Sunday, February 21, 2010

This 'n That 'n Other Locales

One year, when I was an organizer of the jazz festival, Joni Mitchell recorded an album which included a well known jazz musician. Another organizer, looking for the biggest draw we could book for the festival, argued that was reason enough to pursue Joni Mitchell as that year’s headliner. Fortunately, his opinion was not shared. Because, as much as I enjoy listening to Joni Mitchell, I cannot imagine a stretch big enough to justify her as headliner of a jazz festival.

But as someone who spent time trying to draw audiences to jazz events, I understand stretching the definition to include acts of questionable pedigree. So I don’t begrudge our local jazz clubs booking some acts that aren’t really jazz. If those other acts draw enough fans to help make up for the nights when only 35 patrons pass through (and I’ve been in the audience some of those nights), well, that’s business.

Still, with only three jazz clubs in Kansas City today (plus the Majestic's nightly piano), any night without jazz is an opportunity lost to hear our outstanding musicians. Which is why it’s so wonderful to see other clubs, ones that don’t often book jazz, booking jazz and picking up some of the slack.

A prime example: Last Friday, Diverse became the first jazz act to play Czar Bar (web site here). And the club couldn't have selected a superior inaugural group.

The night started with few there actually listening but ended with a won-over room and wild applause. John Brewer, Ben Leifer, Hermon Mehari and Ryan Lee (left to right in the top photo below) blazed through their first set. I've heard Ben provide solid bass to many groups in KC, but this night he owned some of the most dynamic, complex and engaging bass solos jazz fans will hear. I'm not often a fan of drum solos — just my taste — but Ryan's drew me in with a real beginning, middle and end. The only horn on stage for the first set, Hermon's solos exploded with an unbridled energy that I never wanted to end. Though John's electronic vocal manipulations were not my favorite (maybe I'm just too much an old traditionalist), the crowd loved them. I, on the other hand, loved his organ sound solos. Young saxophonist Matt Chalk (he's the new face in the second shot) joined them for the second set, and the room was theirs.

Czar Bar did the evening right, playing Charlie Parker music between sets (that's more legit between-set jazz than I often hear at a certain downtown jazz club). If you weren't there, just look at what you missed:

Then there’s R Bar, a new restaurant and bar in the West Bottoms (web site here). A long narrow room with brick walls and a stage in the front window, on first glance it doesn’t look a likely space for music. But when I was there several Fridays back to hear another favorite, Shay Estes and Trio ALL, the place was packed. After adjusting the sound system between sets, the listening was great (the music by Shay, Mark Lowrey, Ben Leifer and Zack Albetta, it goes without saying, was outstanding).

I mentioned when walking in that it was my first visit, and the staff went out of their way to make it a good one. They moved me from standing room only in the back to a table up front with some guys who didn’t care if a stranger nabbed their extra chair.

I didn’t try the food that night. I will next time. Because I will be going back. R Bar features jazz every Thursday and some weekend nights.

Meanwhile the Record Bar (web site here), site of Diverse’s last KC show, is one of a trio of locales to host big bands. It’s where The People’s Liberation Big Band plays a Sunday of most months. Harling’s has no web presence that I can find, so you just have to know that you’ll find Clint Ashlock's New Jazz Order Big Band there from 9 pm to midnight most Tuesdays. And B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ (web site here) may be deservedly known for the blues, but it’s also home to the New Vintage Big Band the first Wednesday of each month.

And let's not forget The Drum Room in the President Hotel and The Oak Room in the Intercontinental Hotel. They join other odds-and-ends where jazz can be irregularly found, all listed in the Plastic Sax calendar (linked at the right).

Add these up and they may not total another jazz club, but they’re sure nice plugs to some of the KC jazz club gaps. I, for one, will head wherever great jazz will be found.


Angela Hagenbach is among the regulars at R Bar (she's there this Thursday, in fact). This summer she celebrates 20 years singing jazz in KC. I remember first hearing her nearly that long ago at an 18th and Vine festival, and I'm not sure she's aged a day since. Proof is in the photo above, captured when I had the good fortune to catch her last month at The Blue Room with both Matt Otto on sax and Stan Kessler on trumpet (Stan I was also listening to way back then. How come he and Angela have no gray hair and I have little but? Not fair!).

