Monday, April 11, 2011

A Portrait of the Foundation Last Saturday Night

Around 3:45 a.m., they temporarily stopped letting people go upstairs. Too many guests were already up there.

Meanwhile, downstairs, the line of people snaked out the door. One man in a military uniform asked if he could get in free. No, he was told, this was the only means of income. Think of the cover charge as a donation. He did.

People wandered around downstairs, looking closely at the portraits of Kansas City jazz legends which line the walls. I prefer the ambiance downstairs.

“How do they do this?” one person asked, looking away from the wall, throwing the question out to anybody. “How can they stay open all night? Do they have a special permit?”

“The state of Missouri passed a special law just for this place,” I offered, from across the room. “This is a National Historic Landmark, after all.”

Upstairs, every seat was filled. People lined the back of the room and the thin aisles between tables. Most held a drink. Everyone I saw looked happy.

The crowd was diverse – black people, white people, Asian people – and enjoying each other’s company. I came alone and shared a table with strangers. But they weren’t strangers. We introduced ourselves. The other guests started asking questions.

“Do you come here often?”

“Not too often,” I answered. “At my age, I need an afternoon nap to stay out this late. But I’ve been coming here since the 1980s.”

“So who has played here?”

“Just about anyone associated with jazz. Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Mary Lou Williams, Big Joe Turner. In fact, I saw Big Joe Turner here.”

“You did?”

“Yes, downstairs. I was standing about an arm’s length away while he shouted the blues.”

People upstairs stood, bought a drink, apologized when they bumped into each other, then sat down to chat and to listen and to marvel.

Let’s be honest: This was a beautiful spring night. And at 3:45 a.m. on a weekend night in Kansas City, here and the casinos are the only places I know where you can (legally) enjoy entertainment and drink. Some people were here because they could be. Some just weren’t ready for bed yet on such a gorgeous night.

But some in the audience came for the jazz. The people I spoke with came to touch history. Here, it touches back.

On stage, a rhythm section anchored the Saturday night jam session (Sunday morning, actually; it started at 1 a.m.). They were joined by trumpet, trombone and tenor sax. There was solid experience, a veteran of Kansas City jazz, behind the piano. But on trumpet, Chalice is young and here regularly. I’ve heard him before, and before he sounded inexperienced. But tonight his sound is more controlled. He’s growing in mastery of his instrument. I’m not the only one who noticed.

Is this what Kansas Citians had the chance to hear 75 years ago, when a young Charlie Parker once squeaked his sax – in, among other places, this building – then gradually grew and mastered his instrument? Sure, we don’t know where any young player will end up. It’s improbable that I’m hearing the maturing of a future jazz great. I understand odds stand stacked against that.

But it’s possible. Because in this building, history touches back.

Downstairs, I chatted with Anita, who is in charge. I told her that after some recent turmoil on the Board here, I asked a friend, a musician, what was going on. My friend told me, “Don’t worry, Anita will take care of everything.” Anita laughed. My friend was right.

Outside, cars lined both sides of Highland Street, leaving a single lane on a two-way street. I stopped to chat with another friend. On the street, a car and a taxi approached from opposite directions and stopped, facing each other. Someone from the car, who maybe had a bit to drink, stepped out, flashing muscles (“he’s done steroids,” my friend decided) and yelled at then kicked the taxi. The taxi driver just talked on his cell phone. The car pulled to the side, between two parked cars, and the taxi passed. As it did, the driver of the car yelled at the taxi driver. The taxi driver continued to talk on his cell phone.

I walked down the street, smiling, to my car, then drove off for the night. I drove through the Crossroads district, seeing maybe two other cars on the road. The rest of Kansas City was asleep.

When I pulled out of my parking spot, on Highland, and drove off, I saw another car pull into the space. I saw two people step out.

As I drove up the ramp to I-35 from West Pennway, to head back home, I wondered if those two people had found their way upstairs yet.

— Last Saturday night at the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

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