid support.

The experience was extraordinary.

On their recently released CD, Tamam Abi, regular Jeff Harshbarger commands the bass seat. Here, without seeing Sait play, Beau’s oud and guitar assume a more prominent role. It’s still a jazz – no, really, a music – experience like none other you’ll find (the CD is available for sale here, or for download on iTunes here).

Now let’s mention R Bar, a still new restaurant and bar in Kansas City’s West Bottoms area. Thirty years ago, the stockyards dominated this area; where cattle pens once stood is seen right though their front door. But today, in R Bar (web site here), a wonderful atmosphere mixes excellent food and drink with jazz and other styles of acoustic music.

On November 4th, Alaturka, with Sait Arat on darbuka, Rich Wheeler on tenor sax, Beau Bledsoe on oud and guitar, and Jeff Harshbarger on bass, took the R Bar stage for a marvelous night of music. Which is how we get to Turkish jazz in the stockyards. How did it look? That answer is in the photos below. As always, clicking on one should open a larger version of it.

Alaturka. Left to right: Jeff Harshbarger on bass, Rich Wheeler on tenor sax, Beau Bledsoe on oud, Sait Arat on darbuka

Jeff Harshbarger and Beau Bledsoe

Sait Arat. This photo was shot at a speed of 1/15th second. This, amazingly, is how his hands move in one-fifteenth of a second, while playing every note perfectly.

Alaturka in R Bar. The lights you see through the front door today are in a parking garage. Thirty years ago, cattle pens stood there as part of the Kansas City stockyards.

Rich Wheeler on tenor sax with Jeff Harshbarger and Beau Bledsoe behind him

Bassist Jeff Harshbarger


Beau Bledsoe and Sait Arat

Jeff Harshbarger, Rich Wheeler, Beau Bledsoe

Alaturka in R Bar

Monday, November 22, 2010

Classic Shots: Fiddler at the Foundation

I didn’t just start taking photos when I started this blog.

One regret from my days of organizing jazz festivals and chairing the Jazz Commission is that I snapped few photos during those years. But photography has been a hobby for over three decades, and since leaving behind festival organization to now, I’ve taken plenty of shots at Kansas City jazz events.

Until recent years, most of those shots were on slides. I’ve found a relatively easy way to digitize those slides, which means they can now be put online in places like, say, this blog.

From time to time, I’ll post photos from years past. Times like today.

In the fall of 2003, the Mutual Musicians Foundation celebrated its 75th anniversary (the building was purchased by the black musicians union in 1928).

Among the Kansas City greats there that day was Claude “Fiddler” Williams. He was 95 years old and looked frail (he would pass away six months later). He sat inside the Foundation and pulled out his violin to play. He started weakly. But after several minutes, once warmed up, there sat the Claude “Fiddler” Williams I knew, swinging jazz and blues like a man seventy years younger.

No, that’s not entirely true. He swung that violin like someone with the energetic hands of a 25-year old, fueled by the wisdom and experience of a 95-year old. It was wonderful.

Here’s how it looked in the Foundation that fall, 2003 day (clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it):

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Reno Club, Part 2

“Picture Kansas City’s 12th and Cherry in 1935 with the Club Reno almost at its Northeast corner, and parked there, almost seeming to lean against it, a…lunch wagon, horse drawn and stacked high with liver, pig snoots and ears, hog maws, fish, chicken and pork tenderloins. Pick up a sandwich on your way into this musty, smoke-hazed room, squeezing past the hustlers, grifters, solicitors and off-duty musicians, to find a seat as close as you can to the bandstand….”

"Hot Lips" Page at the mic in the Reno Club
“Out on the floor, with patent leather hair gleaming, would be the Reno Club’s highly polished ‘Hot Lips’ Page…. Backing him up was…the Reno Club band. Nine brilliant instrumental satellites of sound responding to the sonic radiance of their personable mentor, Bill Basie….”

– Trumpeter Richard Smith, 1973, in The Kansas City Star


Count Basie:

“[Manager] Sol Steibold gave me some money to make a few additions and changes in the group he had put me in charge of at the Reno. So I went down to Oklahoma City and talked Jack Washington and Big ‘Un [Walter Page] into coming with me, and then I went down to Dallas and got Buster Smith and Joe Keys to join me.”

Saxophonist Buster Smith:

“Jesse Price [was] on drums [but] he and Basie couldn’t get along. Jesse was temperamental. He got mad, he walked off and left the job. So I got Jo [Jones]. [He] was in Omaha, Nebraska, playing with Lloyd Hunter…. So I called up there to get Jo.”

Count Basie:

“Lips Page and Jimmy Rushing had stayed in Kansas City [after Bennie Moten’s death], but when they came down to the Reno, they came as singles…. Lips was also the master of ceremonies and entertainer, and he would sit in with the band, but he was not a regular member of the trumpet section…. Jimmy a job as a regular single feature and as a part of the floor show, and he was such a hit that he could have stayed in there as long as there was a Reno Club….

