Monday, September 26, 2011

Two Books Adding Context to KC Jazz History

Towards the end of Dysfunctional, in Chapter 30, Alaadeen observes:

“I’m constantly saying that the kids now are developing so fast. Kansas City jazz is starting to grow. I think the young kids around here are starting to get it. I noticed a bunch of the kids are wanting to play straight ahead rather than the fusion. It’s time for Kansas City to wake up and take your place in the world…. We have an outflow of young talent that’s coming out of Kansas City now. Kansas City…get ready for the explosion.”

It was a similar observation that inspired the start of this blog.

Kansas City jazz saxophonist Ahmad Alaadeen, born Sonny White in 1934, performed with Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Jay McShann. He toured with Sam Cooke. He hung out with Dexter Gordon at 12th and the Paseo. He grew up hearing McShann’s big band with Charlie Parker practice just down the street. He worked with and taught some of today’s KC greats, like Harold O’Neal, Kevin Mahogany and Charles Perkins.

Alaadeen absorbed then left his stamp on Kansas City’s jazz scene. He recounts his stories in Dysfunctional: Life Journeys of a Second Generation Jazz Musician. After being diagnosed with stage four bladder cancer, Alaadeen spoke his memories into a recorder, which have been edited by his wife Fanny Dunfee into a vivid illustration of Kansas City’s jazz scene in the years after Basie left, through the 1950s and on into today.

The insights Alaadeen offers into KC’s second generation of jazz are invaluable. “I learned a lot of good from Jay [McShann],” he writes, “but also a lot of bad habits. He taught me much of the lifestyle back in the day; he taught me the street life.” Yet, too often passages tease without providing details. “In the early ’60s, I moved to New York and performed there. I was kind of a character back then, not too stable.” Kind of a character how? Unstable in what way? What did he do to warrant such a self-characterization? What stories are not being told?

Regardless, the thoughts Aladeen does convey build our understanding of jazz today. “My college was on the streets,” Alaadeen says, “and I was learning improvisation on the bandstand.” When comparing his education to now, Alaadeen relates, “Now it’s in learning institutes all over the country…. The music is taking a more intellectual turn when every institution of higher learning has a jazz program…. Jazz is not the same now…the technical level is better but not the creativity…. They go to school to get their technique, and then they learn to play this music. The musicians now are not playing from instincts, I think, as much as they’re playing from what is taught. Conservatory jazz or institution jazz is moving further from the tradition and cultural foundation from which the music was founded on…cultural experiences that were handed down through the oral tradition.”

That argument begs the question of where a student today finds the cultural experiences handed down orally that Alaadeen lived (except, perhaps, at the Mutual Musicians Foundation). But it helps explain why Kansas City jazz in unlikely to see another musician like Ahmad Alaadeen.

Jay McShann and Alaadeen at the 2001 Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival

Dysfunctional: Life Journeys of a Second Generation Jazz Musician. can be purchased from Alaadeen's website, here.


There was a second introduction at the press conference last month, at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, announcing Kansas City wine (covered here). Also announced was the latest edition of Sonny Gibson’s book, Kansas City: Mecca of the New Negro.

This is a 376 page collection of newspaper and magazine clippings – news stories, obituaries, photographs, advertisements – from African American newspapers and magazines, dating from 1900 through the 1970s.

A study is being done today to renovate the Boone Theater at 18th and Highland. Want to know what the theater’s namesake, J.W. “Blind” Boone looked like? Find out in a 1914 news story, or in an ad when he played the Allen Chapel in Columbia, Missouri.

There’s ads for the Roberts Company Motor Mart, “The Only Negro Automobile Sales Room in America.” The building still stands at 19th and Vine.

I’ve written about The Second Most Historic Jazz Structure in KC, the Eblon Theater (here). Here’s a photo of it being built. And a news story on its opening (“A modern, reinforced concrete and steel structure costing $60,000 will be thrown open to the public when the Eblon Theater opens its doors to patrons….”). There’s a photo of owner Homer “Jap” Eblon and, on a later page, his obituary.

And, of course, there’s news stories, photos and ads from Kansas City’s historic jazz scene.

