Monday, October 31, 2011

Ugly Division

A 1980 study on possible uses for the Armory Building (today more commonly known as the Boone Theater) at 18th and Highland in Kansas City’s jazz district, commissioned by the Black Economic Union and funded by Office of the Arts of the Ford Foundation, surveyed 465 black Kansas City residents and 530 white Kansas City residents between October and December, 1979. Among the findings, on page 9 of the report, is this:

“To attract people, the leaders of the jazz effort in the Armory must face the issue of the safety reputation of the 18th and Vine area. Half of the white population and nearly three-quarters of the black, are nervous about the assumed dangers of the neighborhood; our researchers noted that white patrons…who had come into the neighborhood mid-day, were nervous about coming back at night. There would need to be a major public relations effort, to convince black and white customers that the Armory is a safe place to be.”

Earlier this month, on October 8th, organizers at the American Jazz Museum staged a magnificent Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival inside of and in the area behind the museum at 18th and Vine. The crowd loved the music and the environment. The organizers managed all of the details with professionalism and organizational skill, from seating to music to presentation, right down to the designed typeface on the signage (as opposed to hand-scribbled signs so often seen at similar events). They marketed the event well, with a solid web presence and ads in the Kansas City Star reaching out to the entire metropolitan area. I’ve previously mumbled about one of the headliners, and more promotional posters and cards placed around town would have helped build excitement. But the truth is, this was largely a model of how the best jazz festivals are staged in the 21st century.

The festival drew, by my estimate, about 7000 people. The crowd was, by my observation, predominantly urban.

By contrast, the Kansas City Jazz Festival in the 1980s in Volker Park, for which I was an organizer, drew more than 50,000 people over a weekend during its best years. The later Blues and Jazz Festival held in Penn Valley Park attracted even larger crowds.

You can blame the declining popularity of jazz for Rhythm and Ribs not attracting more people. You can blame the price of tickets. You can blame competition during a busy weekend in Kansas City.

But I blame a lingering, entrenched and undeserved reputation, an image identified in that study of the nearby Armory building nearly a third of a century ago, which continues to choke the neck of 18th and Vine. I blame Kansas Citians too naive to recognize a treasure.

I can understand my father’s generation avoiding the area, having grown up with its past. But I thought my generation would fix that. I thought that by building museums and restaurants and staging live music, the vitality and safety of the area would become obvious. I thought the Crossroads district growing east would bridge a path over less desirable neighborhoods to the front door of Kansas City’s history.

We’ve bridged nothing. Neighbors in my suburban neighborhood openly question whether I’ll arrive home from 18th and Vine safely. The truth: I’ve been going there for nearly three decades and have never – I repeat, never – suffered a negative experience.

Yet, perceptions breed divisions.

Last year the suburban community of Prairie Village started its own jazz festival. This year’s event was rained out, but last year’s organizers claimed a crowd of 7000 people for the day.

We’re dividing into a city of provincial jazz festivals. One in the city for an urban crowd, one out south for suburban patrons. Why can’t these 14,000 people – an apparent 7000 per festival – and more, mingle at a single celebration? Given our heritage, Kansas City deserves a major jazz festival.

Such a vision, to happen here, would first require a neutral site easily accessible from throughout the community. That shouldn’t be the case, but it is, because too many of my neighbors will enjoy jazz in Prairie Village but not at 18th and Vine. Attitudes anchored in ignorance cripple the jazz district’s ability to attract a substantially larger festival crowd.

It’s not because of the music. It’s not because of festival organizers. It’s because of misbegotten perceptions ingrained in too many Kansas Citians of my generation.

Still, at one place, I see a thread of hope.

I go down to the Mutual Musicians Foundation, at 1823 Highland, late on a Friday or Saturday night, and there I see young, diverse crowds interact. I see them mingle. There I see the potential of 18th and Vine.

There I see hope that the next generation might do better.

Monday, October 24, 2011

In Lieu of 1000 Words: 2011 Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival

The weather was perfect. The friendly crowds grew throughout the day and night, swaying to and so clearly enjoying all the acts.

The space behind the American Jazz Museum, supplemented by The Blue Room and the museum’s atrium, proved ideal stages. The indoor areas were packed with people throughout the day, and the outdoor grounds were packed by night.

Vendors were pleased, some selling out of food before the last act. Sponsors should be happy with their exposure in and association with such a professionally-organized and successful event. Hopefully, all are anxious to return in 2012.

The 2011 Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival made October 8th a wonderful day and night of music. How wonderful? Take a look for yourself with the photos below. As usual, clicking on one should open a larger version of it.

