Monday, December 26, 2011

The Magic Jazz Fairy Sees Skin in the Game

Instinctively, it flapped its wings in excitement, like a dog shakes its leg when scratched just so.

How many years had it been? it thought. How many years years had it been Kansas City’s Magic Jazz Fairy? Because never in all those years had it seen anything quite like this.

Every city has a Magic Jazz Fairy. It’s a phenomenon we’ve discussed before (here, here and here). How else to explain some jazz club owners never promoting yet expecting customers to show up? It’s because they know every city’s Magic Jazz Fairy tracks when jazz performances will happen, then flies around at night and whispers into the ear of every jazz fan when and where to find jazz, so that when we wake up, we know, we just know.

After all, it cannot be the club owner’s fault if they don’t promote and nobody shows up. They’re savvy businessmen. There must be someone else at fault. If nobody comes, it must be the fault of the Magic Jazz Fairy.

But this time, this was something different. This jazz club usually promoted itself well, though an online calendar, and Facebook postings, and emails. Now, however, nobody was coming because it was a jazz club with no live jazz.

Jazz musicians were boycotting it.

This was something entirely different. The Magic Jazz Fairy’s wings instinctively flapped again.

It had flown by the club just the other day. There were no signs in the windows, no indications of upcoming shows. It looked at the club’s online calendar. The calendar was blank. This club wasn’t promoting because, from all appearances, it had nothing to promote.

The Magic Jazz Fairy had seen the TV news stories on the club. They’re all on YouTube (and, with a major jazz club having nothing to promote, the Magic Jazz Fairy had time on its wings to look at YouTube). It had seen the multitude of blog posts. It had seen the accusations of addiction and abuse. It had seen the stories of staff being fired or quitting or not showing up. Not that how it happened mattered. The bottom line was that, for a time, there was no staff.

The owner spoke when triumphantly reopening the club’s doors, with a newly recruited staff trained and ready to serve. The Magic Jazz Fairy applauded the owner’s promotional savvy in using the press like that. But when reopening turned, apparently, into one week and out, the owner talked betrayal then publicly clammed up.

Betrayal, the owner claimed, by jazz musicians who refused to work the reopened and restaffed jazz club.

The Magic Jazz Fairy had seen the message the owner sent to over seventy email addresses, asking the jazz musicians to return. “It’s a new start for me,” the owner wrote. “If I was rude to anyone, I apologize and I plan on doing this efficiently and with eyes wide open.”

One musician, who played there often, responded to the list, “I’m sorry to say I can no longer support [this club] as a musician or patron. I’ve seen unethical and unprofessional behavior and a downright lack of human decency for years.”

Other musicians echoed those sentiments. Whatever sparked the staff upheaval, sparked much more. And it united Kansas City jazz musicians in a way the Magic Jazz Fairy had not seen in all its years on the job.

The mystical, winged being smiled impishly. It had seen plenty broadcast and written, and deservedly so, on the ex-staff. It had seen plenty written on the club’s owner. Yet it had seen little but betrayal accusations written about the city's jazz musicians.

This was no betrayal, the Magic Jazz fairy knew. There's no abundance of opportunities in any city in 2011 to make money playing and singing jazz. Yet here is a group of extraordinarily talented artists disciplined in denying an invitation to perform, and during the holiday season. These musicians have skin in the game. That, the magic jazz fairy knew, drove credibility to their charges. The mystical being did not know what went on behind the curtain in that jazz club. But it knew many of these musicians, and their united sacrifice said it could believe in them.

The Magic Jazz Fairy didn’t know what would become of the boycotted club. The owner may well be a savvy business person, but not savvy enough to draw customers to a jazz club without live jazz musicians. Selling the club seemed the most hopeful solution. With time, it thought, this situation would work itself out.

Meanwhile, there was work to do. Other jazz clubs remained open and were now even more vital to the jazz scene. And other restaurants and clubs were picking up some of the cancelled shows. Every Kansas City jazz fan needed to know about these opportunities.

The Magic Jazz Fairy smiled broadly. Like a dog scratched in that oh-so-perfect spot, instinctively, it flapped its wings.

Monday, December 19, 2011

KC Jazz for Christmas, 2011

’Twas the week before Christmas when a friend turned to me
And said, “I need a jazz gift for under the tree.
It must be KC jazz, a wonderful find,
So that when it is opened, she’ll scream, “It’s divine!””

First take Jacob Fred, as in Jazz Odyssey,
Their Race Riot Suite is the epitome
Of their music to date, a story told true,
History as jazz, always crisp, sometimes blue.

Or take Mike Metheny (also listed last year),
With a new retrospective, a pleasure to hear.
Whether swinging Miss Jones or a more complex track,
To Old Wine/New Bossa you’ll always come back.

You say you want vocals? All the Things You Are brings
KC’s top rhythm section while Laura Chalk sings.
Add Embrey’s guitar and Laura’s son Matt,
For the best jazz musicians, none better than that.

If you’d rather hear duos, just piano and song,
With Millie and Mike you will not go wrong.
Michael Pagan backing Millie’s strong voice
Makes this live recording a wonderful choice.

The People’s Lib Big Band of Greater KC
Played one show with dance, a wonder to see.
But if you missed Nutcracker and the Mouse King,
The music’s on CD, a great offering.

Sir Threadius Mongus plays jazz with an edge.
On Threads, a great front line. On that I’ll not hedge.
With Andrew McGhie, Matt Otto, Stan Kessler,
The talent’s superb. You just can’t do better.