From an ad: “Bennie Moten Musical Crown in Danger. Jesse Stone Defies Bennie For Orchestra Contest. $500 Side Bet. Bennie Posts $250.00 - Stone’s Money is Up. Bennie Accepts the Challenge. Thurs. Night Feb. 3. 15th and Paseo, Recreation Hall. Who Will Win? Come Out and See!”

On another page, a photo of two men in white coats and bow ties. The caption begins, “Pete Johnson and Joe Turner, who are featured entertainers nightly at the Lone Star Gardens on Twelfth Street….”

But the book is as frustrating as it is valuable. Organization is rudimentary. There’s no contents and no index, and no good way to find anything other than flipping through the pages. Many pieces bear no dates (for instance, there’s no indication of when the ad with “Blind” Boone in Columbia ran). And none of the sources are cited. For historical research, the lack of identifying records limits the book’s usefulness. Also, many of the photos, articles and ads appear to be photocopies of photocopies.

But I don’t know where else you’ll find this volume of Kansas City black history and information in one place. I don’t know where else you find this kind of backstory and context for the culture which created Kansas City jazz.

The back cover: Joe Louis boxed on the top floor of this building, long gone from 18th and Vine. An inscription in the corner of the photo dates it at 1981.

Mecca of the New Negro is $25.00 plus $4.50 shipping and handling, and is available directly from Sonny Gibson at 3550 Wabash Ave., Kansas City, MO 64109. Or call Sonny at 816-457-1401.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Classic Shots: Jay McShann at the Foundation. And a Video.

It wasn’t just Fiddler. Hootie was there, too.

The fall afternoon in 2003 was a special day. The Mutual Musicians Foundation was celebrating its anniversary.

Last November, I posted photos of a frail, 95-year old Claude “Fiddler” Williams swinging his violin like a rambunctious kid that day (here). But Fiddler wasn’t the only Kansas City jazz legend who stepped in the Foundation. Jay “Hootie” McShann also came to honor Kansas City’s history, of which he was so important a part.

It’s not hard to find images of Jay McShann in the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Just pop a DVD of The Last of the Blue Devils into a player, and there he is for most of ninety minutes. But this day was different. This day, 87-year old Jay was there to celebrate the building which was then Kansas City’s only National Historic Landmark, and a key piece of the birth of Kansas City jazz.

I captured some photos that day. Not as many as I do in a typical photo spread now, but I didn’t know then that someday I might be posting to a blog. Here’s some shots from 2003 of Jay McShann at the piano in the Mutual Musicians Foundation. That same piano is still on the Foundation’s first floor stage. As always, clicking on an image should open a larger version of it.

And since I don't have many photos this time, after you've perused them, let’s watch a video.

Jay McShann at the piano

Note Claude "Fiddler" Williams in the audience listening, wearing a hat, on the extreme right

Jay and bass

Note Claude Williams in the audience, with a hat, three people to the right of the piano

Jay "Hootie" McShann in the Mutual Musicians Foundation


Last year, I posted several videos from a tape I digitized for a friend.

There’s one more.

This last one from the tape is just three minutes long. I don’t know where it originally ran, but the recording is from a television broadcast. It was sponsored by a corporation, which had blurbs at the beginning and end of the segment (and which I've edited out, to minimize the chance that someone might ask for the video to be removed from YouTube). Clothing and other videos on the tape lead me to guess that it dates to the 1970s.

So enjoy three minutes of Jay McShann not at the Foundation. But three minutes of Hootie performing anywhere is a delight.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Rain, Rain Go Away

At an outdoor festival, you can control everything except the weather.

I was president of the 1989 Kansas City Jazz Festival. It was my sixth year as a volunteer organizer. I’d been Vice President of the event, and Secretary and Treasurer. I’d headed up fundraising and chaired the talent committee. I’d appeared on TV and radio to promote previous years. But this was the first time my name was actually attached to the event.

And we booked Pat Metheny as the headliner. This was someone we wanted every year since I was first involved, but we either couldn’t afford him or we couldn’t meet his group's power needs, or schedules didn’t align. But he wanted to play Kansas City, so his agent negotiated a fee we could afford, substantially less than any other stop on that tour, and he could be here on Sunday. We rented extra generators to accommodate the show.