Update: Quite coincidentally, the same day I put up this post, KCUR's excellent local news show KC Currents ran an interview with Angela. It's a good story. You can hear it here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Megan Birdsall & Hermon Mehari

I’ve pictured these two before, but not together.

Singer Megan Birdsall was this blog’s first, albeit brief, photo layout. Hermon Mehari is trumpeter in Diverse (and a bunch of other groups around town). Last month at Megan’s regular last-Wednesday-of-the-month gig at Jardine’s, Hermon and sax man Steve Lambert unexpectedly dropped by and sat in on the last set. They further propelled that impulsive spontaneity already blazing through so much of Megan’s music. The best jazz, to my ears, is live jazz embracing the unexpected. Especially when it's live jazz by musicians this outstanding.

Here’s what it looked like (with no slight to Steve, whose horn was equally terrific...I just happened to capture more shots of Hermon that night). Clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

Left to right: Paul Smith, piano, Steve Lambert, sax, Megan Birdsall, vocals, Hermon Mehari, trumpet, Bob Bowman, bass, Tim Cambron, drums

Megan and Paul

Hermon Mehari

Megan Birdsall

Paul, Megan, Hemon, Bob and Tim


The boys

More Megan and Paul

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

90 Years Ago This Weekend at The Paseo YMCA

More than once in my many talks with the Executive Director of the Black Economic Union (BEU), back when I chaired the Jazz Commission in the late 1980s, I opined that the 18th and Vine Festival should also honor the Negro Leagues. The BEU organized the festival back then. I argued that the Negro Leagues were as integral to the area’s history as jazz, that the two were tightly intertwined, and that a festival celebrating the district but including only jazz was excluding half the story. He agreed, but a Negro Leagues element never was added to the festival.

I stepped aside as Jazz Commission chairman in 1989. Buck O’Neil and others started the Negro Leagues Museum in 1990.

The Paseo YMCA building is one of the most important pieces of Negro Leagues – and Kansas City – history. It’s where the charter creating the Negro National League was signed during meetings February 13 and 14, 1920, 90 years ago this weekend. The Negro Leagues, of course, did not just showcase some of history’s greatest athletes, but fed the integration of baseball. And the integration of baseball is cited as a key step towards the acceptance of integration in America.

To think, the Negro Leagues started in that old red brick building on Paseo, a building which has sat empty and untended far too long.

Which is why I was encouraged to read in last Saturday’s Kansas City Star (here) that barbecue baron Ollie Gates is spearheading the effort to raise money to rehab the building and turn it into the long-planned but unfunded Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center. It’s a project that Buck started. Julia Irene Kauffman, daughter of KC Royals founder Ewing Kauffman, has pledged $1 million. But, according to the article, it’s going to take at least $16 million more than that. Ollie Gates is not assuming an easy or enviable task, not by trying to raise that kind of money in this kind of economy. But thank goodness that someone has taken the lead, and that it’s someone of his stature.

I’ve long maintained that the Paseo YMCA is one of the three most historically significant buildings in the Kansas City metropolitan area. The other two are the Mutual Musicians Foundation, like the YMCA in the 18th and Vine district, and Harry Truman’s home in Independence. Unlike the Paseo YMCA, those others can boast designations as National Historic Landmarks, defined on the government’s web site (here) as “nationally significant historic places … [that possess] exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.”

What could be a more nationally significant historic place, or a place with more exceptional value to our heritage, than one where there was laid so important a cornerstone on the path to equality? That old red brick building on Paseo deserves to be recognized as the landmark it became 90 years ago this weekend.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Jazz Museum That Wasn't

I was there, before the article starts.

Last week, The Pitch ran two stories on the 18th and Vine district. The cover story (here) details turmoil at the historic Mutual Musician’s Foundation. But it was the accompanying editorial (here), recounting development challenges in the jazz district, which stopped me. Because I was there, at the point where that story starts, and before. I was Jazz Commission chairman when the jazz museum was announced in March of 1989, at a press conference with the mayor and city council members and Dizzy Gillespie.