Karrin we claim. KC long was her home.
So her CD, ’Round Midnight is one of our own.
It’s won rave reviews. In some it scored ten.
No surprise here, ’cause we knew her back when.

“This is great! It’s superb!” my friend yelled with a screech,
“I want them all! I’ll take one of each!”
And my friend did exclaim, ’fore he drove out of sight,
“Merry Christmas to all and to all a jazzed night!”


• Jacob Fred Jazz Oddyssey’s Race Riot Suite is available from Amazon, here, or can be downloaded from iTunes, here.
• Mike Metheney’s Old Wine/New Bossa is available from Mike’s website, here, or from Amazon, here.
• Laura Chalk’s All the Things You Are is available from CD Baby, here.
• Millie Edwards and Michael Pagan’s Millie and Mike Live is available from Amazon, here, or can be downloaded from iTunes, here.
• The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is available from Tzigane Music, here, or can be downloaded from iTunes, here.
• Sir Threadius Mongus’s Threads is available from CD Baby, here, or can be downloaded from iTunes, here.
• Karrin Allyson’s ’Round Midnight is available from Amazon, here, or can be downloaded from iTunes, here.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Myra Taylor

This is what I meant.

Myra Taylor:  Born in Bonner Springs, Kansas, but raised, for all practical purposes, around 18th and Vine. She hobnobbed with Bennie Moten and Count Basie, with Lester Young and Charlie Parker. She recorded with Harlan Leonard’s Rockets, one of KC’s renowned big bands. She traveled the world and sang, by her own description, swing learned in Kansas City.

In the 1990s, Myra returned here, and with the Wild Women of KC was part of one of the most vivacious and funnest groups we Kansas City jazz fans have had the delight to enjoy. Myra sang swing learned when Kansas City jazz masters dominated the music. Then others learned from her.

This is what I meant when I wrote last week that in Kansas City, we have a jazz culture and tradition, which even today is passed from one extraordinary musician to the next.

Friday, one of our last links to Kansas City’s jazz origins, the wonderful Myra Taylor, passed at age 94. What she gave us cannot be replaced, but neither can it be forgotten. So today, let’s remember Myra with two sets of photos.

The first is from the fall of 2003, when the US Park Service unveiled the plaque on the front of the Mutual Musicians Foundation designating it a National Historic Landmark. Outside of the Foundation that day, Chuck Haddix from UMKC’s Marr Sound Archives gave Myra copies of publicity photos from her younger days which she was obviously thrilled to see.

The second set is from February 27th of last year, when I photographed the Wild Women of Kansas City playing The Blue Room, celebrating Myra’s 93rd birthday. Some photos from that night were featured in a previous post (here). But here’s a few additional shots taken of the night's star (clicking on a photo should open a larger version).

Myra Taylor and young Myra Taylor

Presenting the photos to a delighted Myra

Myra with another young Myra

When the US Park Service unveiled the plaque designating the Mutual Musicians Foundation a National Historic Landmark, Myra Taylor was in the front row.

February, 2010 at The Blue Room, with 93-year young – and young is the right word – Myra Taylor sings with the Wild Women of Kansas City

We all applauded Myra

We'll miss you, Myra Taylor

Monday, December 5, 2011

Clubs in Transition

Restaurant leases typically contain a clause allowing them to not pay rent for any days they’re closed due to repairs needed to the landlord’s property. That’s why, when a restaurant closes and the business owner is still liable for lease payments, it’s not uncommon for the restaurant to post a sign saying it is closed for repairs.

Jardine’s, arguably Kansas City’s premier jazz club for two decades, has a sign posted in its front window which reads, Closed for Repairs. Internet chatter says the staff was laid off last week.

Meanwhile, in New York City, a renowned jazz club has changed formats. The Iridium is where electric guitar pioneer Les Paul played each Monday night. But it’s also a jazz institution, where Harry “Sweets” Edison, Frank Wess, Clark Terry and Junior Mance recorded a live CD in 1997, and where an Art Blakey alumni group recorded in 1998.

A November 12th New York Times article, here, describes the Iridium’s transition “into a guitar Mecca:”

“The club’s new emphasis becomes obvious from the moment you walk in. A score of electric guitars are displayed on the walls, some in glass cases. all signed by famous musicians: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Tom Petty, Steve Miller.”

The article explains, “These are difficult times for jazz clubs, as shrinking audiences and an aging clientele make it harder to stay in business. The steps the Iridium has taken mirror the moves that jazz labels like Verve and Blue Note have made over the last decade to remain profitable, putting more pop musicians on their rosters to subsidize jazz recordings.”

So I guess that’s it. Will the last aging clientele to leave a repair-bound jazz club turn out the lights?

But first, consider this:

On October 29th, Kansas City jazz trumpeter Hermon Mehari and a group of musicians filled the Record Bar with 20-somethings for a tribute to Michael Jackson. The show mixed jazz and pop to the thrill of a large, youthful crowd.

And pianist Mark Lowrey fuses jazz with hip-hop at the Record Bar on the 21st of this month. Hip Hop may not appeal to me, but it doesn’t need to. I’m part of the aging clientele. Mark will be exposing the music to an audience packed with the next generation of clientele.

Kansas City’s spectacular young jazz musicians are reaching out to a broader base through jazz plus something shows. They’re expanding the music and its reach. They’re growing jazz.