Sunday night, crowds streamed into Volker Park, where the stage stood at the south end. What was then Brush Creek Boulevard, between the park and the Nelson Museum’s south lawn, gridlocked bumper-to-bumper with cars. We were going to fill the park and probably the Nelson’s lawn, too.

Friday night, as we set up, Bryan Busby of KMBC broadcast the weather for the 6:00 news from the park. He predicted rain for Sunday night. When he was done, I told him, respectfully, I hoped he was wrong. For our sake, he hoped so, too.

He wasn’t wrong.

As the local acts preceding Pat ended, and as the crew prepared the stage for the Pat Metheny Group, dark clouds claimed the venue. Winds escalated. A few rain drops fell. Then a storm lashed the park, violently. We shut everything down.

After the storm passed, I consulted the stage, sound and light professionals. Equipment was damaged. It would not be safe to restore power. I made the only decision available, and cancelled Pat Metheny’s performance. As I later told a reporter for The Kansas City Star, I’d rather be known for doing the festival which cancelled Pat Metheny than for doing the festival which electrocuted Pat Metheny.

We’d spent a year planning the event. We had no paid staff (though Kansas City Parks and Rec provided invaluable help). As president of the event, the hours devoted to planning and preparation felt like holding a second and third full time job. To expend that time and effort then be denied such a highly anticipated conclusion, left me feeling numb. I wasn’t sad. It didn’t actually hurt. Because, while there’s always situations which will be handled better next time, we had planned as well as we could. We were staging a damn good festival. We had no reason to to feel sorry, no reason to regret. We had done a good job.

I just felt numb. Recalling that day, I still do.

And I recall that day now because Saturday’s second annual Prairie Village Jazz Festival suffered the same fate.

As the second act concluded, ominous clouds blew in from the northeast. The northeast? Kansas City never gets storms from the northeast, do we?

Saturday we did.

About 3:45 p.m., a storm suddenly engulfed the park. Musicians and volunteers and crew tried to rescue the equipment on stage. The stage was lowered and a tarp secured. But straight-line winds popped bungee cords holding the tarp, the tarp blew open, equipment tumbled across the stage, savaged by rain and hail. The few vehicles driving down Mission Road looked like they were parting the Red Sea. One person tells me she saw the winds lift one person off the stage.

In the end, nobody was hurt. Equipment was damaged and some of it ruined. The rest of this year’s festival was cancelled.

I helped little with the Prairie Village Jazz Festival. I didn’t have the time or emotional investment that other organizers brought into Saturday. I didn't endure the arguments or setbacks or successes, which are inevitably part of organizing such an event, that many others did. I’m sad to see the festival end with a torrent. But I don’t feel what others who devoted so much more to the event feel.

I do have some idea, though, about what they feel. Because those of us who have planned a jazz festival in Kansas City only to see its climax denied by a rainstorm, comprise a rather small club.

We know you can control everything at an outdoor festival except the weather.


My job at the Prairie Village Jazz Festival was to take photos. Along with the rest of the event, that task was cut short. But the audience in Harmon Park was anything but short-changed by the two acts which did take the stage: An amazingly good Shawnee Mission East Jazz Band (which I propose should open each year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival) and Shay Estes and Trio ALL, which for an hour on Saturday owned Prairie Village, Kansas. I’ve since directed a dozen people to Shay’s website to find out where else they can hear her sing.

I’d hoped to fill a few weeks of blog posts with festival photos. Not this year. But here’s a shot of each of the acts, to show you what you may have missed before the Prairie Village Monsoon of 2011 hit.

The Shawnee Mission East Jazz Band

Shay Estes and Trio ALL

Monday, September 5, 2011

Festival Season

Never mind, for the moment, the promotional image with circles outlining a 1970s-style afro. Does that really appeal to the age group which attends outdoor music festivals?

