Monday, May 30, 2011

In Lieu of 1000 Words: People's Liberation Big Band on International Workers Day

Name a jazz big band with a score-in-waiting for the silent film Battleship Potemkin. Go ahead, name one.

Okay, I’ll name it for you: The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City.

Now, name a jazz big band which mocks then performs (actually, mocks and performs) selections by Kurt Weill, sung by two jazz vocalists and a renowned operatic tenor.

I’ll give you a hint: It’s the same jazz big band which performed selections to scenes from the silent film Battleship Potemkin at The Record Bar before a couple hundred people on International Workers Day, May 1st.

If you’re thinking this jazz big band show must have been half crazy, well, that’s part of the fun. And I think it’s more than half.

I’ve pictured The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City before (here). The whimsy behind some of the best big band music you’ll hear – best because of the outstanding talent taking that stage – makes their first Sunday of the month shows some of the most anticipated in Kansas City. Especially twice a year when they add special guests and features for jazz shows like none other you’ll find around here.

Guests like vocalist Shay Estes, superb Tulsa vocalist Annie Ellicot, and opera tenor Nathan Granner. And features like, well, a projector showing a silent film.

Maybe you had to be there for this to make sense. So let’s try this: Take a glance at the scenes below from The People’s Liberation Big Band International Workers Day show. It was as wonderful as it looks (as always, clicking on a shot should open a larger version of it).

The People's Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City, directed by Brad Cox, playing portions of their score to the silent film Battleship Potemkin. They have a complete score ready if a theater would show the film. Anyone?

Tulsa super jazz vocalist Annie Ellicot, Kansas City super jazz vocalist Shay Estes, and super jazz bassist and sometimes vocalist Jeff Harshbarger sing while The People's Liberation Big Band performs.

Opera tenor Nathan Granner joins Shay to sing jazz with the band.

Jeffrey Ruckman on accordian with Annie on vocals

Nathan, Annie and Shay sing

Annie Ellicot and Shay Estes enjoy the band

Annie sings, Brad Cox directs, both with intensity

Annie and Shay fronting The People's Liberation Big Band

The People's Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City on International Workers Day at The Record Bar

Monday, May 23, 2011

Commission Tales 5: Friends

Sometimes you wonder why you do it.

I wasn’t paid for chairing the Kansas City Jazz Commission.

First you do it because you believe in the cause, because you believe this organization deserves another chance to thrive.

You do it because you have experiences and you meet people you wouldn’t experience or meet any other way.

When your name and face become tied to the cause, you do it because you want to be tied to a cause which, ultimately, succeeds.

The full Jazz Commission held monthly meetings. I put them in City Hall, in part for the symbolism of this beleaguered commission meeting there.

Among the people who attended every month was Bennie Moten’s daughter, Zella Mae. I did not know her well. Zella Mae rarely spoke during the meetings.

One month, at the end of the meeting, Zella Mae stayed while I gathered the papers and supplies I brought with me. She stopped me at the door. There, Bennie Moten’s daughter clasped my hand between her two palms and said, “You’ve done more with the Jazz Commission than anyone since the start. Thank you. Thank you so much.”

You do it for moments like that.


We had enemies in City Hall. But we also had friends.

On the phone was a woman I knew from my jazz festival days. She had been involved in civic groups and we met somewhere along the way and remained friends. I didn’t know her husband was an assistant city manager. It had been awhile since we talked, so I was a little surprised when she called.

A city commission was meeting at her home the next night. It would be a casual evening. They would have drinks and finger food. Among the people there would be the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. Also there would be the chairman of the City Council’s budget committee who wouldn’t release the Jazz Commission’s funding and who wouldn’t meet with me.

Her husband suggested she invite me. Would I like to come?

I arrived early. The Chamber chairman and the budget committee chairman arrived together. During the meeting part of the evening, we stood on opposite sides of the living room. And during the mingling, they seemed to mingle away from me.

Towards the end of the evening, the assistant city manager tapped me on the shoulder and suggested I step into the kitchen. Now.