Not that my generation is ready for lights out. The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra sold over 200 deals on Groupon for this Friday’s show. Considering that most of those were for multiple tickets, it’s a terrific new-media response for a 1000-seat house (and far better than I predicted they’d do. Sometimes, I’m thrilled to be wrong).

Also, before reaching for the light switch, take look around town (and at recent blog posts). Kansas City is home to two new jazz venues, 1911 Main and Take Five Coffee + Bar. That’s not enough locations to showcase all of the talent bursting this city’s jazz seams. But it’s not lights out.

A couple months ago, I was in Toronto, Canada, a huge metropolitan area with an all-jazz radio station. On Friday night, I went looking for jazz. I found a downtown club, with an atmosphere similar to Jardine’s. Before the band started, background music included Basie, “Lockjaw” Davis and Big Joe Turner. I felt right at home.

The night’s live band was one that plays the club every weekend. They were enthusiastic, rattling through standards and jazz-infused R & B, not unlike what City Light Orchestra once played. But this was not the quality of jazz you’ll hear in Kansas City. It wasn't close. The pianist pounded the keys like a pugilist. The trumpeter soloed with more subtlety, but lacked the sophistication of a Stan Kessler or a Hermon Mehari.

The difference, I suspect, lies with Kansas City’s jazz tradition and culture, and the lessons handed down from one extraordinary musician to the next. I still remember, years ago, a young guitarist describing a technique Claude “Fiddler” Williams taught him, with “Fiddler” adding, “I taught that to Barney Kessel.”

I don’t know that one band heard one night was typical of Toronto. I don’t know Toronto’s jazz culture. But I question whether the city is home to jazz masters passing on their knowledge and support to the next budding jazz master, like Kansas City.

A jazz culture thrives here.

I don’t know Jardine’s situation. I sincerely hope the club reopens, and soon. And let’s not forget that in recent years both The Phoenix and The Majestic reopened, under new ownership, after closing. This city has a history of jazz club revivals.

But what if Jardine’s is done? We have weekends at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. The Blue Room and The Majestic remain. Two other new venues are already open. Young jazz musicians are enticing their generation.

This may be a time of transition.

Because restaurants and clubs post a Closed for Repairs sign more often on advice of attorney than because they’re closed for repairs.

Monday, November 28, 2011

They're Listening to Jazz in the Suburbs

You drive up, and on one side you pass Zenail and Spa, and His and Her Fitness. On the other side is Nevaeh Salon. Admit it, this strip center is as suburban Johnson County as it gets.

Inside, on a Friday night, the crowd fills every seat. Folding chairs have been set up, but they’re not enough. Some people stand, leaning against a counter or a wall. They range in age from grade school to the gray haired. This crowd is as suburban Johnson County as it gets.

Take Five Coffee + Bar last Saturday night
Except they’re listening to jazz. Stan Kessler and Joe Cartwright are on stage. The audience is not talking, there are not thirty conversations competing with the music. Instead, music fills the room, packed with people who are listening to jazz.

In a coffee house. In suburban Johnson County.

Matt Otto, Jeff Harshbarger and Michael Warren perform
This is one of the Kansas City area’s new jazz venues, Take Five Coffee + Bar, in the strip center at the northeast corner of 151st and Nall in Leawood, Kansas. That’s right, in Leawood. Which is as suburban Johnson County as it gets.

In the quarter century I’ve been listening to jazz in Kansas City, I’ve seen Johnson County jazz clubs come and go. I long ago concluded that jazz doesn’t work in Johnson County. People don’t move to the suburbs looking to slum a little urban grittiness at a juke joint down the street. That – at the risk of unfairly generalizing – is what most Johnson Countians think the city is for.

Matt Otto and Jeff Harshbarger
The thought of jazz in a quiet coffee shop, where customers come earlier in the day for muffins and cappuccino, but which also serves wine (and Coke to those grade schoolers) and stays open long past your Starbucks-on-every-corner, never occurred to me. I equated jazz with urban grittiness, and Kansas City’s jazz clubs delivered.

So credit Take Five owner Lori Chandler for pursuing a different vision and, based on the recent packed house, one which appears to be taking hold in Johnson County. Credit her for opening a clean, suburban room, with some plush easy chairs and a fireplace, tables on which to set your latte or wine, carpeting, and angled beams which contribute to an acoustically wonderful space.

Jeff Harshbarger and Michael Warren
On Saturday night the crowd was a bit smaller, and some high schoolers talked through the first set. But the space seemed to swallow that conversation. leaving the music clear. I sat in one of the easy chairs – which can also swallow you – listening to Matt Otto on tenor sax, Jeff Harshbarger on bass and Michael Warren on drums. These aren’t just some of the best musicians in Kansas City. These are among the best musicians playing jazz in 2011, anywhere. I’ve heard them before, in town, at Jardine’s and The Blue Room. Matt and Jeff will be part of The People’s Liberation Big Band at The Record Bar next Sunday, in Westport. This isn’t take-it-easy-on-the-suburban-neophytes jazz. This is jazz normally served with a slice of urban grittiness. But tonight, it’s in your uncle’s living room where you can savor every unamplified bass note.

(Jeff unpacked his amplifier for the second set. It wasn't needed.)

