Monday, July 25, 2011

The Boone Theater...and New Rialto and Scotts and the Armory Building

Today the press is referring to it as the Boone Theater. But that was its second name. It opened in 1924 as the New Rialto. When I was in there, in the 1980s, we called it the Armory Building, for its last use before the Mutual Musicians Foundation bought it from the city for a buck.

The Boone Theater/Armory Building today
The building at 1701 E. 18th Street, the southeast corner of 18th and Highland in Kansas City's historic jazz district, was in the news a couple weeks back. It won a National Endowment of the Arts award of $200,000 to “support the predevelopment, design and community planning phases” of restoring it as the home for Folk Alliance International. Restoration will require raising $2.5 million (the press release is here).

It’s not the first time the National Endowment for the Arts has given money to bring the Boone back to life. NEA Project Number R80-42-76 in 1979 paid for a study which concluded the building could become the KC Jazz Center for, back then, $583,128.00. Money which nobody ever raised. So good luck with that two-and-a-half million.

But let’s start further back than 1979. Let’s start in 1924, when the building opened as the New Rialto. In 1929 it was renamed the New Boone Theater for John W. “Blind” Boone, a then-famous black child pianist and composer, a prodigy from Missouri who died in 1927. In 1949 it was remodeled and became Scotts Theater Restaurant and Show Bar. Scotts was home to movies, music, drink and food, and a theater where the Orpheum Circuit booked touring acts.

Sometime in the 1950s Scotts closed and the building was acquired by the State of Missouri and converted to a National Guard Armory. It was home to the 242nd Engineering Battalion, an all-black unit. The 242nd disbanded in 1960, when the segregation ended in Missouri’s National Guard. A few years later the city bought the building from the state for a dollar and used it as storage for the Public Works Department. In 1977, the city sold the by then deteriorated building to the Mutual Musicians Foundation (MMF), recouping their dollar. The Foundation worked with the Black Economic Union (BEU) on a plan to rehab the structure as a Jazz and Cultural Center.

The April, 1979, NEA-funded study, titled The Tradition Jams On, was the result (the facts above are from that study). It reads:

“The idea of a Jazz Center in the Armory Building in the 18th and Vine area has been a dream and an important part of the overall development plan for many years. There has always been the hope that we could provide space to present jazz music, community classes, drama performances and an artists’ gallery. To provide a theater which truly serves the community, we will need to find income generators which will offset the high operating costs of such a project. Though we plan to find grant funds or private donations to renovate the building, we hope to be independent of public funds for day-to-day operations.

“To accomplish this, MMF and BEU realize the necessity of having both a music hall as well as producing concurrent revenue producing activities. It is hoped that eventually the music-related activities will expand from the Armory Building to other buildings along 18th Street or south on Highland Avenue. In the overall plan, a Highland Avenue Historical and Cultural District has been advocated. This area would encompass both cultural and residential activities. The street would be vacated at the south intersection at 19th Street and a cul-de-sac and small urban park would be created. The Rochester Hotel would be rehabilitated and reused as residences for those involved in the jazz-related activities. Possibly the profit created could be reinvested back into the jazz project. The keystone of the entire project will be the renovation of the Armory Building at 18th and Highland.”

How a renovated building would have looked in 1979.
The plan foresaw a music hall, a Kansas City Jazz Hall of Fame and Gallery in the lobby, and a music store on the first floor. The second and third floors would hold a rehearsal space, offices for MMF, and a jazz radio station. A three page budget detailed how all this could be done.

I was in the Armory Building in the 1980s, while helping set up an 18th and Vine Festival, carrying tables and chairs stored there to the festival grounds. I don’t know when the Mutual Musicians Foundation gave up on the Armory, but I’m told it no longer owns the building.

Now the Folk Alliance International wants to move from Memphis into the New Rialto/Boone Theater/Scotts Theater/Armory Building. Thirty two years ago its renovation was envisioned as the catalyst for revitalizing Highland Avenue. Heck, the city is still trying to turn the Rochester Hotel on Highland into residential units. And today, renovating the New Rialto/Boone Theater/Scotts Theater/Armory Building is only going to cost about two million dollars more than it would have cost in 1979.

About the money….

Good luck with that.


One of the most interesting parts of the 1979 study is the sheet music reproduced on the last page. I’ve scanned it. How many of these signatures can you identify? And I didn't realize the song Kansas City had a second verse.