“After a while, I had three trumpets, three reeds and three rhythms. So we called it Three, Three and Three. There was no trombone in there at first. I couldn’t afford one at the time. As a matter of fact, I didn’t have but two trumpets, because Lips Page made it three. The other trumpets were Joe Keys, who had been in Bennie’s band, and Carl Smith, better known as Tatti, who had once been with the great Alphonso Trent band out of Dallas….

“When Lester [Young] came in there on tenor, I figured I had just about what I needed for what we were doing in the Reno. We didn’t have much room on that bandstand anyway. But what I also mean is we had a hell of a reed section. With Lester in there with Prof [Buster Smith] and Jack Washington, we were cooking with gas, lots of gas.”

Buster Smith:

“In the Reno Club, Basie, it’s no telling what he’s liable to play, ‘cause he’s just sitting down on the piano. He didn’t know nothing about music or nothing, just played by ear. He’d sit down there…he’d get to playing in F – F is his main key – get to playing the blues, he’d say, ‘Prof’ – they all called me Prof – ‘set something.’ He’d leave it to me. I’d be playing the horn and the other boys would be following me, way on down the line. Every time we’d change choruses, I’d set a different riff. That’s the way we made up One O’Clock Jump….

“After I left the band…the first thing they recorded was that tune…. And Basie put his name on it… [Later] he said, ‘Don’t sue me, it’s a long story, I’ll treat you right.’ He sweet-talked me there.”

Trombonist Eddie Durham:

“[Count Basie has] got some fantastic ideas, but nobody’s ever got them out of him, he would never hold still long enough for you to get them. He’d always give me an idea for a couple of measures, then he’d find a little girl and go out and drink….”

Count Basie:

“I don’t remember exactly how long we had been in the Reno when Fats Waller there to see me one night, and he just flipped out over that band. He sent back to the hotel to get [his manager] to come down and listen to those cats…. Fats was crazy about that band. He was in there every night he was in town….

“He said he wanted to fire his band and take mine on the road with him. He didn’t mean he wanted to to take it away from me…. He just wanted that band to have a break….

“I don’t mean to pat myself on the back, but that band was strutting, really strutting.”

In 1935, an experimental radio station, W9XBY, at 1580 AM, started broadcasts from the Reno Club. On a clear night, they reached at least as far as Chicago, where record producer John Hammond heard them.

(The following exchange is from the documentary, John Hammond: From Bessie Smith to Bruce Springsteen.)

John Hammond:

“January of 1936, when I was out with Benny Goodman, I got so sick of listening to the same tunes every night that one night, I went out to my car and I went way to the end of the dial. I started to listen to some music from a band that I had not heard of, coming from the Reno Club in Kansas City. I couldn’t believe it. It was Count Basie and his orchestra.

“So I started writing Basie letters at the Reno Club. And I never heard a word.”

Count Basie:

“So finally, one night I looked up and John was sitting along side of me. That was really the first time that…we really ever got together, and we had a ball.”

John Hammond:

“Here was a band I couldn’t find any fault with.”

Basie’s band left Kansas City in 1936. Among the bands following them in the Reno Club were Bus Moten’s (pictured with Lips Page in the photo above) and Oliver Todd’s. The Reno Club closed in 1939.


Unless otherwise noted, quotes by Basie are from his autobiography, Good Morning Blues and other quotes are from Goin’ to Kansas City, a history of KC jazz.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Reno Club

Nothing from Kansas City’s jazz days survives in this part of town. Instead, there’s asphalt lots and unkempt fields. A federal office building is across the street, police headquarters sits next door. Interstate highways criss-cross a few blocks away. But this plot of ground is part of jazz history:

Today, it’s the police station’s parking lot. But three quarters of a century ago, 602 E. 12th Street looked like this:

That’s the Reno Club, where in 1935 Count Basie formed what would become the Count Basie Orchestra, and where in 1936 experimental radio broadcasts introduced Kansas City jazz to the world.

Basie recalled:

“...As long as I had been around Kansas City, I actually didn't know anything about [downtown]. I had spent most of my time either on Eighteenth Street or Twelfth Street or down throughout in there.... Downtown Kansas City didn't mean anything to me. All of the real action was right where I already was.

“...Then I got my chance to go into the Reno Club all the Twelfth and Cherry.... Somebody else was playing there, and he wanted to go somewhere for a few days...and asked me if I'd like to fill in for him.... I needed the job, and by that time I was curious about what it would be like to work in that part of town for a change....

“The manager of the Reno was a short little fellow named Sol Steibold, and we got along fine from the very beginning.... After I had been substituting in there for about a week, Sol...asked me if I would like to have the job on a permanent basis.... When I asked him about [the other pianist], he just shrugged his shoulders [and said,] ‘It’s your job if you want it.’

“...I started bringing in some of my old bandmates.... Since it was my band, naturally I wanted some guys down there that I was already used to playing with and who I also thought were the greatest....