Matt, Jeff and Michael in Take Five
Well, it’s not exactly like a jazz band in your living room. Your living room doesn’t have floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Eye Associates or Banana Island or a Walgreen’s drive-through. But it’s a more intimate setting than a typical jazz club, and it eventually pulls in everyone. By the second set, the high schoolers were no longer conversing. Most sat facing the band, listening, and applauding magnificent solos.

They’re listening to jazz in the suburbs.

Take Five Coffee + Bar

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Look Back at Some Festival Tales

Being out of town on business all of last week meant not just that I missed hearing some of my favorite live Kansas City jazz, but that I ran out of time to write a new blog post (actually, I sat at my computer Sunday night to write, but instead fell asleep. A failure of mind over rather tired matter).

So instead today, let's look back. During the first year of this blog, I wrote a series titled Festival Tales, recounting snippets and stories from my days as an organizer of the Kansas City Jazz Festival and as chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission, through much of the 1980s. Those posts are never looked at anymore, and more people read this blog now than did then, so odds are good that you've never seen these posts. Odds are even better that you don't remember them if you did.

Below, then, is a rerun, the first Festival Tales post, from September, 2009.


While Jazz Commission chair, I helped the coordinator of the 18th and Vine Festival, then a free outdoor music fest held each September (and a separate event from the much larger Kansas City Jazz Festival).

At that time the Kansas City Star published crowd estimates provided by professionals, such as the police. Previously, they printed numbers festival organizers quoted, until it became apparent we organizers might, um, exaggerate a bit (or a lot).

One year, as the 18th and Vine Festival wound down on a Sunday evening, several of us gathered around a concession stand and chatted. We agreed among ourselves about 5000 people had passed through the event that weekend. A few police officers, assisting with security, walked by. We asked if they might like some hot dogs and soft drinks. The hot dogs would just be discarded anyway, we told them, so they took us up on the offer. They thanked us, adding those were a good end to a long day. Then the officer in charge asked, so what do you want the weekend crowd estimate to be? 20,000? Sure, we said, 20,000 sounded good.

And that’s how (then, anyway) published crowd estimates were derived.


Festivals are funded by corporate sponsorships, foundation grants and concession sales. At the Kansas City Jazz Festival, we sometimes joked that we might make more money if we gave away the beer and charged for the Porta-Johns. That is, until the year a Porta-John tipped over with someone in it.

The patron was drunk. He stepped into a Porta-John and swayed back and forth. It was an end unit. He continued to sway. He swayed until tthe unit fell on its side to the ground.

Inside, the disoriented drunk couldn’t figure out where the door went.


Today, the Kansas City Star has knowledgeable writers covering jazz, like Joe Klopus and Steve Paul. That wasn’t always the case. Such as when our 1985 headliner was the Modern Jazz Quartet and The Star’s reviewer compared them to Muzak.

But we needed The Star to help publicize an event with a meager marketing budget. So at times we endured a love-hate relationship with the newspaper.

By the 1990s I had stepped away from organizing the festival, and the event had merged with the blues fest to create something much larger. I still attended each year. One of those years, the Star’s then jazz writer (who has long since left town) published an article critical of the festival’s talent lineup. After the event, I wrote a letter, which the Star printed, praising the organizers on what was an exceptionally well produced event that year, even in the face of critics who didn’t understand the limitations of talent availability and budgets.

The next year, I was walking through the festival grounds when a mutual friend stopped and introduced me to the Star’s jazz writer. When he heard my name, the writer pointed a finger at me and exclaimed (all these years later, this isn’t really an exact quote), You! You’re the one who wrote the letter! I heard from so many people on that article! But you didn’t get my point! Nobody got the point!

Now, it seems to me that if nobody got his point, he didn’t express it very well.

But more importantly, to find out that my letter had caused that writer so much grief, and that a year later it still bothered him, felt wonderful.

That remains one of my favorite days at a jazz festival.


The year the Modern Jazz Quartet headlined, I learned to refer to them as the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet. Milt Jackson told me. But that’s a story for another blog post.

Monday, November 14, 2011

This 'n That 'n More Festival Thoughts

When establishing a location for the Kansas City Jazz Festival in the early 1980s, organizers chose the south lawn of the Nelson Museum – back when it was controlled by the Parks Department and before it was landscaped – and Volker Park, also known as Theis Memorial Mall, immediately south of the Museum. They were chosen, in part, with the hope of presenting a jazz festival in a setting which would draw both Kansas City’s black and white populations. It was a good location.

Later, the jazz festival merged with the blues festival and moved to the more multiple-stage accommodating Penn Valley Park. That was another good and neutral location.

Two weeks ago I wrote about perceptions of 18th and Vine and how they impact the Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival. It drew several comments, all of which are greatly appreciated.

To clarify a few points:

• I don’t accept that racism, with rare exceptions, plays into suburban residents staying away from 18th and Vine. It’s an undeserved perception of danger, an image which has plagued the district for decades, which scares potential patrons away. The failure to overcome that image both frustrates and angers me.

• One commentator noted people not wanting to venture into the areas surrounding 18th and Vine. That’s a valid point.

When I was chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission, in the mid to late 1980s, the Executive Director of the Black Economic Union showed me extensive blueprint plans for renovating the jazz district. Most of it was not what was eventually built (though some of the since-constructed housing was there).

My reaction at the time was that these were plans for an oasis surrounded by blight. You could not, I said more than 25 years ago, expect people to come to this jazz mecca if they had to pass through neighborhoods which were then far more uninviting and intimidating than what surrounds 18th and Vine today.