The festival grounds: Those open spaces filled by night

Jazz headliner Christian McBride

Blues headliner Bobby "Blue" Bland

In the museum atrium, Sons of Brazil performs

Jaleel Shaw, saxophonist with Christina McBride's group, Inside Straight

The Wild Women of KC packed The Blue Room

Christian McBride, Jaleel Shaw, and vibraphonist Warren Wolf

Inside Straight drummer Carl Allen

Lori Tucker, of the Wild Women of KC, sings while a guest saxophonist watches

Bobby Watson joined Inside Straight for their final number. Left to right: Christian McBride, Bobby Watson, Jaleel Shaw

The museum's Atrium Stage at night

Bobby "Blue" Bland and guitarist

Monday, October 17, 2011

Four New KC Jazz CDs. Well, Three, Anyway.

I came to jazz via Basie. It's music that's great because it makes me feel great, a visceral reaction. Music, for me, doesn't need to be any more complicated than that.

Except it always has been. Duke Ellington's Harlem Air Shaft has been, since the first time I heard it, one of my favorite compositions. In three minutes it musically illustrates a cornucopia of joys and sorrows one might hear in a Harlem tenement if, for a day, you just listened. It swings while driving you to think.

Similarly, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's Race Riot Suite is jazz which drives you to think. It musically tells the story of the today little known 1921 Tulsa race riots, in which hundreds of black citizens were killed and a district in the Oklahoma city was destroyed.

It starts with Black Wall Street, a musical portrait of a wealthy black community, a composition of joy, yet just enough off-kilter to foreshadow the disaster to come. The Burning musically paints confusion and devastation, with kaleidoscopic moments that seem to picture someone caught in the middle wondering, What's going on? 

Mt. Zion views an aftermath with reflection and hope. Cover Up illustrates a discordant attempt to bury the disaster in history. Eye of the Dove pushes forward a community and story which defied burial.

But unlike Ellington's Harlem Air Shaft, a wonderful composition even if you never know what it represents, Race Riot Suite requires knowledge of the backstory and its chapters to appreciate the music. The first time I listened to the CD, I didn't know the history, and the music came across as the type of modern, eclectic jazz that you'll never hear from Basie or Ellington, and which I generally don't enjoy. Only after reading the history this CD musically represents, did I appreciate what I heard. This is jazz to enjoy intellectually.

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's Race Riot Suite is available from Amazon, here, or can be downloaded from iTunes, here.


In a far more traditional vein – that we came-to-jazz-via-Basie guys can appreciate without the liner notes – vocalist Laura Chalk's All the Things You Are brings together some of Kansas City's best jazz musicians.

After all, you cannot go wrong with Paul Smith on piano, Bob Bowman on bass, Tim Cambron on drums, Danny Embrey on guitar, or with Laura's own son, emerging sax superstar Matt Chalk, on alto.

Danny's guitar solos on Desafinado, Say It Over and Over Again and The Duke alone are reason enough to buy this CD. Now add Paul's piano solo on All the Things You Are and Bob's bass on Vello Piano. Next hear Matt's soulful sax inventiveness on Em Casa Sozinho. You'll understand why Kansas City instrumentalists are some of the jazz world's best.

Laura is returning to KC's jazz scene after years as a single mom. Her voice brings the right intonation for these classics, but most are delivered with a careful exactness and not yet with the carefree emotion or excitement of other area jazz singers. The concluding number, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, driven by Danny's guitar, carries the most emotion. But that self-confident looseness which can be the difference between hitting the perfect notes (which she does) and overwhelming impact isn't quite there. This is a work in process, and one worth following.

All the Things You Are is available from CD Baby, here.


I have a confession.

Since Jeff Davis, leader of Sir Threadius Mongus, moved to Kansas City, he's sent me press releases. He's introduced himself (and is a nice guy). He's given me Sir Threadius Mongus CDs and musical tracks. He's done everything a person could do to garner mention in a Kansas City jazz blog. Yet, until now, he's never been mentioned.

I've attended a couple of Sir Threadius Mongus shows at Jardine's. The group plays a style of modern, free-form jazz which just doesn't appeal to me. There's nothing wrong with the music. It's just not a type of jazz I find accessible, and not what I personally prefer hearing.

I was interested, though, when Jeff sent the tracks to the latest Sir Threadius Mongus CD, Threads. The group has evolved since moving from Tulsa. This edition includes Andrew McGhie, one of the best young tenor saxophonists in Kansas City, and Stan Kessler, unquestionably one of KC's premiere trumpet players. Matt Otto, a saxophonist who has made a top-tier name for himself since moving here from California, is included. Several other members are a part of People's Liberation Big Band, an eclectic and fun group I've photographed a couple times. The talent on this CD is outstanding.

The music wisely thrusts that talent forward and lets it shine. The inventive ideas which come through sax solos on Before That are obvious even to a codger like me. Purr, one of three tracks recorded live at KC's R Bar, intrigued most, pulling me in with sax and guitar intertwined with vocals by the extraordinary Annie Ellicott.

Threads will be in stores on November 11th.


River Cow Orchestra is a Kansas City group which bills itself as playing "zen jazz," which they describe as "collective spontaneous free improvisation." Their business card bills their music as "jazz for the third millennium."


