Monday, August 29, 2011

This 'n That 'n Houses 'n Wine

The windows were covered with plywood painted a sickly green, except for one window, on the upper floor, which stared back uncovered, exposing the interior. Had a transient broken in through there? Might someone be inside who could burn the building down?

Across the street, the row of white houses had clearly sat occupied for decades. They look dilapidated, barely standing. And they’re numbered, one through six spray-painted on their fronts, as if someone already marked the order for their destruction.

If you haven’t been here before, if you don’t know the area, that’s the first impression.

These are no surroundings for a landmark.

Last Thursday, I accompanied some business associates from North Carolina and a coworker to the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Anita graciously agreed to stay around and greet us for a tour. I wanted these associates to experience real Kansas City jazz history.

It was around 7 p.m. on a sunny summer night. The neighborhood was quiet. The Foundation impressed, just as it always impresses. But when we left, the coworker, judging the surroundings, said he wouldn’t have come here if I hadn’t brought him.

I’ve been going to the Mutual Musicians Foundation for over twenty-five years. I know the area. Never – never – have I suffered a negative experience.

But this night, as we left, I looked around. And I saw the Rochester Hotel, dirty and boarded except for one window open to the air. I saw six once-vibrant but now decrepit houses. I saw the neighborhood through the eyes of guests who didn’t know it. Through those eyes, it did not look like someplace where an outsider wanted to be.

That’s about to change.

According to an article in last Friday’s Kansas City Star (here), The Kansas City Council unanimously approved the money to secure a construction loan to begin redevelopment of the Rochester Hotel and the six houses. They will be converted into a total of 22 affordable housing units, mostly apartments. The cost is $4.9 million, to be paid with federal funds and federal and state historic tax credits. Construction should start in September and be done in a year.

I previously wrote about this restoration and questioned whether there weren’t more more historic redevelopment needs in the 18th and Vine district (in History and Homes and 18th and Vine, linked in the column at the right under Most Popular Posts). I realize now there are not greater needs. New housing graces the south end of Highland at 19th Street. At the north end of the street, restoration of the Boone Theater/Armory Building on the corner of 18th and Highland is being discussed, thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

If the Armory restoration happens, and the Rochester Hotel and houses surrounding the Foundation are renovated, Highland Avenue will again shine as appropriate surroundings for a landmark.

Until then, trust me. As my business colleagues discovered, this is someplace where you want to be.

A bottle of Kansas City Wine

I was at the Mutual Musicians Foundation again on Friday morning, for a press conference. Actually, my colleagues and I glimpsed a preview when we were there on Thursday night.

In a couple weeks, the Foundation will begin selling Kansas City Wine.

Nobody owned the name, “Kansas City Wine.” Now, the Mutual Musicians Foundation does.

The wine will be produced at Amigoni Urban Winery in Kansas City’s West Bottoms. The label will showcase a photo from the Foundation’s unique collection of over 300 Kansas City jazz photographs, with a new edition – and a new photo – planned each year. The label wrapping the first bottle is the historic lineup of Kansas City musicians from the May, 1930 opening of the building which was then Musicians Local 627 and today is the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

A bottle of wine will cost $35 and will initially be sold exclusively at the Foundation. All profits support the Foundation.

Start your collection now. They run out of photos in about 300 years.

From the Mutual Musicians Foundation wall, Bennie Moten approves


Now, from the Foundation to The Brick. Because I received such an imaginative self-promotion last week, I’m compelled to share. I know nothing about this group except they write a delightful email. Its subject was “Magic Jazz Fairy”:
Dear Magic Jazz Fairy,

I have really been paying close attention to your wants, needs, and utterances. They actually seem rather basic and not at all unreasonable.

Magic Jazz Fairy wish list:
1. Talented young players
2. Straight ahead, classic jazz tunes
3. Patron friendly venue
4. Good food and a broad menu of choices
5. An honest drink
6. All at a reasonable cost

It wasn’t easy but I do believe we have done it. Just open the attachment and your wishes will be granted [the attachment was an ad for the performance].

You are now informed which should make it much easier for a wing weary Magic Jazz Fairy to fly around as KC Jazz fans sleep and whisper in their ears, “A Touch of Color” playing a matinee at The Brick; 1727 McGee, September 3, 2011; 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM. Oh Magic Jazz Fairy, we know we can trust you to get the word out.