The Executive Director agreed and assured me that renovation would grow beyond what I saw in those blueprints. But that’s never happened. As the Crossroads area has extended east – at one point including a performance space at 18th and Troost, which was featured in a story on KCUR – I hoped the uninviting neighborhoods would be bridged. But that, too, has never happened.

• Also noted was a desire for a jazz festival in a neutral site, no doubt remembering the ones described in the opening of this post.

One commentator is right in noting that parking around 18th and Vine for this year’s Rhythm and Ribs was a challenge. I was frustrated to see most of the known lots blocked off for use by, it seemed, anyone but me. I wound up parking in the VIP lot, on the west side of Paseo, not because I’m a VIP, but because I saw spaces available and nobody standing guard to tell me I couldn’t.

The parks of the old festivals held advantages. But the fact is that in the 21st century, nobody is staging a jazz festival on those sites. Nobody is organizing volunteers, or raising money, or pulling in Kansas City’s civic structure, to stage a jazz festival in Volker Park or in Penn Valley Park. Instead, Kansas City’s civic community has coalesced its resources behind a jazz festival at 18th and Vine.

Look for a moment at the 2007 Rhythm and Ribs Festival. All of Parade Park was fenced off. Headliners included Al Jarreau, George Benson, Pat Metheny and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Unless B.B. King was added, I don’t know how you could come up with a more stellar, all-star lineup for a jazz and blues festival in this century. The space, the star power, everything was in place for a breakout event. I don’t know how that festival drew or how it fared financially. But the fact that two years later there was no festival, and it subsequently returned downsized to accommodate around 7000 people, suggests much.

A person with the proper pull could conceivably walk into Kansas City’s civic structure and use that example to suggest the city would be better served by a jazz festival in Penn Valley Park. But that person had best come prepared with a plan, the organization, and the backing to make the event happen. And that person had best come prepared to counter the participants favoring an 18th and Vine location, participants who this year hit their stride in producing an excellent event.

I don’t see that happening. I’m not suggesting it should. The fact is, this city’s major jazz festival is taking place, for the foreseeable future, at 18th and Vine. I maintain the challenge to overcome is how to draw more people to the area.


When the Mutual Musicians Foundation introduced Kansas City wine last August (here), also introduced was a 2012 Charlie Parker calendar. Each month showcases a photo of the great Kansas City-born alto saxophonist, ranging from age 14 months to a clipping of his funeral notice. In between are ubiquitous photos you’ll recognize – Bird with Jay McShann’s band – and some I haven’t seen, such as one of Parker performing in Birdland with Lester Young and Hot Lips Page.

The Charlie Parker 2012 Calendar is available for $10.00 plus $2.50 shipping from SPG Publications, 1146 Harrison Street, Kansas City, MO 64106, or by phoning 816-842-9068, or by emailing

Monday, November 7, 2011

Two New Jazz Spots in Town

I remember the old days, when each bi-monthly issue of Jazz Ambassador Magazine profiled a different Kansas City jazz club.

It’s been a long time since the publication could do that.

Since long before I started this blog, Kansas City has been home to three jazz clubs: Jardine’s, The Blue Room and The Majestic. Four jazz clubs if you count The Phoenix, though that bar has mostly veered towards the blues. The Phoenix apparently decided a fourth club in KC couldn’t survive on jazz.

Two new jazz spots beg to differ. And they’re doing it wonderfully.

1911 Main is both name and address of KC’s newest jazz restaurant and club. In the space once known as Bar Natasha, a semi-circular stage pushes musicians forward among listeners and diners, letting their music fill the room.

On my first visit, a Monday with few in the audience, the room’s abundance of hard surfaces (concrete floor, brick walls) presented the music with a harsh edge.

But last Saturday night the space was filled with people and the sound differed, not harsh but excitingly full and alive. Last Saturday night, Matt Otto’s tenor sax, nearly always played with perfect tone, sounded as smooth yet crisp and precise as I’ve heard it. Backed by T.J. Martley on piano, Ben Leifer on bass and Brian Steever on drums, and playing standards and some of Matt’s more accessible compositions, this group in this space was a genuine jazz delight.

And the music could be clearly heard and enjoyed despite a chattering full house. No series of overhead speakers is needed here to carry the sound. No speaker volume needs to be cranked to enjoy jazz over the crowd.

There’s no cover charge. Food is a fraction of the price of its restaurant-and-jazz-club competition 25 blocks down Main Street, maintaining a quality and consistency – everything is served hot! What a novel concept for a jazz club! – those of us who have dined repeatedly at that competition have long dreamed of experiencing with our jazz.

If 1911 Main had a weak spot, until recently it’s been promotion and an easy way to discover just who is playing there each night. But a new website at tells you everything you need to know. Their online calendar is now linked at the right of this blog. And a recent Groupon promotion found over 820 buyers (excellent results for a new and largely not-yet-known establishment). Given that each of those Groupons was for two or four diners, there’s more than 1600 people ready to discover the new jazz kid on Main Street.

Excellent jazz. Good sound. Good food. Reasonable prices. No cover charge. Ample parking (in a lot at 20th and Walnut, connected by an alley). What more could you want?

How about another outstanding jazz spot, this one in the southern reaches of suburban Johnson County?

Walk into Take Five Coffee and Bar, in the strip mall at the northeast corner of 151st Street and Nall, and you’ll first notice posters of Ella, of Lady Day, of Bird and Diz and Pops. This place is obviously owned by a jazz lover.

