It was a Kansas City jazz festival in the mid-1980s – I no longer remember the exact year – at the end of a long day of acts, concluding with what we billed as a jam session. The rhythm section started to play. I was standing near the back of the stage, to assist. A tired staff worker turned to me and said, Let’s not let anyone else join the session, let’s just wrap this up. Sure, I answered.
A young saxophonist walked up to the stage. I stepped out of the way and motioned for him to join the jam. Why did you do that? the tired staff worker barked at me. I shrugged my shoulders and turned away to hear the music.
The truth is, I had been hearing this saxophonist’s name repeatedly. He was new to town then, and people were talking about how outstanding he was, and I wanted to hear him play.
He drove that jam and the crowd loved it.
His name is one that anyone familiar with Kansas City’s jazz scene today will know. The young saxophonist was Kim Park.
I have no training in music. I know it as Duke Ellington described it: “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.” That's me: Just a simple, emotional response. But lacking training sometimes leads me to wonder, do I truly understand which music stands out, is extraordinary?
CDs and touring musicians provide a frame of reference.
I heard Kim Park for the first time in a while last month, playing at Jazz Winterlude. There I heard an alto of ideal tone, playing solos which jumped from one imaginative idea to the next. The large Yardley Hall stage placed too much separation between the musicians and the audience, so the intimacy of a good club or a smaller hall was missing. But the music was technically ideal and peppered with fresh phrasings.
Compare that to the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Ensemble the next night in the same hall. Here was a name from the East coast, playing the music of Ellington. Their presentation was impeccable, their music technically perfect. But they were recreating Ellington recordings. I knew these numbers. Often, I heard in my head the next note before it was played, because this was a live recreation of the recording, and those recordings were on the phone in my pocket. Only the trumpeter seemed to stretch.
I’ll take the imagination of Kim Park over this group any day. I would since that day I first heard Kim on that jazz festival stage.
I often rave in this blog about the young jazz talent populating Kansas City today. But I recognize some are still growing, musically. One who too often showed frustration on stage after a good solo now shows confidence after a better solo. Another who performed as well or as poorly as the group surrounding him is now maturing into a musician who sets the level of excellence for a band. It’s fascinating to hear these musicians climb musical tiers, to know I’m an audience to something special. For some of these musicians, the top tier has not yet been grasped.
Yet other Kansas City jazz musicians I’d not hesitate to judge against anyone who accompanies a jazz headliner on the Folly or Gem stage. And some I’d take over the headliners. I hear the performances in the halls. I hear the performances in the local clubs. Certainly, some headliners perform at another level which leaves an audience in awe. But others are distinguished from some amazing KC jazz musicians only by charisma or history or a magazine article or ticket price.
Here’s what I mean.
Earlier this month I heard Matt Otto’s sextet at Jardine’s. It snowed that night, so perhaps 25 people attended. I shot photos, and will have them on this blog in the coming weeks.
The musicians included Matt on tenor sax, Gerald Dunn on alto sax, Jeff Harshbarger on bass, Michael Warren on drums, Beau Bledsoe on guitar, and Shay Estes vocalizing. Compositions were originals by Matt.
I’m not sure, sans training, I have the vocabulary to correctly describe just what I heard, but I’m going to try. The vocalizing – no words, but rather the voice as an instrument – added a unique layer of depth to the sound. To my ears, which only know how to respond emotionally, the bass and drums carried rhythms. On top of that I heard tenor, alto, guitar and voice blending, harmonizing, into the wonder of a single complex instrument, creating often beautiful, often smoothly opaque, detailed, yet consistently extraordinary waves of music, of jazz, unlike any I’ve heard elsewhere.
One solo sticks with me, on bass, where the sound initially jarred against the expected, yet naturally fit the composition. It surprised, as I cocked my head to listen closer. Isn’t that an emotional response only the most imaginative music elicits?
I can’t believe anyone else could have walked into that club that night and played superior jazz.
(The group performs again March 10th at The Blue Room.)
Kansas City is not the jazz mecca it was eighty years ago. Larger cities offer musicians a larger mesh of opportunities and interactions in which to grow their craft. But somehow, Kansas City has cultivated musicians in the art for which this city is known, since before Basie. And KC continues to be home to jazz musicians who set an extraordinary standard. My ears may lack training, but I know what I hear.
Because Duke Ellington also said of music, “If it sounds good, it is good.”
So, by extension, if it sounds extraordinary….