(Clicking on the image should open a larger view.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Business Model

It must generate enough revenue and hold down costs sufficiently to return a reasonable profit to its owner or its investors. Otherwise, there is no jazz club. That is the bottom line to be met before other opportunities can begin.

Our friend Cb contributes smart insights on the jazz scene which I read eagerly and admire greatly. Some intriguing recent ones were on the Live Jazz Economy, here. He deems the four hour jazz set, so common in clubs, archaic, best replaced with several groups a night, creating more jobs for our abundance of fabulous jazz musicians. Don't cater to the older crowd, he suggests, but play the jazz of today. Recognize people want to be home earlier. Let go of a jazz club model some seventy years old.

Fact is, I examined many of these issues a couple years back. In 2009, I tried to establish a new jazz club in Kansas City. I identified what I'm convinced was an ideal location in downtown KC (it's no longer available; the building owner has since converted the space to another use). I engaged consultants experienced in the service industry. I wrote a 32 page business plan and prepared a five year financial projection.

I even had the perfect name: The Riff. I still own the URL,

But a key investor took a hit with the recession, and the money to pull it off was no longer there. Probably just as well. My interest was in promoting jazz. But the restaurant and bar which generate the income drive the operation. Any successful jazz club must consider the business model first.

So let's consider it.

Some internationally known jazz venues, such as the Village Vanguard in New York and Jazz Alley in Seattle, stage two shows every night, each with a cover charge. They generate sufficient income by turning the crowd, same way KC's Jardine's books weekends. But that model doesn't work in KC seven nights a week. There aren't enough of us jazz fans to support it. Even Cb argues many of us want to be home by 8:30, and if he’s right, when’s the weeknight late show?

An alternative is to be open and selling during the day. A friend was part of the group which purchased the iconic Milton's following Milton's death. He tells me the club was essentially a break even operation, but critical to that were the 50 or so bar flies who flowed through during the day. Even Milton's could not break even on nighttime jazz alone. And Milton’s was by then known for its vast record collection. It was not paying musicians.

I budgeted $150,000 per year for local musicians to play my club. But I saw cover charges covering just 60 per cent of that outlay. Chalk up the rest to the cost of operating a jazz club. The club couldn't afford more.

Now divide that cash out to a six day business week. Assume some trios and quartets and weekend sextets. Assume every musician pockets at least a hundred dollars a night (not much in 2011, but better than some clubs pay). Now tell me how far $150,000 a year gets you.

Answer: One four hour performance Monday through Thursday and two groups on Friday and Saturday.

Even open all day, selling food to build income, and music just at night, the only way I could see to stage, say, three groups per weekday night would be to pay each musician a third of a hundred dollars. Now everybody's working but nobody's making a living. And, I suspect, nobody's happy with that.

Cb also notes that the same names play over and over. But that’s because that's who the customers who will buy a drink and a meal want to hear. I'd certainly have worked in new jazz musicians at my club. But I still remember an outstanding quartet at Jardine's one Tuesday night which only thirty of us were there to enjoy. The club made no money that night, and a business can’t afford many evenings like that and survive.

Marketing was a chunk of my business plan. But it's incumbent on the musicians to market themselves, too. Because if their name holds no public equity and few show up for their show, no matter how good the music, by necessity their bookings will be few.

This isn’t a not-for-profit operation. I’ve run a few of those. With a jazz club, investors provide the upfront money for tables and chairs, silverware and plates, kitchen equipment, a stage, a sound system and lights, to paint the space, maybe replace the flooring, and have sufficient cash to carry you through the first couple months as you build awareness. And they invest on the promise that they’ll get their money back, and more.

So music needs to cater to whoever will spend money. That varies with the day part. Most nights in a Kansas City jazz spot, though, it tends not to be too young a crowd. One youthful musician told me how his group filled a club, but the owner declined to book them again. He was befuddled. But he filled the house with college students who spent little. I'd give the group another chance, backed by marketing aimed at an older audience (they’d like this group if they heard it). Yet, I understand the stance of an owner paying the bills.

Cb is right on this: Jazz clubs run on a business model some seventy years old which doesn't benefit all the tremendous talent out there today.

But that’s the business model because nobody has come up with anything better. I sure wasn’t smart enough to uncover a superior solution.