Most sincerely,
Gin drinking Bohemian

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hootie, Buddy, Sweets, Al, Gus, Major and Almost Cleanhead

August 24, 1986 – it was a Sunday night – The Kansas City Jazz Festival, on a stage at the south end of Volker Park, presented its finale: Jay McShann with Buddy Tate, Harry Edison, Al Grey, Gus Johnson and Major Holley. I was one of the festival organizers back then. The show lasted two hours. About an hour and a half in, tired at the end of a weekend-long event, our sound man asked me to signal the group to end. I told him I couldn’t do that. He turned, angry, and walked off (he later apologized). I continued listening to some incredible Kansas City jazz.

Twenty five years ago I and maybe 20,000 other people (we said it was more, but that’s what you do at festivals), heard a wonderful concert. One of Jay’s daughters told me she played a tape of the concert to him late in his life, and he teared up, because the music sounded so special, and everyone on the tape except him was, by that time, gone. She said she asked him to put together another group like that, one more time. She said he told her he couldn’t, it was more work than he could take on at that stage of his life and, besides, there weren’t enough musicians left who could play like that.

During the first year of this blog, I wrote a series titled, Festival Tales where I recalled stories from my days of organizing the Kansas City Jazz Festival. Nobody looks at those old posts, and odds are you never saw the one with the background on this concert. So, from 2009, my first re-post, on the jazz festival Kansas City celebrated 25 years ago this week.

Plus, at the end, something old and new.


The 1986 festival headlined KC legend Jay “Hootie” McShann. We asked Jay to choose anyone – anyone – with whom he’d like to perform and told him we would try to book them. His choices: Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis on tenor sax, Buddy Tate also on tenor, Harry “Sweets" Edison on trumpet, Al Grey on trombone, Milt Hinton on bass and Gus Johnson on drums.

Milt was in Japan for the summer and unavailable, so Jay chose Major Holley instead. “Lockjaw” was too ill to perform (he would pass away, from cancer, a couple months after the festival). We suggested Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson on alto sax as a replacement, and Jay agreed. But “Cleanhead” was already scheduled in San Francisco that night and couldn’t break the engagement. So we settled on a group without the additional horn.

But there was one more complication: Buddy, “Sweets”, Al and Gus were booked in Europe (Belgium, if I remember correctly) in another festival that same weekend. Nonetheless, they wanted to play Kansas City, too.

Gus left the other festival a day early, deciding he needed a little rest between shows. But Buddy, “Sweets” and Al played the complete overseas event. They then traveled for over 30 continuous hours, sleeping on flights, and were in Kansas City for only about five hours before climbing the steps to our stage.

Al Grey was making arrangements for the group. Frankly, we were not paying these jazz icons all that much. One day, our contact asked Al why he, Buddy and “Sweets,” all in their 60s or 70s at the time, were putting themselves through such tortuous travel. It sure wasn’t for the money. They didn’t need our gig. They had more leisurely return plans in place before we called. So why do this? Why put themselves through this sleep-deprived travel hell?

Answered Al: “It’s a chance to play with Hootie! We’d never turn down a chance to play with Hootie!”


Friends with a tape recorder were in the audience at that performance. I’ve since digitized the tape and keep mp3s of it among the music on my phone. From time to time, I’ll listen to the concert again.

“Sweets” Edison is clearly tired. Buddy Tate is good and at some moments great. The others are consistently amazing. The way Jay drives the group and the way Al Grey and Major Holley, in particular, respond is Kansas City jazz at its best. It’s pure fun, a joyous reminder of why I love this music.

On the final number, Buddy and Al unexpectedly sing: “She got it, she keeps it, she sits right on it, she just won’t give it away / Anybody get it sure has got to pay!” Then the music transitions into a One O’Clock Jump tribute to Count Basie, who had died two years earlier. It's music that makes me smile. It's music that will make anyone smile.

(One tip from our sound man: The best place to record a festival is in front of the mixing tower, because that’s where the music is being adjusted to sound its best.)


The next January, “Cleanhead” Vinson called us. He was booking his schedule for the coming year and wanted to know if we were putting together the same group for that year’s festival. Because if we were, he would leave the date open.

He did not want to miss another chance to play with Hootie.


The original post ended with an anecdote from the next year's festival. Instead, let's end this one with music.

