Monday, January 31, 2011

In Lieu of 1000 Words: New Jazz Order Big Band at Winterlude

We’ll take it in chunks.

I had the chance to shoot photos of several of the bands which delighted audiences at this year’s Jazz Winterlude in Johnson County Community College's Carlsen Center, and they include some not previously pictured on this blog.

Time to picture them. But not all at once. I’ll show one chunk of shots – that is, one group – per post, starting with one of which I’ve raved before.

I still regret not carrying my camera with me the night I heard the New Jazz Order Big Band at The Blue Room. But I didn’t because, honestly, I didn’t expect to be as taken with this band as I was. You can read about how wrong that expectation was in the post I wrote here.

This big band remains a hard-driving collection of musicians playing outstanding big band music, respecting but not stuck in the past. From sax solos by Steve Lambert, to leader Clint Ashlock’s trumpet, to vocalist Megan Birdsall – to pull out just a few of the night's highlights – it’s hard to imagine Winterlude jumping off to a more musically magnificent start than it did January 20th in Polsky Theatre. You don’t have to take my word for it. Read what our friend Plastic Sax had to say about the show in his review, here.

You can catch the New Jazz Order Big Band any Tuesday night at Harling’s from 9 p.m. to midnight. But if you want to catch them in coat and tie, you may need to settle for the photos below (Harling’s just isn’t a coat and tie kind of joint). As always, clicking on a shot should open a larger version of it.

The New Jazz Order Big Band opening Jazz Winterlude

Singer Megan Birdsall watches while Kerry Strayer solos on baritone sax. That's Andrew Ouellette on piano and Ben Leifer on bass.

Megan Birdsall sings

Aaron Linscheid solos on trumpet

Steve Lambert on tenor sax

Megan sings, Steve solos, the band plays

Band leader Clint Ashlock

The New Jazz Order Big Band

Monday, January 24, 2011

Scenes From a Jazz Club

• Last September, and the performance was spectacular. The singer hit every note with perfection and the rhythm section, feeling something unique, drove the music hard, with emotion. The audience that night, in that often noisy club, sat rapt and listened, quiet except for applause.

Sometimes when you sit down in this jazz club, the night is magical.

• Next month in that club, I went to hear a sax player, back in town to perform with his old pals. The music clicked, swinging and fun.

This night, I ordered dinner. As usual, I asked for a double order of green beans instead of potatoes (for diabetes control). The server came back and said the kitchen was short of green beans and could only serve a single order. Fine, I said, then just leave off the potatoes. The server said the kitchen told her that it was too busy to prepare special orders and I could just pick off the potatoes.

I looked around and counted 53 customers in the club who might order dinner. A restaurant with a posted capacity of 115 was overwhelmed by preparing perhaps 53 dinners?

I could have had a more personalized meal at McDonald’s.

• I remember a summer night, a Saturday, in the same club. The show started about 10:30. The room was packed, bodies wall to wall. The only available seat was at the bar. People talked, and here the sound system rarely overcomes the chatter. But this night the singer’s voice and choice of songs – it was a different singer – quieted just enough people and grabbed just enough attention to be heard. More people listened, and the performers increasingly commanded the space. Midway through the first set, the musicians owned the room.

This isn’t something you find every night in this club, but when it happens and jazz overtakes the cacophony of talk, you experience the definition of a jazz club.

• It was the last Wednesday of last year in the same club. I don’t usually make reservations, though I regularly walk in to table signs which read “Reserved.” But this time I planned to use a coupon, so when I was in the club on Monday night, for another show, I made a reservation for Wednesday. I watched the hostess write it in the reservation book.

I arrived on Wednesday on time, ready to order flat iron steak. The club was filled. I looked for a table with a “Reserved” card on it, like I always saw for people who made reservations. There was one. But that one, the hostess explained, was reserved for someone else. Well, I had a reservation, too. The hostess proceeded to clear a table right by the front door, a table covered with flowers and papers and junk. She wanted me to sit a few feet from a constantly opening door on the last Wednesday of December in Kansas City? I wasn’t going to enjoy flat iron steak – or anything – sitting there.

I could eat at the bar, she offered. No, I made a reservation for a table. I could point to it in the reservation book. There should be a table with a “Reserved” sign waiting, just like that other table with a sign is waiting for somebody else. If a spot opened up, the hostess offered, she would seat me.