Then check out the November calendar posted prominently by the door: Rich Wheeler Quartet, Killer Strayhorn, 9plus1 (every other Monday), Stan Kessler. Matt Otto will be here, too, with a different group, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

There’s a lineup to compete with any music space in KC.

But in a coffee shop (where, let’s note, they serve an outstanding cappuccino)? No worry. They offer some excellent wine, too.

Even more importantly, owner Lori Chandler may have hit on the right formula for presenting nightly jazz in Johnson County. Over the years, I’ve seen jazz bars in this suburb come and go. But here is a relaxing atmosphere, where someone may be reading a Kindle while enjoying wine with his live jazz. Quiet talk by patrons serves as a unique contrast to the more bombastic atmospheres in town. Meanwhile, angled ceilings capture and reflect back the music with exceptional clarity and presence.

If you want a meal and a Scotch with your jazz, I know of a couple of places on Main Street to direct you towards. But if your wish is for a  more genteel environment to savor exceptional music (and maybe a Kindle), welcome to the suburbs. This is a different but no less wonderful setting for enjoying jazz.

The schedule is not just available on the chalk board by the front door. Check out the excellent web site at which includes that monthly lineup, now linked at the right of this blog.

Two new Kansas City jazz spots serving live music four to six nights a week…Y’know, I’m not sure it’s possible to write a better blog post than this.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Ugly Division

A 1980 study on possible uses for the Armory Building (today more commonly known as the Boone Theater) at 18th and Highland in Kansas City’s jazz district, commissioned by the Black Economic Union and funded by Office of the Arts of the Ford Foundation, surveyed 465 black Kansas City residents and 530 white Kansas City residents between October and December, 1979. Among the findings, on page 9 of the report, is this:

“To attract people, the leaders of the jazz effort in the Armory must face the issue of the safety reputation of the 18th and Vine area. Half of the white population and nearly three-quarters of the black, are nervous about the assumed dangers of the neighborhood; our researchers noted that white patrons…who had come into the neighborhood mid-day, were nervous about coming back at night. There would need to be a major public relations effort, to convince black and white customers that the Armory is a safe place to be.”

Earlier this month, on October 8th, organizers at the American Jazz Museum staged a magnificent Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival inside of and in the area behind the museum at 18th and Vine. The crowd loved the music and the environment. The organizers managed all of the details with professionalism and organizational skill, from seating to music to presentation, right down to the designed typeface on the signage (as opposed to hand-scribbled signs so often seen at similar events). They marketed the event well, with a solid web presence and ads in the Kansas City Star reaching out to the entire metropolitan area. I’ve previously mumbled about one of the headliners, and more promotional posters and cards placed around town would have helped build excitement. But the truth is, this was largely a model of how the best jazz festivals are staged in the 21st century.

The festival drew, by my estimate, about 7000 people. The crowd was, by my observation, predominantly urban.

By contrast, the Kansas City Jazz Festival in the 1980s in Volker Park, for which I was an organizer, drew more than 50,000 people over a weekend during its best years. The later Blues and Jazz Festival held in Penn Valley Park attracted even larger crowds.

You can blame the declining popularity of jazz for Rhythm and Ribs not attracting more people. You can blame the price of tickets. You can blame competition during a busy weekend in Kansas City.

But I blame a lingering, entrenched and undeserved reputation, an image identified in that study of the nearby Armory building nearly a third of a century ago, which continues to choke the neck of 18th and Vine. I blame Kansas Citians too naive to recognize a treasure.

I can understand my father’s generation avoiding the area, having grown up with its past. But I thought my generation would fix that. I thought that by building museums and restaurants and staging live music, the vitality and safety of the area would become obvious. I thought the Crossroads district growing east would bridge a path over less desirable neighborhoods to the front door of Kansas City’s history.

We’ve bridged nothing. Neighbors in my suburban neighborhood openly question whether I’ll arrive home from 18th and Vine safely. The truth: I’ve been going there for nearly three decades and have never – I repeat, never – suffered a negative experience.

Yet, perceptions breed divisions.

Last year the suburban community of Prairie Village started its own jazz festival. This year’s event was rained out, but last year’s organizers claimed a crowd of 7000 people for the day.

We’re dividing into a city of provincial jazz festivals. One in the city for an urban crowd, one out south for suburban patrons. Why can’t these 14,000 people – an apparent 7000 per festival – and more, mingle at a single celebration? Given our heritage, Kansas City deserves a major jazz festival.

Such a vision, to happen here, would first require a neutral site easily accessible from throughout the community. That shouldn’t be the case, but it is, because too many of my neighbors will enjoy jazz in Prairie Village but not at 18th and Vine. Attitudes anchored in ignorance cripple the jazz district’s ability to attract a substantially larger festival crowd.

It’s not because of the music. It’s not because of festival organizers. It’s because of misbegotten perceptions ingrained in too many Kansas Citians of my generation.

Still, at one place, I see a thread of hope.

I go down to the Mutual Musicians Foundation, at 1823 Highland, late on a Friday or Saturday night, and there I see young, diverse crowds interact. I see them mingle. There I see the potential of 18th and Vine.

There I see hope that the next generation might do better.

Monday, October 24, 2011

In Lieu of 1000 Words: 2011 Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival

The weather was perfect. The friendly crowds grew throughout the day and night, swaying to and so clearly enjoying all the acts.