Below is an embed from YouTube of the music from that final number described above. Unless you were at the festival, or unless you're one of the few folks who has heard the concert recording, this Kansas City jazz is new to you. If you were at the festival, here's 15 minutes you loved 25 years ago this week.

Prepare to smile.

Monday, August 15, 2011

It Isn't Fair

You wouldn’t know unless you know her and ask. Because she doesn’t show it on stage, where that smile seems to cover half her face and lights the stage when she listens to solos by Bob, or Paul, or when she tells a corny anecdote.

At Jardine's in 2010
You wouldn’t know that singer Megan Birdsall is in constant pain, and has been for two years, because her body is allergic to, and is rejecting, the prosthetic jaw which is needed to save her life.


I first heard her backed by a big band. I’d had a rough day and a friend offered to buy me a drink that night at The Blue Room. He’d heard this singer and big band separately and, he said, they should be terrific together.

I hadn’t been going out much for jazz then, so this was a good opportunity to hear someone new to me, and to end a bad day with a free drink.

The Blue Room was packed. The only open seat was on the upper level. My friend was on the floor, and I never did get that drink. When the singer started, I didn’t care. There stood a thin girl with brilliant red hair, launching into Miss Otis Regrets as I’d never heard it, at a blazingly fast tempo. I was amazed as was, judging from the applause, all of that packed house.

I had been detached from Kansas City’s jazz scene for too long. Here was a singer as good as anyone in jazz, and better than most.

That night inspired me to go out and discover all of the other tremendous young jazz musicians in Kansas City who I had been missing.


On May 15th, Megan emailed some friends:

“Hey, everyone.... I must apologize for being under the radar lately…. I’m doing ok, which is good. No major procedures as of yet, just lots and lots of tests with some good and not so good results. But I am keeping the positive intention that all will be well soon.

“This was an intense ordeal and I'm gonna take a few days to get my body back and process these new findings.... I will keep you informed as I make some decisions about what’s on the horizon for the next six months in relation to my treatment and Dallas….”

I caught up with her the next weekend, at The Drum Room. Between sets, we talked.

She had spent a week in Dallas undergoing tests, to determine why she was in constant pain and why tumors had developed under one cheek. She had told me about the tumors last fall.

Doctors determined she was allergic to five of the eight metals in her prosthetic jaw. Their solution was to put her on medications. But the medicines affected her mind, her reasoning, and she did not want to become dependent on them. Or they could replace the prosthetic jaw. But that operation would cost over $100,000, and any alternative jaw would be inferior to the one she already had. Besides, she had suffered through that operation once and nobody, ever, should endure it twice.

She needed time to consider her options.


The night at The Blue Room, I knew nothing about her. I only knew that I had heard a fantastic young jazz singer who I wanted to hear again. An internet search told me what most of KC’s jazz community already knew.

The cartilage at Megan’s jaw joint had disappeared. Her jaw joints were eroding and bone was grinding against bone. Worse, her shifting facial structure cut her windpipe’s opening from a normal 14 millimeters to 4 millimeters. Left untreated, her windpipe could eventually close and suffocate her.

The solution was reconstruction of her face with titanium jaw pieces. Nobody could tell her if she would be able to sing again.

She underwent eight hours of surgery in Dallas.

After months of recovery, Megan returned to the stage.

I don’t know of anyone else who could go through all that and return beaming so vivaciously, with that smile lighting the stage. You can’t fake it. The audience knows if you’re projecting who you really are.

Musicians say her singing was even better. Audiences embraced her.


On June 11, Megan emailed some friends:

“…My body is rejecting the implant and it’s making me hurt real bad and compromising my immune system. I have one option for treatment that isn’t replacing the whole prosthetic. That option is injecting the metals [to which she’s allergic] at a concentrated quantity directly into my stomach to hopefully change my body’s fight mechanism from reject to accept. That’s really all I fully understand about doing this. I have a 50/50 shot of it working.

“I have shot titanium alloy and titanium so far. It's weird. It seems to...cause my normal symptoms to get aggravated. But the weirdest part is how it is working on my brain, central nervous system and breathing. I'm very delirious almost directly upon injection. I called the doctor’s office and they say to write down everything, to watch the breathing and to try and get through two rounds of shots.