“The Reno was not one of those big fancy places where you go in and go downstairs and all that. It was like a club off the street. But once you got inside, it was a cabaret, with a little bandstand and a little space for a floor show, and with a bar up front, and there was also a little balcony in there. There were also girls available as dancing partners. It was a good place to work. I liked the atmosphere down there. There was always a lot of action because there were at least four other cabarets right there on that same block, and they all had live music and stayed open late.”

John Hammond, the record producer who discovered Basie, remembered:

“…I’ll never forget that first night I went to the [Reno]. Basie had a show at eight o'clock...eight p.m. to four a.m. They did three shows a night. There were about four chorus girls, and there was a whorehouse upstairs, and Basie got eighteen dollars a week and the other guys got fifteen dollars a week….”

Saxophonist Buster Smith:

“[The Reno] was nothin’ but a hole in the wall. Just mediocre people mostly went in there, a lot of the prostitutes and hustlers and thugs hung out down there. And the house was packed. They had a show down there we had to play. Dancers and comedians and things like that.”

Trumpeter Buck Clayton:

“[At] the Reno, beer was a nickel, scotch was fifteen cents, and the other whiskey in there was a dime. That's all it was.... And it was great, you know, it was really nice. You didn't have to wear any [uniforms]. You just put on a shirt, whatever you wanted to do. But it was hot as hell.

“If you wanted to get up for something, you just get up and walk out in the back and the band would keep on playing.”

Count Basie:

“I got Sol Steibold to put an elevated band shell in the Reno.... That showed the band off very nicely, but it got pretty crowded up there, too, because they also brought in a baby grand in there. And we also forgot that the tuba player couldn't quite fit in there, either. So old Big ‘Un [Walter Page] used to have to go outside and reach in through the window. He'd leave the horn inside, but he was outside, sitting on a stool or something if he wanted. But he didn't mind that at all, because he had his little action going on out there. He could take his little nips. He had a ball out there. But, of course, when we used the bass fiddle, he was inside, right next to the piano.”

Like most KC clubs of the time, the Reno was segregated. The main floor was for white customers. The balcony and a small space behind the band were for black customers.

Trumpeter Richard Smith in a 1973 story in The Kansas City Star's Sunday magazine:

“Standing room at the back alley was a bleacher of sorts, for the overflow of patrons on heavy nights, and for musicians, black and white, who wanted to listen ‘closer’ to the band.

“The repartee between those on both sides of that back door was often more entertaining than the floor show on the inside. Drinks purchased by the bandsmen could be shuttled through the door at half price. Some outside purchases would sometimes meet with disaster on the return trip by falling into the hands of Big ‘Un who would down it with one gulp, throw the glass out the door and tell the luckless buyer to ‘Go to hell.’

“With [a] lunch wagon parked at the alley’s Cherry Street entrance, there sometimes was more business transacted through the back end of the Reno Club than through the front door.”

John Hammond:

“...There was a window in the back of the bandstand...and people used to just shovel up pot through the back window and it didn't seem to affect the guys at all.

“It was still the best band I ever heard.”

The Reno Club closed in 1939 when reformers “cleaned up” Kansas City. It was progress, I mused, while looking at a cracked asphalt lot and unkempt fields.


Quotes by Basie are from his autobiography, Good Morning Blues. Unless otherwise noted, other quotes are from Goin’ to Kansas City, a history of KC jazz.

Monday, November 1, 2010

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Boo! The Shay Estes Quartet on Halloween

A chicken that sings?

The musicians backing Shay Estes have changed since the last time I photographed the group, with two-thirds of Trio ALL bolting for the coasts. So I’ve intended to photograph again when the revised band took the stage. What I didn’t count on was that night being Halloween eve, and a costumed quartet.

But that’s what we got, on an incredibly fun night last Saturday at Jardine’s. Singer Shay was dressed as a chicken, for a show with feathers floating about. Pianist Mark Lowrey came as a member of another local group. Bassist Bill McKemy wore red overalls and a seriously disturbing mask. Drummer Sam Wisman was the Dos Equis guy from commercials I’ve never seen (apparently, I watch too much PBS).

All this means, of course, that I’ll just need to take photos again, on a night when everyone looks a bit more normal. But until then, just how much fun was Saturday night? Take a look for yourself (as always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it).

The Shay Estes Quartet. Left to right: Mark Lowrey on piano, a masked Bill McKemy on bass, Shay Estes singing and Sam Wisman on drums

Shay Estes, dressed as a chicken for Halloween, sings

Shay Estes and Sam Wisman

Masked, mustachioed – and surprised – pianist Mark Lowrey

Mark Lowrey, an eerily masked Bill McKemy, and Shay Estes

Bassist Bill McKemy. He doesn't really look like this (he doesn't usually wear a hat).

Shay Estes and, behind her, a creepy-looking bassist

 Drummer Sam Wisman with fake gray in his beard

Shay Estes with Sam Wisman and Bill McKemy

Bill McKemy, unmasked. Here's what he really looks like.

On Halloween, Mark Lowrey, apparently, levitates behind the piano

Shay Estes on Halloween