To build a better jazz club, something which treats the talent right, start at the end. First determine how to generate the revenue to pay more musicians a credible amount while showing a return to whoever risks their cash to open the doors.

Then look me up. I have a good start on the rest of a fine business plan.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Magic Jazz Fairy Rages

Three months.

Its brow furrowed, its wings folded tight against its back, it frowned with frustration. Click again, maybe something will come up this time, it thought. It went back, then clicked the link again. But only a bright white screen stared back, blank.

“Why do they make it so hard?” the Magic Jazz Fairy exclaimed. “They haven’t put a schedule online in three months!”

Every city, as you no doubt know, has its Magic Jazz Fairy, a mystical being who knows about all jazz in a city and silently flies around at night, and whispers into the ear of every jazz fan when and where to find jazz, so we wake up knowing, just knowing. Magic Jazz Fairies must exist, because how else could promoters who fail to promote jazz events expect people to show up? Those sly promoters. We think they sometimes don’t even try to draw a crowd. But they know about the Magic Jazz Fairy. They know the Magic Jazz Fairy will tell everyone. They know that a Magic Jazz Fairy exists – what other reasonable explanation is there for their lack of promotion? – and that’s all the proof anyone should require that it does.

I’ve written before about Kansas City’s Magic Jazz Fairy (here and here). Sadly, ours has faced personal demons and slacked off in its job, and when it did, word failed to get out on jazz events, and attendance dissipated. There’s the real reason for the decline of jazz in Kansas City: our Magic Jazz Fairy drank too much. But our Magic Jazz Fairy, as told in an earlier post, feels a sense of responsibility, and it sobered up. And, despite temptations to drink again, it has remained a jazz whisperer.

But sometimes, those promoters do not make its job easy.

The Magic Jazz Fairy stared at the screen, not sure what to do next.

Not many clubs in Kansas City showcase jazz anymore. A steakhouse downtown is one of the few. On the front page of its web site, that steakhouse proclaims that it features, “some of the area's best live jazz musicians, including Bram Wijnands, Rod Fleeman, Tommy Ruskin, Joe Cartwright, Barry Springer, and David Chael, to name a few. And what's more, you will never pay a cover….”

There’s the kind of promotion any Magic Jazz Fairy welcomes. And right at the top of the web page, a link which reads, “Live Jazz Calendar / Special Events.” A Live Jazz Calendar on the web site. All you need to do is click that link to find out which one of “the area's best live jazz musicians” will be entertaining at that steakhouse that night with no cover charge. What more could one ask?

One could ask for there to actually be a calendar when you click the link. For the third consecutive month, when you click it, there is no calendar. Instead, you’re served up a blank screen.

“How can I help you,” the Magic Jazz Fairy cried out, “when your schedule is, apparently, top secret?”

Then there’s that other challenge in attracting a jazz audience in Kansas City, food.

Not at the steakhouse. There, the food is excellent.

And at a Plaza area jazz club, the online calendar is excellent, maintained flawlessly. But at that Plaza club, the food, well, there’s a challenge.

The Magic Jazz Fairy has heard the rumblings. It’s flown into the rooms of jazz fans while they slept at night, and whispered jazz dates into their ears, only to hear after mentioning the Plaza area club a mumbled, “But that new menu…”

The Magic Jazz Fairy tried the cuisine itself, twice. First time, brisket sliders sounded good. But when the plate of three arrived, they were dry and bland, and one was fatty. So the next time it tried the chicken mini-tacos. Again, a plate of three was served. But the soft tortillas of every one of them fell apart, spilling contents in an unappetizing mess all over its hands. This for mini-tacos which work out to five dollars a piece. For pity’s sake, the Magic Jazz Fairy thought, I’m no food critic, but I know a nice restaurant in the Crossroads where I can find mini-tacos for two dollars each which don’t fall apart. That’s the competition for this type of meal.

The Magic Jazz Fairy knew of patrons who wanted to hear jazz with their dinner, but wanted a good meal, too, so they went elsewhere. It even heard of musicians recommending to their fans to eat first then come and sit at the bar of the Plaza area club for the jazz.

The Magic Jazz Fairy despaired. How could it do its job? How could it help bring people to jazz? One club is promoting a blank screen instead of its music product. Another is discouraging supporters with its non-music product.