“It's a four day injection cycle that I will now be doing continuously for three to six months. I am on day two. The first day titanium alloy, second day titanium, third day nickel, fourth day aluminum and polyethylene. If they have to adjust the dose I have to go back to Dallas for testing and it’s very expensive, so I'm praying on it getting easier each week.... But this is my only treatment plan so it has to work, so I can get these tumors out, that have been caused by the prosthetic, this fall and finally be better by spring….”


There’s the uptempo take on Lover Man. Maybe somebody else sings it like that, but if so, I haven’t heard it. Megan’s way washes through the ennui and hurt and turns it into a song of vigorous rejection. It’s wonderful.

Or her version of Wichita Lineman. Here’s where all the hurt has gone. She’s telling a story of loneliness with an anguish that nobody else pulls from the lyrics.

But my favorite is her interpretation of Fire and Rain, as a jazz ballad. To hear her take a song so personal to its creator and wrap herself around it, with vocal perfection, will melt you in your seat.

On stage, you can’t fake it. The audience knows. Her amazing vocal talent, her enthusiasm and sincerity, they’re real.


On June 22, Megan emailed some friends:

“So today the docs have suspended the shots I was doing because they were afraid the doses were hurting me and doing damage to my body instead of supporting my system. They are pretty sure the 16 days didn't do any permanent damage but I seem to be at the mercy of the ‘practice’ of medicine right now. They say it may take a week or so for my brain to come back from the injections.

“I’m supposed to go back to the pain killer, anti-inflammatory regimen until I can go back to Dallas to the docs for more intense testing.... They are still hoping to help me, although this is looking like it's gonna be a longer road than I thought.”


She returns to Dallas in the fall. She needs to raise money to pay for it first.

It’s not fair.

I’ve never heard Megan say that. Nothing in her presence suggests she even thinks it. She’s so positive, and that must be what’s carried her this far. She says even the doctors are amazed at her upbeat attitude.

She credits the music in her life.

I’ll credit the jazz.


All emails are quoted with Megan’s permission.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Two Years of kcjazzlark

A couple years back I heard a late night comic tell this joke: "Last month 500,000 people lost their jobs. Which means today there's half a million new blogs."

There's something to that.

I wasn't working when I started this blog, kcjazzlark, two years ago this week. I wanted to shout out my amazement at discovering the abundance of incredible young talent overwhelming Kansas City's jazz scene. I hadn't observed anything like it in twenty years.

Other than a neighbor and my sister, I didn't think anybody would actually read it.

But I kept throwing stuff out there and people did read it. Now here I am two years and 135 blog posts later, employed, and continuing to throw out a new post every Monday, should anybody care to see it.

For these last two years, I've maintained an unbridled optimism over Kansas City's jazz scene. When others have proclaimed a death knell, I've countered. With all the talent here today, jazz in Kansas City is alive. Besides, in the three decades I've known the scene, I've battled jazz death cries from the best.

I remember a column by Tom Leathers back when I was an organizer of The Kansas City Jazz Festival, in the 1980s. For decades, Leathers published a weekly newspaper in Johnson County. After one year's festival, he publicly wondered why we organizers didn't give up on jazz and stage the music festival that, he opined, Kansas City really wanted to hear: a country music festival.

Leathers has been gone for years. But I still don't like him.

Despite public voices like that, despite diminished audiences, despite fewer venues, I've remained positive, because of Kansas City's unmatched heritage and today's wealth of incredible jazz talent.

But now, I'm worried.

I'm worried because one of Kansas City's few remaining jazz clubs, Jardine’s, has cut the pay for most musicians by more than a third.

Though, I hear, musicians have an opportunity to share the door if they draw a crowd. I've always maintained that promotion is a shared responsibility, but mostly the club's because the club stands to gain the most financially. Including musicians in the financial benefit if they promote, too, is smart.

Still, a pay cut this size suggests a club on the precipice.

Part of Jardine's wounds are self-inflicted (the new menu). And they've been hurt by inconveniences beyond their control (their landlord tearing up the parking lot). They've recommended valet parking, but by the time you pay for parking, and by the time you pay a cover charge, just how much are you willing to spend to hear great jazz accompany a mediocre meal?

Jazz fan that I am, even I've passed on the club a couple times recently when contemplating exactly that.

Other restaurants are finding opportunities to present jazz. West Chase Grille in Leawood is a prime example. The Drum Room has remodeled and changed out their jazz offerings. Meanwhile, the second Prairie Village Jazz Festival is set for September, and the Rhythm and Ribs Festival returns in October.