The space behind the American Jazz Museum, supplemented by The Blue Room and the museum’s atrium, proved ideal stages. The indoor areas were packed with people throughout the day, and the outdoor grounds were packed by night.

Vendors were pleased, some selling out of food before the last act. Sponsors should be happy with their exposure in and association with such a professionally-organized and successful event. Hopefully, all are anxious to return in 2012.

The 2011 Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival made October 8th a wonderful day and night of music. How wonderful? Take a look for yourself with the photos below. As usual, clicking on one should open a larger version of it.

The festival grounds: Those open spaces filled by night

Jazz headliner Christian McBride

Blues headliner Bobby "Blue" Bland

In the museum atrium, Sons of Brazil performs

Jaleel Shaw, saxophonist with Christina McBride's group, Inside Straight

The Wild Women of KC packed The Blue Room

Christian McBride, Jaleel Shaw, and vibraphonist Warren Wolf

Inside Straight drummer Carl Allen

Lori Tucker, of the Wild Women of KC, sings while a guest saxophonist watches

Bobby Watson joined Inside Straight for their final number. Left to right: Christian McBride, Bobby Watson, Jaleel Shaw

The museum's Atrium Stage at night

Bobby "Blue" Bland and guitarist

Monday, October 17, 2011

Four New KC Jazz CDs. Well, Three, Anyway.

I came to jazz via Basie. It's music that's great because it makes me feel great, a visceral reaction. Music, for me, doesn't need to be any more complicated than that.

Except it always has been. Duke Ellington's Harlem Air Shaft has been, since the first time I heard it, one of my favorite compositions. In three minutes it musically illustrates a cornucopia of joys and sorrows one might hear in a Harlem tenement if, for a day, you just listened. It swings while driving you to think.

Similarly, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's Race Riot Suite is jazz which drives you to think. It musically tells the story of the today little known 1921 Tulsa race riots, in which hundreds of black citizens were killed and a district in the Oklahoma city was destroyed.

It starts with Black Wall Street, a musical portrait of a wealthy black community, a composition of joy, yet just enough off-kilter to foreshadow the disaster to come. The Burning musically paints confusion and devastation, with kaleidoscopic moments that seem to picture someone caught in the middle wondering, What's going on? 

Mt. Zion views an aftermath with reflection and hope. Cover Up illustrates a discordant attempt to bury the disaster in history. Eye of the Dove pushes forward a community and story which defied burial.

But unlike Ellington's Harlem Air Shaft, a wonderful composition even if you never know what it represents, Race Riot Suite requires knowledge of the backstory and its chapters to appreciate the music. The first time I listened to the CD, I didn't know the history, and the music came across as the type of modern, eclectic jazz that you'll never hear from Basie or Ellington, and which I generally don't enjoy. Only after reading the history this CD musically represents, did I appreciate what I heard. This is jazz to enjoy intellectually.

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's Race Riot Suite is available from Amazon, here, or can be downloaded from iTunes, here.


In a far more traditional vein – that we came-to-jazz-via-Basie guys can appreciate without the liner notes – vocalist Laura Chalk's All the Things You Are brings together some of Kansas City's best jazz musicians.

After all, you cannot go wrong with Paul Smith on piano, Bob Bowman on bass, Tim Cambron on drums, Danny Embrey on guitar, or with Laura's own son, emerging sax superstar Matt Chalk, on alto.

Danny's guitar solos on Desafinado, Say It Over and Over Again and The Duke alone are reason enough to buy this CD. Now add Paul's piano solo on All the Things You Are and Bob's bass on Vello Piano. Next hear Matt's soulful sax inventiveness on Em Casa Sozinho. You'll understand why Kansas City instrumentalists are some of the jazz world's best.

Laura is returning to KC's jazz scene after years as a single mom. Her voice brings the right intonation for these classics, but most are delivered with a careful exactness and not yet with the carefree emotion or excitement of other area jazz singers. The concluding number, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, driven by Danny's guitar, carries the most emotion. But that self-confident looseness which can be the difference between hitting the perfect notes (which she does) and overwhelming impact isn't quite there. This is a work in process, and one worth following.

All the Things You Are is available from CD Baby, here.


I have a confession.

Since Jeff Davis, leader of Sir Threadius Mongus, moved to Kansas City, he's sent me press releases. He's introduced himself (and is a nice guy). He's given me Sir Threadius Mongus CDs and musical tracks. He's done everything a person could do to garner mention in a Kansas City jazz blog. Yet, until now, he's never been mentioned.

I've attended a couple of Sir Threadius Mongus shows at Jardine's. The group plays a style of modern, free-form jazz which just doesn't appeal to me. There's nothing wrong with the music. It's just not a type of jazz I find accessible, and not what I personally prefer hearing.

I was interested, though, when Jeff sent the tracks to the latest Sir Threadius Mongus CD, Threads. The group has evolved since moving from Tulsa. This edition includes Andrew McGhie, one of the best young tenor saxophonists in Kansas City, and Stan Kessler, unquestionably one of KC's premiere trumpet players. Matt Otto, a saxophonist who has made a top-tier name for himself since moving here from California, is included. Several other members are a part of People's Liberation Big Band, an eclectic and fun group I've photographed a couple times. The talent on this CD is outstanding.

