Monday, March 21, 2011

The World is Ending. No Band-Aid Required.

11th Annual Jazz Lovers Pub Crawl screams the poster dominating one wall of my office. It was 1992, and listed across the bottom of that poster are thirty-one clubs. That’s right. That night in 1992 thirty-one night clubs throughout Kansas City featured live jazz.

Wow. You mean to tell me that in 1992 I could have gone to thirty-one different places in Kansas City and heard jazz? And today there’s what, two clubs? Three? There you go, case closed, jazz is dead.

Wait a minute. I said that one night – one night – for the Pub Crawl, thirty-one clubs showcased jazz.

The Pub Crawl then was sponsored by the Kansas City Jazz Commission. I served as chairman of the Jazz Commission between 1987 and 1989. I was responsible for a couple of crawls. And club owners told me that the Pub Crawl – buses taking listeners and drinkers from one jazz night spot to the next – was so big that, when it happened, they were forced to book jazz and be on the crawl or nobody would come to their bar.

I don’t recall any of those club owners concluding their tale with, “Thank you for making me book jazz. I’ll do it again.”

So, how many clubs are on the Jazz Commission’s Jazz Lovers Pub Crawl today?

Jazz Commission? Jazz Lovers Pub Crawl?

A couple weeks back our friend Plastic Sax surveyed Kansas City jazz club calendars for March (here). He determined that, at best, 61% of the jazz club bookings were actually some form of jazz. “If this trend continues” he wrote, “– and there's no reason to believe that it won’t – jazz will eventually become a secondary consideration in these rooms.”

There you go, case closed, the end of the jazz world as we know it.

Wait a minute. I’ve heard this refrain.

Last year, a friend, a local musician who plays several clubs around town, bemoaned Jardine’s booking cabaret shows on Monday nights. Cabaret moves in and takes over a club, this friend railed. Soon there will be no jazz at Jardine’s.

A year or so later, what I don’t see on Jardine’s latest schedule is cabaret shows.

In fact, on the day I wrote this, I surveyed the April schedules of Jardine’s and The Blue Room. The schedules were not yet complete, but on this day included 44 acts so far set for the month. Under my big tent, 42 of them count as a variation of jazz.

March, apparently, had less jazz in the jazz clubs. April seems headed towards more. An off month doesn’t constitute a world-ending trend. There’s more to consider.

Patrons may turn out once or twice for something quirky or different. But how often will they return if the overall experience is flawed? Ignore The Blue Room for the moment. Since my post about Jardine’s in January (here), several people have mentioned they would go there more often (or at all) if it was a better restaurant. Maybe the music isn’t the issue. Maybe the question is whether the restaurant could thrive without the jazz.

I’m seeing more restaurants and clubs around town sampling jazz, from West Chase Grill in Leawood to bars in the Crossroads district. Some of that is attributable to musicians hustling for work. But maybe, just maybe, some of it is also attributable to the audience seeking out new venues to hear jazz.

Times evolve. Today there’s no Jazz Commission. Today you couldn’t convince thirty-one clubs to devote a night to jazz in Kansas City. You could argue that proves jazz is dead. But it would be another false argument. The Jazz Commission developed a successful, well-marketed event, a one night mini-festival staged in buses and clubs, which drew a significant following of twenty- and thirty-somethings.

Even in 1992, most clubs participated not to support jazz, but as a stunt for a night of business (the principal support for jazz came from the $15,000+ profit the Jazz Commission – at least during my years as chairman – turned on the event). How else to explain, among those thirty-one clubs, participants like Fuzzy's South Sports Bar and Grill (yes, they were on the 1992 crawl)?

Today’s audience for jazz, clearly, is not the size it was then. But the audience is there. Cabaret hasn’t usurped the jazz world. If jazz clubs sometimes book nights of quirk, not jazz, maybe it’s because they need modern stunts to, at least for a night, overcome other perceptions.

Jazz has seen healthier days. That’s not a revelation. But spectacular musicians and a devoted audience seeking new opportunities keep it alive. Jazz is not trending towards second-tier status in Kansas City’s jazz clubs.

Plastic Sax opened his post with, “This is going to hurt a little bit.” He concluded it with, “Would you like a Band-Aid?”


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