The end is not near.

But it would be difficult to build on two years and 135 posts of unfettered optimism if a premiere Kansas City jazz club succumbed to an apparent rough patch.

So I enter a third year of this blog with some trepidation.

And hope.

Because, between their online calendar, Facebook posts and emails, Jardine's does a good job of marketing. Once the parking lot repairs are complete, the audience will grow. And if they'll acknowledge and address the menu issues, the audience will grow substantially.

Meanwhile, we have The Blue Room and The Majestic, and some nights The Phoenix, to hear jazz. And while few other establishments may claim the mantle of jazz club, more and more around the area are spotlighting the music.

Hope builds knowing I can go out any particular night and hear music from Megan or Shay or Millie or D.J., from Mark or T.J. or Paul or Roger or Bram, from Steve or Chris or Matt or Gerald or Rich, from Stan or Clint or Hermon, from Jeff or Dominique or Bob or Steve, from Tim or Matt or Ryan or Brian or Brandon, from Danny or Rod or Beau.

Each one plays jazz in Kansas City. Each one is world class. And that’s a short list, just for starters.

Then there’s the young people learning jazz, whether at Kansas City Youth Jazz, or in Osmond Fisher’s Saturday morning program at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, or in Bobby Watson’s program at UMKC, or in Jim Mair’s program at Kansas City Kansas Community College.

And let’s not forget eighty years of late night jam sessions at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. They’re still going on, every weekend, often hosted by some of the fantastic musicians named above.

And just how many metropolitan areas the size of Kansas City can claim two special jazz series, like we can at the Folly and the Gem? How many newspapers devote space to a weekly jazz column, like the one by Joe Klopus in The Star? How many communities can boast a bimonthly jazz publication like the Jazz Ambassadors’ JAM Magazine?

This was one of those half a million blogs probably started when half a million people were out of work. Most blogs die as their creators find other ways to spend their time. But I’m enjoying putting up something every Monday and intend to continue. Because, while it’s scary that one of Kansas City’s premiere clubs might be teetering, there’s still a vibrant jazz scene in Kansas City. And I plan to continue documenting and commenting on it. This week starts the third year.

I just can’t contain that optimism.

Monday, August 1, 2011

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Ernie Andrews and Bobby Watson at The Blue Room

I heard some spectacular jazz that you didn’t. I can say that to all but about 80 people in the world.

Because about 80 people is all who turned out to hear Ernie Andrews and Bobby Watson at The Blue Room on July 9th. But, in fairness to jazz fans, that wasn’t entirely the fans’ fault. The Blue Room had the show on their online calendar as happening a week earlier. The Kansas City Star even printed some copies with the wrong date – because that’s when The Blue Room said it was happening – before correcting it. The club eventually changed the online schedule.

So I blame the venue for the small crowd. And I credit the venue for booking a fantastic show.

83-year old singer Ernie Andrews is still swinging the blues hard. He bathed The Blue Room with KC style and sass. Ernie’s on record with the likes of Cannonball Adderley, Benny Carter and Jay McShann. He’s absorbed all the rough edges and sings them out with energy, class and rousing joy like you just don’t hear anymore.

Now add internationally-renowned super-saxophonist Bobby Watson, blowin’ his best. Then back the superstars with a selection of Kansas City’s finest: Jason Goudeau on trombone, Roger Wilder on piano, Jeff Harshbarger on bass and Michael Warren on drums. The result? A night that could raise the ghosts on 18th and Vine.

Too bad you probably didn’t know when to show up for it.

Here’s a little help. I can show you what you missed. Clicking on a photo below should open a larger version of it.

Ernie Andrews

 Bobby Watson

Left to Right: Roger Wilder on piano, Jeff Harshbarger on bass, Ernie Andrews, vocals, Michael Warren on drums, Bobby Watson on alto saxophone, Jason Goudeau on trombone

Jason Goudeau on trombone

Ernie Andrews sings

Roger Wilder on piano

Michael Warren on drums

Bobby Watson and Jason Goudeau

Ernie Andrews belts out the blues

Jeff Harshbarger on bass

Roger Wilder, Jeff Harshbarger, Ernie Andrews, Bobby Watson

Bobby Watson on alto

Ernie Andrews at The Blue Room