I sat at the bar, angry. An hour later, apparently no spot having opened (or ignored because I looked angry), I left, hungry and mad. When I arrived home, I stuck a Banquet frozen dinner in the microwave. It wasn’t flat iron steak.

The club is Jardine’s, arguably Kansas City’s premiere jazz club. Music at The Blue Room is just as wonderful (and sometimes better), but The Blue Room is open less often and doesn’t serve food. The Majestic has better food, but only a pianist until Thursdays, and then usually just small, unobtrusive combos. The Phoenix offers cheaper but inferior food (extraordinarily bland, in my experience) and seems undecided on whether it’s a jazz club or a blues bar. At R Bar you’ll find vastly superior (albeit higher priced) dinners and a superior sound system, but only occasional jazz.

If you want good and varied jazz with fine drinks and/or a decent meal, most nights in Kansas City, Jardine’s is the choice.

But it’s not the choice because you always like it. Often you do. Often you hear magnificent jazz by Kansas City’s outstanding musicians. Go there enough, and you will experience nights of magic.

But go there enough and you will experience nights when you would have been better off with a CD and a Whopper.

Jardine’s is the choice by default.

And that’s frustrating. A gaping hole floats over Kansas City’s jazz scene, asking to be filled by a club where you can expect consistently – consistency is key here – fine food, good drinks, excellent service, all tightly managed.

I keep hoping that Jardine’s will tighten into that place. But nights like the last Wednesday of 2010 leave me wondering if it will ever be Kansas City’s premiere jazz club for more reason than there just isn’t anyplace better.

Then I have a night like this:

• The group is one of my favorites. I’ve written about them before. Two saxophonists started playing. They’re outstanding. A guest bassist was sitting in, a former Kansas Citian. His solos are spectacular, even better than when he lived here. He was driving the pianist, whose playing I always enjoy, to greater solos. This is a tight group at their best. Nobody heard better live jazz than I heard that Monday night.

It was so good, I decided to return Wednesday. I made a reservation and watched the hostess write it in the book. On Wednesday, I thought, I'd try the flat iron steak.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The KC Jazz Musician Quiz (and a Plug)

Today’s post is a shameless plug for which I make no apology. Because the organizer of Johnson County Community College’s Jazz Winterlude has been a friend for about a quarter century, since I was a volunteer organizer of the Kansas City Jazz Festival and she was the main contact with our partner, Kansas City Parks and Recreation.

So I know first hand that when Doreen Maronde commits to a project, it will be meticulously planned and an event worth attending. That statement’s not part of the plug. That’s just a fact.

The second Jazz Winterlude starts this Thursday, January 20th, at 7 p.m. with the New Jazz Order Big Band and guest Megan Birdsall in Polsky Theatre, within the Carlsen Center, on the Johnson County Community College campus. If you’ve never heard this group at their Tuesday night gig at Harlings, or at one of their Blue Room performances (one of which I raved about here), you have no excuse now.

Winterlude continues with concerts running from 4 to 10:15 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and concludes with a jazz brunch on Sunday. The complete schedule and ticket information is here.

There’s the plug. Now let’s have some fun. Because I offered to prepare a Twitter feed and Facebook page for Winterlude this year, and to populate both daily with fun facts supplied by the musicians performing in the festival about themselves. For various reasons, neither the feed nor the page congealed as originally envisioned, and with only 20 or so followers each, I know few of you have seen the fun facts.

So here’s a quiz. Every question is about a Kansas City jazz musician performing at Winterlude. Think you know our local jazz stars? Now is your chance to find out, with the ten questions that follow. Answers are at the end.

1.  Which KC pianist was born in Eindhoven? And where the heck is Eindhoven?

2.  Here’s a clue: The largest school of jazz in Europe is Hilversum Conservatory. That Eindhoven-born pianist is a Hilversum grad. Who might he be?

3.  Let's look at another musician. This one has toured with B.B. King, Grover Washington, Lou Donaldson, and backed Redd Foxx in Vegas. He plays tenor sax, electric bass, guitar, clarinet, flute, harmonica, drums and sings. Who is this?

4.  Her grandmother taught music. Her mother sang. Her father took her to the Mutual Musicians Foundation. She was playing piano at age 12. As a viola student at Ottawa University, she had a chance to work with Aaron Copland. Who is she?

5.  At age 8 he sold newspapers on a street corner in Joplin, MO. At age 10 he sold drinks at Starlight, but was fired for tipping over a container of ice. For three years he worked Swope Park Concessions and saved money to buy his first drum set. Name him.

