Monday, April 25, 2011

Commission Tales 2: It Leaks

It didn’t seem dumb at the time.

1987, and the Kansas City Jazz Commission was all over the news. Its former treasurer was charged with stealing $6400 in city money from the Commission. The City Auditor was auditing it.

I was the treasurer who succeeded the accused treasurer, not knowing when I volunteered what had gone on before me. But I learned the details, quickly.

So when the second chairman resigned from the Commission in the space of a couple months, and the executive director announced he would leave, I was the person remaining who knew most about what was putting the Jazz Commission on the front page. In my mind, I was the most logical choice to volunteer to be the next chairman.

So, with the encouragement of other Commission members, I wrote a letter to the mayor asking to be named chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission. It was delivered to the Mayor’s Office by the outgoing executive director with the message that the Commission supported this appointment.

Problem was, mayors typically don’t appoint as chairmen people they don’t know and, in my case, had never even met. The mayor (or his staff) contacted Commission members he did know and trust. They vouched for me. I was appointed the new chairman.

Good people – very good people – stepped forward to take the positions of vice chairman, treasurer, secretary, and advisory members, rebuilding the executive committee which would run the Jazz Commission.


The City Auditor’s work was complete. The new vice chairman, treasurer, secretary and I were called in to meet with the auditor in his City Hall office, to receive a copy of the audit, and to discuss it with him prior to its release to the City Council.

Before the Jazz Commission, I didn’t even know the city had an auditor. I lived north of The Plaza but worked at a small graphic arts studio in Johnson County. Our new vice chairman was a photographer. Our treasurer worked in advertising. Our secretary had been active in civic affairs.

There we sat, mostly novices, as the City Auditor described to us the procedures lacking in the Jazz Commission’s operations, the records not found, the recommendations being made. This audit would be released to the City Council next week. It would be helpful if, in his presentation to the Council, the City Auditor could say we agreed to implement his recommendations. We did.

I took a copy of the audit. A copy would go to the the Mayor’s Office. Another copy would go to the chairman of the City Council committee which would receive it. The City Auditor’s office, of course, kept copies.

The next day the audit was leaked to The Kansas City Star. An article appeared on the front page. I didn’t know who leaked it.

At that time, Kansas City had both a morning newspaper, The Kansas City Times, and an evening newspaper, The Kansas City Star. While both were owned by The Star and shared the building at 18th and Grand, reporters for each newspaper competed. Both newspapers had a reporter covering City Hall. On this story, the reporter for The Star (who still writes for the newspaper) scooped the reporter for The Times.

The reporter for The Star found someone happy to jab another knife into the Jazz Commission’s already bleeding back, and see the audit in the press before we had an opportunity to prepare a response.

Coincidentally, the reporter for The Times covering the story lived in the same apartment complex as I did. Months later, after all the turmoil over the Jazz Commission subsided, the Times reporter was sitting out by the pool one weekend afternoon when I walked by. I stopped and we chatted. There were no hard feelings. He was a nice guy doing his job.

“Let me ask you,” he said, “because it’s bothered me. Did you leak the audit?”

No, it wasn’t me, I told him. I wasn’t anxious to see it in the newspaper. I’d wondered myself who leaked it.

“I didn’t think you had,” the reporter said. “But if it wasn’t you, who was it?”

We talked through who had copies. The City Auditor’s office, he said, never leaked reports. The chairman of the City Council committee receiving the report was not friendly with reporters, he said, so it wasn’t him. I didn't leak it. That left the Mayor’s Office.

I had been warned that the mayor’s assistant did not like the Jazz Commission. I never knew why. But I had been told that the individual had tried to undermine the Commission before.

The reporter and I looked at each other. That was it. An aide in the Mayor’s Office had leaked the audit report to The Star.


Some of the City Council members on the committee controlling budget matters discussed Jazz Commission funding among themselves.

That funding was important to the Commission. Not only was it seed money that donors looked on favorably in deciding whether to give us grants, it largely paid for our executive director. Without that money, it would be difficult to hire a new executive director. We’d have nobody in the office to answer the phone, to write grant proposals, to plan pub crawls.

Never mentioned in the press but disclosed to me was that the chairman of the Council’s budget committee had devised a plan to give the Jazz Commission’s funding to another community group which happened to be a law client of another member of the budget committee. He assumed that gave him at least two votes on his four member committee to end funding for the Jazz Commission.

An unfavorable audit and our former treasurer going to court didn’t help.

We had problems.