And never mind the headlining group War, which only has a songbook in common with its 1970s funk namesake. As someone who helped organize jazz festivals for seven years, I recognize the importance of a well known name to draw attention and an audience, even if the connection between their music and the festival’s intent is, perhaps, precarious.

Instead, look at the schedule, here, of the 2011 Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival, taking place on October 8th from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. by the American Jazz Museum. With other headliners like Christian McBride and Bobby “Blue” Bland, and with other scheduled performers like Charlie Hunter, Rob Scheps and the Wild Women of KC, this event is musically solid.

This is the second year for a scaled-back, viable-in-a-recession Rhythm and Ribs festival. I applauded the return of the event, in whatever form, last year. I hoped last year established a base from which subsequent festivals would solidly grow.

I realize we're still mired in an economic downturn. I realize that corporations are tighter with donations and civic support today than they were during the Rhythm and Ribs glory years. I know first hand how critical corporate support is to a financially successful festival. And I applaud the American Jazz Museum for staging a financially responsible event, because I also know first hand how easy it is to let ambitions overtake fiscal reality. I know all this.

Yet, it's hard to set aside a twinge of disappointment that this year's festival doesn't appear to have artistically grown.

I missed last year’s fest (a nephew was married that day). So until I experience this year's event, I will refrain from expressing further twinges, and from further comparisons to the grand event this festival was before succumbing to an economic hiatus.

Rather, I’m excited that, for the second consecutive year, the Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival is back. Tickets are just $10 until September 15th (prices increase after that) at the American Jazz Museum. I have mine. I’m looking forward to enjoying a day of solid music.

Despite the dated afro and War.


But before the second year of a resurrected Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival, comes the second year of the Prairie Village Jazz Festival, this Saturday. Last year the volunteer team staged a wonderful inaugural event, a day of free music, which I photographed here.

Full disclosure: The festival recruited me to assist with this year’s event (though I’ve done little more than shoot my mouth off at a few meetings). So I don’t come to this unbiased. I want you to attend to this festival. It’s free, so you have no excuse not to. None.

Besides, take a look at the lineup (here). Nobody should miss a day of jazz starring Bobby Watson, Deborah Brown, Mike Metheny, The People’s Liberation Big Band, and Shay Estes with a reunited Trio ALL. Every one of them except Mike has been featured in photo spreads in this blog. And Metheney’s CDs have been reviewed here twice.

All for good reason. Each one is among Kansas City’s jazz best.

The only clunker of the day looks to be a staging of a weekly radio variety show, 12th Street Jump. A variety show in the middle of a music festival wrecks the day’s flow and is idiocy. Meanwhile, some of last year’s founders left the event while whining to the press that they didn’t get their way, embarrassing only themselves.

But, if you've read about the family squabbles, set them aside. As long as the weather cooperates, the second Prairie Village Jazz Festival promises to be a day mostly filled with spectacular music. Admission is free. It’s this Saturday, September 10th, from 2  to 10 p.m., in Harmon Park at 77th and Mission Road, next to Shawnee Mission East High School.

My job that day? I’ve volunteered to take photos. You'll see them in this blog first.


This Friday, on Steve Kraske’s Up to Date on KCUR-FM (89.3) at 11 a.m., Bobby Watson, Deborah Brown and Brad Cox (leader of The People's Liberation Big Band) are scheduled to discuss the state of jazz, both locally and internationally. Each participant brings a unique background and view. This promises to be a fascinating roundtable.

Then, of course, hear each of them perform the next day at the Prairie Village Jazz Festival.


And the week after Prairie Village is a downtown mystery jazz festival. The Power and Light District’s schedule boasts the 14th Street Jazz Festival for 2 to 9 p.m. (that’s what it says at the top of the page) on Sunday, September 18th. Or maybe it’s 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The only knowns on this one are in a blurb on their web site (here):

“Enjoy live jazz and blues from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the 14th Street Jazz Festival in the Kansas City Power and Light District. The festival kicks off at 11 a.m. with a Jazz Brunch at participating restaurants…. At 2 p.m., join us on the 14th Street stage for great Kansas City jazz and blues! Performance schedule to be announced soon….”

It’s two weeks before your festival, Power and Light guys. Now is not too soon.