The Chamber chairman was standing at the sink, washing his hands. The budget committee chairman stood next to him. I walked up and introduced myself to the Chamber chairman. Cordially, we talked. He asked me about the Jazz Commission. I described the people involved. I described our plans. The budget committee chairman joined the conversation. What would we do with the city funding? I laid out how we could parlay it into more funds and stage events to benefit the city.

The conversation ended and we shook hands. The Chamber chairman and the budget committee chairman left. I had the chance to say everything I would have said in a meeting in City Hall. The Jazz Commission was no longer a nebulous body, in the budget committee chairman’s view, wasting city dollars. We had a face which he now knew. He knew our plan. I felt good.

Less than a week later, the councilman who had first befriended us phoned me. The budget committee chairman came to him with a new deal. $15,000 of the $20,000 budgeted for the Jazz Commission would go to the Commission and $5000 would go to another community group. I hesitated for just a moment. The councilman quickly added, “This is the best deal you’re going to get. You need to take it.” I did.

The funding would come up at the next budget committee meeting. The councilman suggested I bring supporters to speak in favor of it. As it turned out, they weren’t needed. The committee chairman introduced the funding, he introduced me, I spoke, reporters took notes, it passed unanimously. The committee chairman smiled the entire time, as if we were friends. The next week, the funding passed the entire City Council. The City Council continued to fund the Kansas City Jazz Commission each year I was chairman, and beyond.


Our former treasurer pled guilty and agreed to repay all of the stolen money. The incident would be removed from the person’s record when repayment was complete.

On a regular basis, we received checks from the county, passing along to the Jazz Commission the money being repaid. I don’t remember now how long it took. A year? Two years? But I remember seeing the letter from the county which accompanied the final payment, telling us that the full amount was restored.

By that time, the Kansas City Jazz Commission had moved on to new battles, but also to stage successful events and to contribute to the city.

By then, the events which precipitated those checks felt like they happened a long time ago.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Commission Tales 4: Damage Control

Books and magazines on the shelves, a desk littered with pens and papers, and a telephone with a red light flashing for messages unheard.

In 1987, the Kansas City Jazz Commission kept an office in the Lincoln Building at 18th and Vine. But our executive director had left for a job in California. The new vice chairman, treasurer, secretary and I were looking over what we’d inherited.

The audit report was out. Our former treasurer was being prosecuted. Our executive director was gone. But we had an office. An office with a phone which kept flashing an annoying red light.

The vice chairman opened a desk drawer and rifled through some papers, then pulled one out. Startled, she blurted out, “Look at this.”

It was documentation for nearly half of the Jazz Commission expenditures which the City Auditor’s audit, and the article on the front page of the newspaper, and the news stories on TV, said were undocumented.

I called the auditor the next day. He said that he took the documents the outgoing executive director gave to him before leaving for California, and whatever expenditures were not covered by those went into the audit report as having no documentation.

Wasn’t any effort made to find the rest of the documentation? I asked. We found paperwork for half of what the audit said was undocumented with just a couple minutes of scrounging through the office. Why didn’t the auditor’s office call us and ask us to look for the remaining documentation?

After the executive director left, the auditor said, no effort was made to find anything more. All the “missing documentation” could be in the Jazz Commission office, he conceded. He never explained why neither he nor his staff called us before the report was released to see if we’d care to check.

And in part due to that, the Jazz Commission was being raked across the public coals.


An editorial in the newspaper chastised the Jazz Commission. An editorial cartoon pictured us as buffoons falling out of a pub crawl bus.

The Jazz Commission’s first chairman sent a message, through a mutual friend, that we needed to meet with the editorial board at The Kansas City Star.

Fortunately, two members of our executive committee knew what the editorial board was. I wasn’t one of them.

But they quickly explained that this was all of the staff writers, editors and cartoonists who contribute to the newspaper’s editorial pages. One of the executive committee members who already knew this arranged the meeting.