I’ve written before that my most memorable experiences with the commission involved being at the right place at the right time, or being at the wrong place at the wrong time. This covers both.

I was appointed to the commission as the jazz festival’s representative. Shortly after, the commission’s treasurer quit. I volunteered to be the new treasurer. Then I then found out the last treasurer quit after being accused of stealing city funds from the commission. Definitely wrong place, wrong time.

Then it got worse.

There was an investigation. The last treasurer did steal city money. There was a city audit. The executive director left. Stories ran on the front page of the Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Times. The audit was leaked to the Star. The commission chairman quit. I volunteered to be the new chairman. And I was appointed because, under the circumstances, nobody else was stupid enough to take it.

(There’s many more stories there, and those will fill future blog posts.)

I soon found that, as a commission chairman, some politicians tell you what they’d like done then turn to you to help make it happen. And people in City Hall wanted Kansas City to be home to a jazz hall of fame and museum. One councilman confided that a large portion of a then-recently defeated tax measure for public improvements would have gone towards building it, but the public wasn’t told because of the Jazz Commission’s untimely problems.

The commission’s new board needed to solve those problems (coming in, we knew that) so a jazz hall of fame/museum could move forward publicly (we didn’t know that).

Also, there were competing interests and could I help with those?

Eddie Baker of the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation wanted the hall of fame in the former Jewish Community Center building, near 83rd and Holmes (I toured the site with Eddie, recruiting support). City Hall wanted it near 18th and Vine. Eddie trademarked the name International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1986. That’s what the city wanted to call it. Eddie had contacts and influence with jazz legends who could donate memorabilia. The city did not. Eddie’s vision encompassed a jazz hall of fame, a museum, an area for artists in residence, a performing arts facility, an educational wing, and a home for the Count Basie Orchestra. Other than Kansas City having the jazz hall of fame, the city wasn’t sure what it wanted. The city could raise enough money to pull it off. Eddie could not.

In 1989, a compromise was reached. In the end, I was not involved (though I heard stories). The facility would be located at 21st and Vine, in the public works buildings across from the castle where the Black Archives was then housed. It would include all the elements Eddie envisioned. It would be named the International Jazz Hall of Fame. The city would identify funding.

A plan was quickly written:

“The [Parker-Gillespie] Institute will provide a formal forum, the first ever, for those musicians who have created and perpetuated this American jazz music; to teach others who are in pursuit of a career in jazz....”

“A Museum will be adjacent to The Parker-Gillespie Institute to provide an Archives Center for the historical study of jazz and related music forms….”

“The Basie Academy will offer instruction in all categories of performing arts….It will also be home of the world famous Count Basie Orchestra, which in addition to performances, will conduct clinics, seminars and workshops.”

“…[Mahalia Jackson] University will train students and present support programs to further advance traditional styles and more modern styles of gospel music.”

A color rendering showed a paved walkway crossing Vine Street and connecting the museum and the archives, with a statue of Charlie Parker and another of Count Basie along the path. The path led to a grand entrance, flanked by north and south wings. Architectural drawings detailed a new 535 seat theater, behind existing buildings, with classrooms, offices and a jazz radio station.

Phase one would encompass the Parker-Gillespie Institute, the museum, Mahalia Jackson University, a memorabilia shop, and general support areas, 27,000 square feet. Phase two was to include the Count Basie Academy and a support area, 12,000 square feet. The third phase would cover the theater and more classrooms, 11,200 square feet.

Add site work, design fees, furniture, fixtures, equipment, land cost, contingency and a $3,250,000 endowment, and the complex would be completed, as projected on March 1, 1989, for just under nine million dollars.

Construction documents would be ready by August 1, 1989. Construction would start by December 1. The first phase would open on December 1, 1990.