6.  He grew up in a Nebraska town with no record store, so for music he’d visit a local supper club which featured a Dixieland band. Who is he?

7.  She first sang with the King’s Men, a Shawnee Mission North group that also featured saxophonist Mike White. Later, Marilyn Maye helped her start in jazz by lending her pianist Sammy Tucker for an audition. Which singer is this?

8.  He’s played bass with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra in New York and the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabakin Big Band in L.A., and he’s toured South America and Japan with Carmen McRae. But he started on piano before switching to clarinet in Topeka. Who is he?

9.  Now consider another bassist. He’s played the Montreux Jazz Festival, the San Jose Jazz Festival and the World’s Fair in Seville, Spain. Who?

10.  He played trumpet in high school. But he’s known as a pianist and has accompanied Louis Bellson, Ruby Braff, Randy Brecker, Karrin Allyson, Nick Brignola, Bob Brookmeyer, Gary Burton, Conti Condoli, Doc Cheatham, Al Cohn, Buddy DeFranco, Paquito D’Rivera, Gary Foster, Ubie Green, Eddie Harris, Red Holloway, Carmell Jones, Jay Leonhart, Kevin Mahogany, Marilyn Maye, Rob McConnell, David “Fathead” Newman, Anita O’Day, John Pizzarelli, Dianne Reeves, Red Rodney, Pat Metheny, Marshall Royal, Bud Shank, Jack Sheldon, Zoot Sims, Grady Tate, Clark Terry, Bobby Watson and Phil Woods. Whose resume is this?



1. and 2.  Pianist Bram Wijnands was born in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and graduated from Hilversum Conservatory in 1991, but has lived in KC now for nearly 20 years.

3.  Dwight Foster has toured with B.B. King, Grover Washington, Lou Donaldson, and backed Redd Foxx.

4.  Wild Woman Millie Edwards came from a family that loved music. At age 12 she was playing piano, and by 19 she was singing solo.

5.  Tommy Ruskin paid for his first drum set by selling concessions at Swope Park.

6.  Baritone saxophonist Kerry Strayer grew up in a small Nebraska town with no record store.

7.  Singer Julie Turner started with the King’s Men out of Shawnee Mission North. But she credits singer Marilyn Maye for her start in jazz.

8.  Bassist Bob Bowman has played New York, Los Angeles, South America and Japan with some of the biggest names in jazz.

9.  Bassist Gerald Spaits has played Montreux, San Jose and Seville.

10.  The pianist who has accompanied Bellson, Braff, Brecker, Allyson, Brignola, Brookmeyer, Burton, Condoli, Cheatham, Cohn, DeFranco, D’Rivera, Foster, Green, Harris, Holloway, Jones, Leonhart, Mahogany, Maye, McConnell, Newman, O’Day, Pizzarelli, Reeves, Rodney, Metheny, Royal, Shank, Sheldon, Sims, Tate Terry, Watson and Woods is…Paul Smith.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Return of the Magic Jazz Fairy

“It’s a new me!” the Magic Jazz Fairy cried out, fist pumped high, as the doors to detox swung open.

The mystical being knew it had not been doing its job, and jazz in Kansas City had suffered. Because it’s not the fault of some of the club owners who book jazz if they don’t promote then nobody shows up. And, of course, if a jazz musician doesn’t tweet to followers that there’s a show, or doesn’t post the news in advance to their Facebook wall or their web site, it’s not the musician’s fault, either. After all, they’re musicians, not ad agencies.

So if neither the venue nor the performer holds any responsibility to let jazz fans know that there’s jazz, it must be the responsibility of a mystical being. And that mystical being, as described in an earlier post (here), is the Magic Jazz Fairy. It’s the Magic Fairy who knows when all jazz is happening, and it’s the Magic Jazz Fairy who should be going around to every jazz fan and whispering in our ear while we sleep where and when we can hear jazz so we know, so we just know. And Kansas City has been burdened with a lame Magic Jazz Fairy who has not been doing its job, and jazz attendance has suffered and now we know why. Now we know the real reason so many jazz shows have faced so many empty seats.

Our Magic Jazz Fairy had a drinking problem.

But even mystical beings feel a sense of right and wrong (I’m sure I’m not saying anything you didn’t already know), and our Magic Jazz Fairy manned up and got help.

So the doors to detox swung open wide and the Magic Jazz Fairy was ready. All it had to do was find out when and where jazz in Kansas City is happening and tell us. This isn’t rocket science. Just find the sources, take notes, then fly around at night and tell us. Heck, any sober winged mystical being could do that.