More next month, in another blog post.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Commission Tales 1: Beginning of the End

I’m not going to mention the individual’s name, because this person satisfied the court order, repaid what was stolen, and the incident was expunged from their record. And this person is still active in the music community.

The Star wrote about it extensively at the time – I have some good stories about those stories, too – but they predate the record currently available online. No doubt, some people around at the time will remember who it is. But you will get no confirmation from me.

Still, if I was in a position to hire musicians, this is one – who I’ve actually never met – that I would not hire because of what they put me through. I’m not bitter, but I remember.

It was a helluva way to take over a Jazz Commission.


I was active with the jazz festival first. The festival had its own issues, and its other officers held little interest in the Jazz Commission, even though the Commission’s board officially included a seat for the festival. So, when I expressed interest in that seat, nobody objected, and I was appointed by the mayor to the Kansas City Jazz Commission.

Actually, I’m assuming that you know what the Kansas City Jazz Commission was. You may not. It was a city commission – like the Landmarks Commission, or the Arts Commission, or the TIF Commission – created in the 1980s to bring together the leaders of Kansas City’s then numerous jazz organizations to support jazz in Kansas City. At least, that was its altruistic goal. It was the goal I knew when I was appointed. I didn’t know about the other agendas.

The Jazz Commission was then, in the mid-1980s, a mostly lackadaisical group which, outside of its executive director, accomplished little. It was comprised of the leaders of other jazz organizations, most of whom were busy running their own groups, and some musicians and residents with historical ties (Bennie Moten’s daughter was one of the nicest and most supportive members during my years). And it was something of a dumping ground for friends of the mayor who wanted to be on a city commission. Few ever attended a meeting.

Some of the commission’s members were looking for leadership to guide the organization towards accomplishing something meaningful. But others just wanted to boast that they were on the Jazz Commission.

So when the Commission’s treasurer resigned, I volunteered to help. I had served as treasurer of the jazz festival. Nobody else volunteered. The chairman named me treasurer.

Then I found out that the last treasurer resigned because the individual was being investigated for stealing city money from the Jazz Commission. That was interesting to hear.

Then the Commission made news stories in The Kansas City Star and The Kansas City Times (we had a morning and an evening newspaper then). A former member, someone who left the Commission before I joined, stood before a City Council committee to argue that the Jazz Commission should receive no city funding.

At the time, the Jazz Commission received $20,000 each year from the city budget. But this young attorney, whose brother was a local jazz musician, said the Commission was failing to create jobs for jazz musicians and should receive no city support.

There was one of those other agendas. The Jazz Commission was not created to create jobs. But this young attorney, apparently, decided it was and it didn’t so it shouldn’t be funded.

Then the county prosecutor charged the Jazz Commission’s former treasurer with stealing $6400 of city money from the Commission. That made the front page of The Star and The Times.

Then the Jazz Commission’s chairman resigned. We never knew the specific reasons. He never told anyone on the Commission. We found out when the Commission’s executive director was alerted by someone in the Mayor’s Office that they had received his letter of resignation.

A new chairman was appointed.

Then the City Auditor announced that, in light of the prosecution of the former treasurer, his office would audit the Jazz Commission.

The young attorney testified again before a City Council committee that the Jazz Commission was dysfunctional and should not be funded. Nobody from the Jazz Commission showed up to defend it. A city councilman on the committee angrily asked why nobody from the Commission showed (Answer: Nobody left on the Commission was politically adept enough to know that we should).

Then the executive director gave notice that he was taking a job with a radio station in California.

Then the new chairman, deciding this was too much for him, submitted his letter or resignation to the Mayor’s Office. At least this chairman talked with other Commission members first.

So there, in mid-1987, stood the Kansas City Jazz Commission: Needing its third chairman in three months, a spry young attorney lobbying the City Council to deny it funds, its executive director leaving, its former treasurer charged with stealing $6400 of city money from it, and being audited by the City Auditor.

Only a total idiot would volunteer to be chairman under those circumstances.

I volunteered to be chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission.

More, in another blog post.

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.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Blue Devils You Don't Know

Count Basie opens his autobiography recalling the first time he heard the Blue Devils and the impact they had on his music and his career.


“…The Blue Devils was the first big band I ever had a chance to get close to and really listen to, and it was the greatest thing I had ever heard. I had never heard the blues played like that….”

Jimmy Rushing:

“Basie had come West with a show. He couldn’t play the blues then….

“They would balleyhoo in front of the show, take a band and play a number, and have fellows singing….