A press conference was scheduled for March 11. Dizzy Gillespie was in town for a concert at the Folly Theater on that date, and he would attend. A booklet was assembled with all of the facts, the budget, the color rendering, the architect’s plans, letters from Eddie, from Dizzy, from the mayor, from the Jazz Commission, plus maps, a congressional resolution, and the history of 18th and Vine.

The press conference was a success. The plan was introduced to the public.

And that was the end of that plan.

It fell apart when someone figured out you couldn’t really build all that, with endowment, for just under nine million dollars. So the development was scaled back, moved to 18th and Vine and combined with the Negro Leagues Museum. The theater became a renovation of The Gem. Eddie withdrew his support. The city lost the rights to International Jazz Hall of Fame. The American Jazz Museum opened in September, 1997.


But sometimes as Jazz Commission chairman, I was at the right place at the right time.

I got my copy of the booklet, the one handed out at the press conference, autographed that day by Dizzy Gillespie. I still have it.

Small victories, I’ll take them.

Monday, February 1, 2010

On 18th and Vine

A friend angered me a week or so back, because I’m tired of hearing it.

I mentioned I was heading out to The Blue Room.

“Where’s that?” the friend asked.

“18th and Vine.”

“Really? Down there? You’ll be safe?”

Background: I grew up in Prairie Village. I graduated from Shawnee Mission East High School. I graduated from Kansas State University. I now live in Overland Park. I’m 52 years old and as white bread as it gets.

More background:

I remember, as a child, walking around in Matlaw’s, then a clothing store in the Lincoln Building at 18th and Vine, with my father, while he bought a hat.

Through much of the 1980s, as a volunteer organizer of the Kansas City Jazz Festival, I walked into shops around 18th and Vine, asking to tape up posters.

In the late 1980s, I served as chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission. Our office was on the second floor of the Lincoln Building, maybe right above where Matlaw’s once stood. I was there regularly, meeting with our Executive Director, meeting with leaders of other organizations.

I celebrated at the 18th and Vine Festival through much of the 1980s and into the '90s, before the museums were built, back when stages were erected on 18th Street at Paseo and on an empty lot at 18th and Woodland.

I helped organize a couple of those festivals, carrying tables and chairs in and out of the National Guard Armory at 18th and Highland.

I partied at Eblon, and at Mardi Gras, and drank at El Capitan, all district nightspots, all now gone.

I remember touring the area, before the museums, the guide pointing out a building which housed a club where Charlie Parker played, and where a building once stood that was Count Basie’s home.

I’ve been to the museums, the Swing Shop, The Blue Room, dozens of times. I’ve been at every Rhythm and Ribs Festival held.

I’ve been in the Mutual Musician’s Foundation more times than I can anymore count. I’ve been there in the afternoon. I’ve been there at 5 am. I was there before it was designated a historic landmark, and since. The day I stood next to Big Joe Turner there, as close as an outstretched arm, while he shouted the blues, remains a thrill.

I’ve been going to 18th and Vine most of my 52 years. Me, this guy who’s as white bread as it gets.

Enough background.

So how many times have I been assaulted around 18th and Vine? How often have I been robbed there? On how many visits have I felt threatened? Or endangered?

Not once. Not ever.

Oh, I’ve been assaulted and robbed. But that happened on the Country Club Plaza.

And how many times have I met extraordinary people near 18th and Vine?

Every visit.

When I chaired the Jazz Commission, I met often with the Executive Director of the Black Economic Union. He showed me plans for revitalizing the district, and for a jazz museum. This was not the museum which was eventually built. But I saw pages of blueprints designed to revive the area, plans with apartments and offices, with retail and a theater and a museum.

I told him that the plans looked wonderful, but I saw a paradise surrounded by (especially then) less inviting neighborhoods. I feared too many people would feel uncomfortable with adjacent areas to feel comfortable driving into that paradise.

Image and undeserved reputation remain an impediment to attracting some suburbanites to the historic district which, though still not a fully developed paradise, is one of Kansas City’s jewels. I suppose that contributes to my friend’s ignorance.

Yet, I tire of hearing it.

“Really? Down there? You’ll be safe?”

Yes. Just as I have been every visit of my life.