The vice chairman, treasurer, secretary and I went. We were ushered into a conference room in The Star’s building at 18th and Grand, and The Star staff members entered. We were greeted warmly.

I brought copies of the documentation we found in the Jazz Commission’s office and handed them out. I explained how this accounted for half of the expenditures which the audit report claimed were undocumented. Then we discussed the Commission, our goals, our plans, what would happen if we never received our city funding.

The conversation was friendly but professional. One Star staff member, before asking a question, wondered if the discussion was on the record. Since a reporter in the room was taking notes, everything I said assumed it was (which was also the consensus of the room).

The next day a story ran towards the back of the newspaper, near the obituaries. About two thirds of the way through it said we claimed to have documentation for some of the questioned expenditures. A few days later, an encouraging editorial supporting our efforts appeared. That helped. Future editorials would grow even more supportive.

At the end of the meeting, we chatted informally for a few moments, then The Star staff filed out of the room.

I looked around the table. All of The Star staff members had left the paper, the documentation, which I’d distributed. They took all of the pens and pads they brought into the room, but a single sheet of paper sat before each of their chairs. I stopped a moment, then walked around the table and picked each one up.

Oddly, I felt compelled to leave The Star’s conference room in the same shape as I found it.


Behind the scenes, the council member who first befriended us and the chairman of the budget committee talked, but the chairman still wanted to give our funding to another civic group. I heard details which led me to suspect that the chairman and the mayor’s assistant who leaked the audit report to the press were also discussing the Jazz Commission. But I couldn't confirm that. Neither would speak to me.

Then one afternoon I received a phone call. A friend had an idea. This might work. This might lead to the Jazz Commission’s funding being released.

I was invited to the meeting of another commission.

The story concludes in the next blog post.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Commission Tales 3: Angry Chair

I was lucky.

Because however much I may recount these Jazz Commission stories from my perspective, I was part of a team. The Jazz Commission’s vice chairman, treasurer, secretary, other members and I solved the Commission’s problems collectively. We didn’t always agree. Not everyone left the group amicably. That doesn't matter. Together, a team of wonderful, dedicated jazz fans resuscitated the Kansas City Jazz Commission.


I was also lucky because, I discovered, the Jazz Commission had friends inside and outside of City Hall. We needed them.

The Commission’s former treasurer was being prosecuted for stealing $6400 of city funds from the Jazz Commission. We were audited by the City Auditor and the unfavorable result was leaked to the newspaper. An attorney testified before a City Council committee that the Commission should be denied city funding, and nobody from the Commission showed up to defend us, angering the committee chairman. Meanwhile, two Commission chairmen resigned within a couple months of each other and our executive director took a job in California.

The new vice chairman and I decided to start by visiting the City Council office of the committee chairman who didn’t like us. The Commission’s funding was stuck in his committee. Neither of us knew how City Hall worked. This seemed to be the best place to begin finding out.

The committee chairman’s assistant was friendly. She smiled. Could we visit with the councilman? He’s a busy man (translation: no). How can we discuss with him the Commission’s budget? You might send him a memo (translation: you can’t). Could we do anything to see the Commission’s budget brought up in committee again? A councilman needs to do that (translation: no, you can’t). Thank you for your help. You’re welcome (translation: go away, losers).

I don’t remember now if the vice chairman needed to leave after that or if the next day I returned to City Hall alone. But the next logical step seemed to be to try to meet another councilman on the budget committee. I went to the office of a freshman council member. He greeted me immediately. He liked jazz.

Sometimes when you meet someone, you hit it off immediately, as if you’re lifelong friends. You don’t know why, you just do. That was the case between me and this council member. As we talked, as I laid out plans for the Jazz Commission, the councilman was engaged. He would be our advocate in the budget committee.

But there was a problem.

The committee chairman had developed a plan to give all of the Jazz Commission’s funding to another civic group. Away from the City Council, that group was this councilman’s law client. The chairman thought that assured him of this councilman’s support. But it didn’t. Well, it probably didn’t.