The Magic Jazz Fairy started with the obvious sources. Jardine’s, The Blue Room, The Majestic and The Phoenix all publish online calendars, and all follow up with some combination of emails, tweets and Facebook posts. So, the Magic Jazz Fairy reasoned, every Kansas City jazz fan should already know who’s there. We don’t need those dates whispered in our ears as we sleep. After all, whisper too much and guys (especially guys) will wake up confused.

But another downtown venue is now booking jazz and not drawing crowds. The Magic Jazz Fairy needed details. First, it found the venue’s web site. Curiously, the site made no mention of music, none at all. The mystical being next checked musicians’ web sites. Only one mentioned a performance there, no others. Quickly, it looked up the venue’s Facebook page. There was the word “jazz” on the page, all right, but no mention of when or who. Next the Magic Jazz Fairy checked the musicians’ Facebook pages. Encouragingly, some posted that they would be playing there. But, discouragingly, they posted the news just hours before a performance. The Magic Jazz Fairy lifted its head in anguish. How could that work? How could it fly to all Kansas City jazz fans while we sleep and whisper in our ears when and where jazz would be performed if the news could only be found on Facebook hours before the performance?

Frustrated, the Magic Jazz Fairy folded its wings up tight to its back and pulled on an overcoat. It wanted to be responsible. It wanted to do its job. It would go and check out the venue.

The Magic Jazz Fairy walked through the club’s door. A stage spanned the front, set that night for live jazz. But the mystical being walked in between sets and Beyonce music was blaring from the speakers. A jazz club that blared Beyonce between live jazz sets?

The mystical being picked up a drink menu. There, in the back, were tabs to insert a schedule. But the tabs held no schedule, only stains.

The Magic Jazz Fairy was increasingly distraught. How could it do its job? How could it spread the word of jazz in Kansas City if the venue never listed the music on its web site or Facebook page, if it didn’t list it anywhere in the club, if performers mentioned it only sporadically on their web sites, and on their Facebook page only hours before a show? What good was a sober Magic Jazz Fairy under these conditions?

The Magic Jazz Fairy sat at the bar and laid its head in its hands. Beyonce blared. The bartender walked up and gazed at the disturbed being.

“What can I get you, friend?” the bartender asked.

The Magic Jazz fairy looked up. You shoulda put a ring on it blared in its ears, over and over. What can you get me? it thought. You could get me a list of your live music. You could get me a printed schedule. You could get me an online schedule. You could point me to Facebook posts and to tweets. You could get the musicians to help, to post to their pages sooner. You could get some other kind of between set music if you want to sell live jazz. You could help me help you draw a crowd and grow this into a successful jazz club.

That’s what the mystical being, fresh out of detox, thought.

“Scotch on the rocks,” the Magic Jazz Fairy said.

Monday, January 3, 2011

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Harold O'Neal at the Mutual Musicians Foundation

The New York Times wrote about Harold O’Neal: “He comes with a full, orchestral piano sound, rippling, weaving, punching like Kenny Kirkland’s solos did in the 1990s….”

High praise for the Tanzania-born, Kansas City-raised pianist, who attended the Paseo Performing Arts Academy and found a musical home with revered KC jazz greats like Bobby Watson and Ahmad Alaadeen. But at age 29, now calling New York home, his new CD, Whirling Mantis, is deservedly hot in jazz circles, garnering reviews on NPR (here) and in The New York Times (here).

Yet for New Year’s Eve, Harold returned to his real home, Kansas City and the Mutual Musicians Foundation. I’ve written about the Foundation before (here). It’s Kansas City’s most historic site, still hosting jams from 1 to 5 a.m. on weekend nights. Harold presided over the New Year’s jam, noting how delighted he was to be back in, as he put it, the first club where he hung out. And we were thrilled to hear him here, in the building where any name associated with Kansas City jazz has jammed, where a portrait of Jay McShann watched approvingly. His classical solo take on a Bud Powell composition, to call out just one number, was an unforgettable musical start to the year.

In an exchange of messages on a photography forum, Harold’s producer suggested I ask him to do a card trick. I did, but neither of us had a deck of cards. If you have the pleasure of hearing him play, I suggest you ask for that Bud Powell number.

Here’s how it looked New Year’s Eve 2010/New Year’s morning 2011 at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, mostly shots of Harold O’Neal at the piano, but also a few with some of the KC musicians who jammed with him. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.