If their fifth CD, Go Wake the Rooster, is any indication, the third millennium is going to be filled with space age music of repetitive sounds which I have an awfully hard time classifying as jazz.

It's modern music without the whimsy of People's Liberation Big Band, or the intellectualism of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.

I didn't appreciate Jacob Fred's Race Riot Suite until I understood the story behind it. And maybe there's more here than I'm understanding. But as someone who came to jazz via Basie, this is music I just don't get.

Go Wake the Rooster is available on CD Baby, here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Wonderful Festival, and a Conundrum

Crowds filled the field behind the American Jazz Museum last Saturday night – I’m guessing 7000 people by that point – for the 2011 Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival.

Maybe half the audience was standing, swaying along to the music, clearly enjoying the beautiful night. Some grasped their partner’s hands and started to dance. The vocalist on stage cried out, “You know the words!” as he thrust his microphone towards the crowd.

The jazz and blues festival audience started chanting:

The Cisco Kid was a friend of mine,
The Cisco Kid was a friend of mine,
He drink whiskey, Poncho drink the wine,
He drink whiskey, Poncho drink the wine.

Don’t kid yourself: The audience loved this show. They loved hearing the songs they knew from pop radio performed live. They loved swaying to the groove. They loved singing along.

And don’t kid yourself: When the group War started performing, Rhythm and Ribs stopped being a jazz and blues festival.

It’s a conundrum to which I have no answer. From Newport to New Orleans, jazz festivals are booking pop acts to draw the crowds necessary to attract the sponsorships necessary to build the money necessary to stage a significant event. Today, jazz and blues are apparently too narrow a niche to draw sufficient festival crowds without a pop push.

It’s not a new phenomenon. In the 1980s, we sold the Kansas City Jazz Festival not as a jazz festival but as the city’s major event the weekend it was staged. We tried to sell the idea that if you missed this event, you were missing what everyone would be talking about on Monday morning. We signed the city’s top rock station as a sponsor, to draw people out to party. We did that because we knew jazz alone was an insufficient sell to fill an outdoor festival in Kansas City. Booking the funk group War is simply another means to the same end.

I don’t accept that War’s funk is really just another version of jazz and blues, as a panel discussion in The Blue Room a couple weeks back tried to establish. I accept that funk contains elements of each. I accept that it’s an evolution from earlier genres. I’ve demonstrated to friends many times rock and roll growing out of the blues via Big Joe Turner. But rock grew into a new genre. Likewise, funk is no more jazz and blues than my smartphone is a desktop computer, though in both cases one evolved from the other.

Yet it’s those tenuous ties that justify a funk band in a jazz and blues festival. You could argue that’s no better or worse than marketing a jazz festival on the back of rock radio, and I couldn’t argue you’re wrong. To fill the field at an outdoor festival, jazz needs the support of its offspring.

It’s a conundrum to which I have no answer.


That commiserating aside, let’s recognize that the 2011 Rhythm and Ribs Festival was a wonderful success.

Crowds packed the American Jazz Museum’s atrium and The Blue Room for what were, effectively, the side stages. By the time Bobby “Blue” Bland walked onto the main stage, the outdoor field behind the museum was hosting thousands of guests. Before the last act took that stage, food vendors were selling out, delighted with their day. The crowd was friendly and happy. Plenty of legitimate jazz and blues acts were showcased throughout the schedule. I know nothing about the festival’s finances, but by every other measurement, this year’s festival met its goals in a magnificent way.

I’ll offer more observations about the festival in future posts. But for now, let’s enjoy a few photos from the weekend. I’ll also offer more photos in future posts, but those take a while to sort through. Until I have that opportunity, here's a sampling:

Jazz headliner Christian McBride (playing Jeff Harshbarger's bass)

Saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, a member of McBride's group

In The Blue Room, Millie Edwards, of The Wild Women of KC, sings to a saxophonist joining the front window just for the festival

The Warner Project fills the American Jazz Museum's atrium

Headliner Bobby "Blue" Bland

Monday, October 3, 2011

Classic Shots: More Rhythm and Ribs Past

A year ago a I posted photos taken at past Rhythm and Ribs Festivals. That post remains a popular one. And there’s plenty more photos where those came from.

So let’s do this again.

The 2012 Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival (with a funk headliner…but that’s not part of the official name) happens behind the American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine this Saturday, October 8th, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. You can find all the details here. I plan to be there, taking photos. You should plan to be there, enjoying the music.

You can see below just how much everyone enjoyed past Rhythm and Ribs Fests. After all, how could a jazz fan not enjoy the acts pictured below? As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

Koko Taylor, 2005

Christian McBride with Pat Metheny's group in 2007. McBride with his own group is a headliner of this year's festival.

Al Jarreau, 2007

George Benson, 2007

Pat Metheny, 2007

Al Green, 2006

Karrin Allyson, 2005

Shemekia Copeland, 2006

Lonnie Smith, 2007

George Benson and Al Jarreau, 2007

Pat Metheny and Christian McBride, 2007