The music wisely thrusts that talent forward and lets it shine. The inventive ideas which come through sax solos on Before That are obvious even to a codger like me. Purr, one of three tracks recorded live at KC's R Bar, intrigued most, pulling me in with sax and guitar intertwined with vocals by the extraordinary Annie Ellicott.

Threads will be in stores on November 11th.


River Cow Orchestra is a Kansas City group which bills itself as playing "zen jazz," which they describe as "collective spontaneous free improvisation." Their business card bills their music as "jazz for the third millennium."


If their fifth CD, Go Wake the Rooster, is any indication, the third millennium is going to be filled with space age music of repetitive sounds which I have an awfully hard time classifying as jazz.

It's modern music without the whimsy of People's Liberation Big Band, or the intellectualism of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.

I didn't appreciate Jacob Fred's Race Riot Suite until I understood the story behind it. And maybe there's more here than I'm understanding. But as someone who came to jazz via Basie, this is music I just don't get.

Go Wake the Rooster is available on CD Baby, here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Wonderful Festival, and a Conundrum

Crowds filled the field behind the American Jazz Museum last Saturday night – I’m guessing 7000 people by that point – for the 2011 Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival.

Maybe half the audience was standing, swaying along to the music, clearly enjoying the beautiful night. Some grasped their partner’s hands and started to dance. The vocalist on stage cried out, “You know the words!” as he thrust his microphone towards the crowd.

The jazz and blues festival audience started chanting:

The Cisco Kid was a friend of mine,
The Cisco Kid was a friend of mine,
He drink whiskey, Poncho drink the wine,
He drink whiskey, Poncho drink the wine.

Don’t kid yourself: The audience loved this show. They loved hearing the songs they knew from pop radio performed live. They loved swaying to the groove. They loved singing along.

And don’t kid yourself: When the group War started performing, Rhythm and Ribs stopped being a jazz and blues festival.

It’s a conundrum to which I have no answer. From Newport to New Orleans, jazz festivals are booking pop acts to draw the crowds necessary to attract the sponsorships necessary to build the money necessary to stage a significant event. Today, jazz and blues are apparently too narrow a niche to draw sufficient festival crowds without a pop push.

It’s not a new phenomenon. In the 1980s, we sold the Kansas City Jazz Festival not as a jazz festival but as the city’s major event the weekend it was staged. We tried to sell the idea that if you missed this event, you were missing what everyone would be talking about on Monday morning. We signed the city’s top rock station as a sponsor, to draw people out to party. We did that because we knew jazz alone was an insufficient sell to fill an outdoor festival in Kansas City. Booking the funk group War is simply another means to the same end.

I don’t accept that War’s funk is really just another version of jazz and blues, as a panel discussion in The Blue Room a couple weeks back tried to establish. I accept that funk contains elements of each. I accept that it’s an evolution from earlier genres. I’ve demonstrated to friends many times rock and roll growing out of the blues via Big Joe Turner. But rock grew into a new genre. Likewise, funk is no more jazz and blues than my smartphone is a desktop computer, though in both cases one evolved from the other.

Yet it’s those tenuous ties that justify a funk band in a jazz and blues festival. You could argue that’s no better or worse than marketing a jazz festival on the back of rock radio, and I couldn’t argue you’re wrong. To fill the field at an outdoor festival, jazz needs the support of its offspring.

It’s a conundrum to which I have no answer.


That commiserating aside, let’s recognize that the 2011 Rhythm and Ribs Festival was a wonderful success.

Crowds packed the American Jazz Museum’s atrium and The Blue Room for what were, effectively, the side stages. By the time Bobby “Blue” Bland walked onto the main stage, the outdoor field behind the museum was hosting thousands of guests. Before the last act took that stage, food vendors were selling out, delighted with their day. The crowd was friendly and happy. Plenty of legitimate jazz and blues acts were showcased throughout the schedule. I know nothing about the festival’s finances, but by every other measurement, this year’s festival met its goals in a magnificent way.

I’ll offer more observations about the festival in future posts. But for now, let’s enjoy a few photos from the weekend. I’ll also offer more photos in future posts, but those take a while to sort through. Until I have that opportunity, here's a sampling:

Jazz headliner Christian McBride (playing Jeff Harshbarger's bass)

Saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, a member of McBride's group

In The Blue Room, Millie Edwards, of The Wild Women of KC, sings to a saxophonist joining the front window just for the festival

The Warner Project fills the American Jazz Museum's atrium

Headliner Bobby "Blue" Bland

Monday, October 3, 2011

Classic Shots: More Rhythm and Ribs Past

A year ago a I posted photos taken at past Rhythm and Ribs Festivals. That post remains a popular one. And there’s plenty more photos where those came from.

So let’s do this again.

The 2012 Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival (with a funk headliner…but that’s not part of the official name) happens behind the American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine this Saturday, October 8th, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. You can find all the details here. I plan to be there, taking photos. You should plan to be there, enjoying the music.

You can see below just how much everyone enjoyed past Rhythm and Ribs Fests. After all, how could a jazz fan not enjoy the acts pictured below? As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

Koko Taylor, 2005

Christian McBride with Pat Metheny's group in 2007. McBride with his own group is a headliner of this year's festival.

Al Jarreau, 2007

George Benson, 2007

Pat Metheny, 2007

Al Green, 2006

Karrin Allyson, 2005

Shemekia Copeland, 2006

Lonnie Smith, 2007

George Benson and Al Jarreau, 2007

Pat Metheny and Christian McBride, 2007