It had to stay silent, the Magic Jazz Fairy decided. It would continue to fly throughout Kansas City and whisper to jazz fans about upcoming jazz shows and not share how it felt. The other matters might gnaw at it, but don’t do anything stupid, it thought, like posting the issues Kansas City jazz fans were discussing among themselves in a blog where someone else might find out.

The Magic Jazz Fairy sat in front of its computer. Then, almost on a whim, it typed into its browser

Best to keep its job options open, the Magic Jazz Fairy thought. Just in case.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Race, on Independence Day

The great jazz and rhythm and blues singer and Kansas City native Priscilla Bowman is buried in a cemetery adjacent to the Quindaro ruins. Her grave sits at the crest of a hill, under the shade of a large tree. It’s an appropriately beautiful setting for someone whose singing brought joy to so many of us.

I saw the gravesite some years ago while on a guided tour of the Quindaro ruins which, with permission of the nearby Allen AME Church, included the cemetery.

(If you don’t know, Quindaro was established in the mid-1850s as a town for slaves escaping across the Missouri river, from current day Parkville, to find help and a route to freedom on the underground railroad. The town’s ruins, today within Kansas City, Kansas, were uncovered in the 1980s.)

Priscilla Bowman’s gravesite is one of the few properly identified in these burial grounds, one of the few anchored by a marker. Most of the grounds are littered with the stumps, if that, of the tombstones which once filled the cemetery. The tour guide said that in the 1950s and 1960s, police or sheriff’s deputies (I don’t now remember which) used the tombstones for target practice, firing bullets at them until none remained.

I cannot imagine the feeling of knowing your mother’s or grandmother’s gravesite was desecrated, and her tombstone destroyed, by authorities using it for target practice.

People, of course, are shaped by experiences common to their community. And sometimes others of us cannot understand those experiences, because we know no comparable frame of reference.

Differences were unspoken but prominent when I first encountered Kansas City’s jazz community in the 1980s. Back then, if you stepped into the historic Mutual Musicians Foundation on a Saturday afternoon – and often, I did – you would find many of the musicians who created Kansas City jazz in the 1930s. But, while you were welcome in the landmark, you understood that you were walking into the elderly musicians’ domain. You were walking into the gathering place of supremely talented people who, throughout their career, had been personally banned from certain hotels and restaurants and public water fountains.

You knew you were walking into an institution which existed because, until the mid-1960s, Kansas City had separate unions for black musicians and white musicians. And you were walking in there less than twenty years after those unions merged.

We sensitive, liberal youth responded naively. The Kansas City Jazz Festival was staged in Volker Park because that was a universally accepted location, where most people would go, near both the Country Club Plaza and the city’s black community/white community dividing line – even more decisively so then – of Troost Ave. We consciously scheduled a balance between numbers of black and white musicians on the festival stage. We envisioned a common gathering place and a common reason to celebrate – jazz! – bringing Kansas City together. In the end, we contributed no particular good but created no harm.

In 1989, Sprint was the festival’s title sponsor and chose to produce a CD of Kansas City jazz, entirely local musicians. When a representative of the company faxed to me the list of groups their producer planned to include, I faxed back that there was a predominance of white musicians and that could cause them problems within the jazz community. As a result, Eddie Baker’s New Breed Orchestra was added.

During my festival years, I succeeded at persuading big corporations to react naively, too.

Today, I can't help but note the preponderance of white musicians playing Kansas City jazz. I shouldn’t note it, but I can’t shake instincts and sensitivities built on past experience.

Jazz is, after all, a music which grew from black experiences. In Kansas City, during years of prohibition and overt racism (Count Basie once described Kansas City as “a cracker town, but a happy town”), jazz provided a living and a route to national recognition for talented musicians in a tight community. Performers from throughout the Southwest flocked to Kansas City for the opportunities available here. In certain, less obvious and more modern ways, maybe 18th and Vine of the 1920s and 1930s was a Quindaro of its day.

When I question some of Kansas City’s young jazz musicians today on whether race is an issue for them, I might as well be asking if they’ve visited Mars. I’ve received odd looks that the question should be raised. It’s not an issue.

What a perfect response.

Yet, I know of pockets of insular attitudes within Kansas City's jazz community, mostly among some who personally experienced or whose parents personally experienced the worst of exclusion. Some people in the community have told me they’ve tired of encountering these attitudes. But I greet them with respect.

Because I cannot imagine the feeling of knowing your mother’s or grandmother’s tombstone was destroyed by authorities using it for target practice.