“ The first time [Basie] heard the Blue Devils, we were balleyhooing on a big truck in Kansas City. [In his autobiography, Basie says it was in Tulsa.] There was a lot of that in those days. Wherever you were working, you had to go out and balleyhoo for the place. Coming back from downtown, we struck up with a good blues. Basie heard this and thought it was a record, but somebody told him, ‘No, that’s the Blue Devils!’ He ran down and met all the fellows. Not long after, he…joined our band.”

Walter Page's Blue Devils, 1932
One of most influential bands from the early days of Kansas City jazz was Walter Page’s Original Blue Devils. A territory band which spent winters in Kansas City but traveled the Midwest, some of the greatest names associated with KC jazz were once a Blue Devil.

Bassist Walter Page, who would anchor Count Basie’s orchestra, was there at the start, in 1923. Bill Basie joined in 1928. Other Blue Devils included saxophonist Buster Smith (joined in 1925, profiled here), singer Jimmy Rushing (1925), drummer and vocalist Ernie Williams (1925), trombonists Dan Minor (1927) and Eddie Durham (1928), trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page (1928), and saxophonist Lester Young (1932).

Ernie Williams:

“The original Blue Devils was Billie King’s [Road Show, a 9-piece vaudeville troupe, started in Kansas City].”

Buster Smith:

“The first man that [led the band] was a fellow named Coleman, we called him Bucket. He was kind of hard to get along with and the boys fired him and turned it over to Walter Page….”

Page took over and renamed the band in 1925, then expanded it to 13 pieces.

Count Basie:

“… you could also hear the musicians addressing [Page] by his nickname, which was Big ‘Un. You could also tell right away that they didn’t just respect him because he was the boss; they really liked him and felt close to him because he was also one of them.”

Pianist and vocalist Sam Price:

“I remember hearing the Blue Devils [in the mid-1920s]. When the saxophones would be playing a riff, Jimmy Rushing would be singing and Lips [Page] would…play anything he wanted to…. He didn’t have to play with the [trumpet] section. He’d be up high, Rush’d be singing and the rhythm and the band’d be playing something else. It’d be fantastic.”

Count Basie:

“Everybody seemed to be having so much fun just being up there playing together…. There was such a team spirit among those guys, and it came out in the music, and as you stood there looking and listening you just couldn’t help wishing that you were a part of it. Everything about them really got to me….”

Pianist Jesse Stone:

“The biggest upset we ever had in our life…happened to be in Sioux City, Iowa…and it was a battle of the bands between Page and Jesse Stone. We got up there on the stand first because we were considered like a house band there. We played there regularly. Well, we started out with some of our light things, little ballads. And [the Blue Devils] hit right off the reel, wham, and they didn’t let up all night long. They had a tough band. They were just sharper, cleaner, more powerful, and they had more material….

“These guys, they were actually ragged. Their uniforms were tattered and they came in an old beat up…airport bus. It was about ready to cave in. We said, ‘It ain’t no problem.’ And they gave us the biggest shock of our whole career….”

Jimmy Rushing:

“The best band in Kansas City in those days was reckoned to be Bennie Moten’s. We battled all the bands around, but he avoided us until we caught him one night and tore him up.”

Buster Smith:

“We played a whole bunch of battles. We used to play rings around Bennie, because he wanted to play all them old tunes he made, and he’d stick with them a lot…. We had a better reed section than Bennie had…. We’d get off. We built the band around them solo things. We had Lips [Page] on trumpet over there and we had Dee Stewart…second trumpet. In other words, we tried to be a band that could just get off instead of just read music.”

Bennie Moten began to raid the Blue Devils for musicians. Basie left for Moten’s band in 1929, followed by Lips Page, Jimmy Rushing and Eddie Durham. Walter Page left and joined Moten in 1932. Buster Smith, Lester Young and Ernie Williams were still with the Blue Devils when the band fell apart in 1933 in Virginia. The last seven Blue Devils hoboed on trains to St. Louis. When Moten heard, he sent a car to pick up them up and hired all seven.

Count Basie:

“…As things worked out, hearing them that day was probably the most important turning point in my musical career so far as my notions about what kind of music I really wanted to try to play was concerned…. When I look back at just about every step I’ve taken since I ran into those guys that morning, I can see quite a lot to bear out the old saying, ‘Once a Blue Devil, always a Blue Devil.’”


Quotes by Basie are from his autobiography, Good Morning Blues. Quotes by Jimmy Rushing are from the book, The World of Count Basie. All other quotes are from the book, Goin’ to Kansas City.