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.