The councilman took me into the office of another freshman council member who was also part of the budget committee. He introduced us, laid out my case, and she was on our side. They both suggested I return after lunch, with the Commission’s vice chairman, when the committee would publicly meet, and speak before the committee.

They didn’t tell the committee chairman they suggested that.

After lunch, before the budget committee, the council member who befriended us reintroduced the Jazz Commission’s funding. The committee chairman was surprised. This wasn’t on his agenda. The two council members I’d met said there were two people from the Jazz Commission in the room who would like to speak. The committee chairman was surprised and not happy. This wasn’t on his agenda. We spoke. With controlled anger, the committee chairman asked why we had not testified before.

“Forgive us,” I responded. “I work as Production Manager in a small graphics studio. She,” as I gestured towards the Commission’s vice chairman, “is a photographer. We’re quickly learning how things work in this building.”

The committee chairman said nothing. The fourth member of the budget committee looked bemused. Two reporters, who had not been covering what was expected to be an uneventful committee meeting, rushed into the room. The budget committee meeting was adjourned. The committee chairman looked towards the two council members who introduced us and angrily said something, then left. The reporters approached. What had they missed? they asked. What precipitated that outburst? What happened?

I later found out we were, momentarily at least, the talk of City Hall. And the Jazz Commission’s funding was back in play.

The two council members who brought us this far told us that we needed to meet individually with each of the other City Council members, just as we had met with the two of them, to build support for the Jazz Commission’s funding. They would delay reconsideration until we had that support.

We were definitely learning how things worked in that building.


I, often with another Jazz Commission Executive Committee member, met with each of the other, mostly sympathetic, City Council members. All except one. The chairman of the budget committee would not see us. And he held significant say in when or if the Jazz Commission’s funding would be brought up again in his committee. He would not again be blindsided.

Then, one afternoon, the wife of an assistant city manager called me. I knew her from my days with the jazz festival. Her husband had a suggestion to help.

But first, we were told by a former Jazz Commission chairman that we needed to meet with The Kansas City Star.

More, in the next blog post.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Jazz, the Next Generation

The table for tomorrow’s history is being set during the day, each Saturday.

I’ve written about and photographed the Mutual Musicians Foundation at 1823 Highland (here and here). Once the black musicians' union building, today it is a National Historic Landmark known for all night jazz jams. It’s not just Kansas City’s most historic structure, but one of the most historic buildings in jazz history.

But not all of the significant activity there happens overnight.

Each Saturday, starting at 9:30 a.m., students receive music lessons from Kansas City’s accomplished jazz musicians. The program, headed by trombonist Osmond Fisher, is free to the students.

That’s right. There is no charge.

The day I was there, student ages spanned from 5 to high school. The band, dubbed Young Jazz Masters, rehearsed for a performance at the Gem Theater, less than a block from the Foundation, as part of the 18th and Vine Festival. That festival, co-produced by the American Jazz Museum and Penn Valley Community College, gave 45 student bands the chance over two days to perform and be critiqued on the Gem stage.

If you’re interested in the Mutual Musicians Foundation Saturday program, either with a student to participate or with a donation to support it, contact the Foundation at 816-471-5212 or Osmond Fisher at 216-256-8332.

For me, it was a treat to hear the Young Jazz Masters practice in a building which has hosted so much jazz history. And it was a delight to cheer them in the student competition.

How much a treat and how delightful? Decide for yourself through the photos below. As always, clicking one should open a larger version of it.

Young Jazz Masters, directed by Osmond Fisher, rehearse inside the Mutual Musicians Foundation

Students practice...

...While enveloped by jazz history

Taking instruction

The horn section starts at age 5 (and can blow)

Appreciating the solo

This horn player is dubious of the photographer

Young Jazz Masters rehearse prior to...

...Taking the stage at the Gem Theater. My prediction: This isn't the last time many of them will be on that stage.

Back at the Foundation. I don't usually post photos of people who mug for the camera, but who can resist a beaming multi-instrumentalist surrounded by history?