Monday, November 28, 2011

They're Listening to Jazz in the Suburbs

You drive up, and on one side you pass Zenail and Spa, and His and Her Fitness. On the other side is Nevaeh Salon. Admit it, this strip center is as suburban Johnson County as it gets.

Inside, on a Friday night, the crowd fills every seat. Folding chairs have been set up, but they’re not enough. Some people stand, leaning against a counter or a wall. They range in age from grade school to the gray haired. This crowd is as suburban Johnson County as it gets.

Take Five Coffee + Bar last Saturday night
Except they’re listening to jazz. Stan Kessler and Joe Cartwright are on stage. The audience is not talking, there are not thirty conversations competing with the music. Instead, music fills the room, packed with people who are listening to jazz.

In a coffee house. In suburban Johnson County.

Matt Otto, Jeff Harshbarger and Michael Warren perform
This is one of the Kansas City area’s new jazz venues, Take Five Coffee + Bar, in the strip center at the northeast corner of 151st and Nall in Leawood, Kansas. That’s right, in Leawood. Which is as suburban Johnson County as it gets.

In the quarter century I’ve been listening to jazz in Kansas City, I’ve seen Johnson County jazz clubs come and go. I long ago concluded that jazz doesn’t work in Johnson County. People don’t move to the suburbs looking to slum a little urban grittiness at a juke joint down the street. That – at the risk of unfairly generalizing – is what most Johnson Countians think the city is for.

Matt Otto and Jeff Harshbarger
The thought of jazz in a quiet coffee shop, where customers come earlier in the day for muffins and cappuccino, but which also serves wine (and Coke to those grade schoolers) and stays open long past your Starbucks-on-every-corner, never occurred to me. I equated jazz with urban grittiness, and Kansas City’s jazz clubs delivered.

So credit Take Five owner Lori Chandler for pursuing a different vision and, based on the recent packed house, one which appears to be taking hold in Johnson County. Credit her for opening a clean, suburban room, with some plush easy chairs and a fireplace, tables on which to set your latte or wine, carpeting, and angled beams which contribute to an acoustically wonderful space.

Jeff Harshbarger and Michael Warren
On Saturday night the crowd was a bit smaller, and some high schoolers talked through the first set. But the space seemed to swallow that conversation. leaving the music clear. I sat in one of the easy chairs – which can also swallow you – listening to Matt Otto on tenor sax, Jeff Harshbarger on bass and Michael Warren on drums. These aren’t just some of the best musicians in Kansas City. These are among the best musicians playing jazz in 2011, anywhere. I’ve heard them before, in town, at Jardine’s and The Blue Room. Matt and Jeff will be part of The People’s Liberation Big Band at The Record Bar next Sunday, in Westport. This isn’t take-it-easy-on-the-suburban-neophytes jazz. This is jazz normally served with a slice of urban grittiness. But tonight, it’s in your uncle’s living room where you can savor every unamplified bass note.

(Jeff unpacked his amplifier for the second set. It wasn't needed.)

Matt, Jeff and Michael in Take Five
Well, it’s not exactly like a jazz band in your living room. Your living room doesn’t have floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Eye Associates or Banana Island or a Walgreen’s drive-through. But it’s a more intimate setting than a typical jazz club, and it eventually pulls in everyone. By the second set, the high schoolers were no longer conversing. Most sat facing the band, listening, and applauding magnificent solos.

They’re listening to jazz in the suburbs.

Take Five Coffee + Bar

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Look Back at Some Festival Tales

Being out of town on business all of last week meant not just that I missed hearing some of my favorite live Kansas City jazz, but that I ran out of time to write a new blog post (actually, I sat at my computer Sunday night to write, but instead fell asleep. A failure of mind over rather tired matter).

So instead today, let's look back. During the first year of this blog, I wrote a series titled Festival Tales, recounting snippets and stories from my days as an organizer of the Kansas City Jazz Festival and as chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission, through much of the 1980s. Those posts are never looked at anymore, and more people read this blog now than did then, so odds are good that you've never seen these posts. Odds are even better that you don't remember them if you did.

Below, then, is a rerun, the first Festival Tales post, from September, 2009.


While Jazz Commission chair, I helped the coordinator of the 18th and Vine Festival, then a free outdoor music fest held each September (and a separate event from the much larger Kansas City Jazz Festival).

At that time the Kansas City Star published crowd estimates provided by professionals, such as the police. Previously, they printed numbers festival organizers quoted, until it became apparent we organizers might, um, exaggerate a bit (or a lot).

One year, as the 18th and Vine Festival wound down on a Sunday evening, several of us gathered around a concession stand and chatted. We agreed among ourselves about 5000 people had passed through the event that weekend. A few police officers, assisting with security, walked by. We asked if they might like some hot dogs and soft drinks. The hot dogs would just be discarded anyway, we told them, so they took us up on the offer. They thanked us, adding those were a good end to a long day. Then the officer in charge asked, so what do you want the weekend crowd estimate to be? 20,000? Sure, we said, 20,000 sounded good.

And that’s how (then, anyway) published crowd estimates were derived.


Festivals are funded by corporate sponsorships, foundation grants and concession sales. At the Kansas City Jazz Festival, we sometimes joked that we might make more money if we gave away the beer and charged for the Porta-Johns. That is, until the year a Porta-John tipped over with someone in it.

The patron was drunk. He stepped into a Porta-John and swayed back and forth. It was an end unit. He continued to sway. He swayed until tthe unit fell on its side to the ground.

Inside, the disoriented drunk couldn’t figure out where the door went.


Today, the Kansas City Star has knowledgeable writers covering jazz, like Joe Klopus and Steve Paul. That wasn’t always the case. Such as when our 1985 headliner was the Modern Jazz Quartet and The Star’s reviewer compared them to Muzak.

But we needed The Star to help publicize an event with a meager marketing budget. So at times we endured a love-hate relationship with the newspaper.

By the 1990s I had stepped away from organizing the festival, and the event had merged with the blues fest to create something much larger. I still attended each year. One of those years, the Star’s then jazz writer (who has long since left town) published an article critical of the festival’s talent lineup. After the event, I wrote a letter, which the Star printed, praising the organizers on what was an exceptionally well produced event that year, even in the face of critics who didn’t understand the limitations of talent availability and budgets.

The next year, I was walking through the festival grounds when a mutual friend stopped and introduced me to the Star’s jazz writer. When he heard my name, the writer pointed a finger at me and exclaimed (all these years later, this isn’t really an exact quote), You! You’re the one who wrote the letter! I heard from so many people on that article! But you didn’t get my point! Nobody got the point!

Now, it seems to me that if nobody got his point, he didn’t express it very well.

But more importantly, to find out that my letter had caused that writer so much grief, and that a year later it still bothered him, felt wonderful.

That remains one of my favorite days at a jazz festival.


The year the Modern Jazz Quartet headlined, I learned to refer to them as the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet. Milt Jackson told me. But that’s a story for another blog post.

Monday, November 14, 2011

This 'n That 'n More Festival Thoughts

When establishing a location for the Kansas City Jazz Festival in the early 1980s, organizers chose the south lawn of the Nelson Museum – back when it was controlled by the Parks Department and before it was landscaped – and Volker Park, also known as Theis Memorial Mall, immediately south of the Museum. They were chosen, in part, with the hope of presenting a jazz festival in a setting which would draw both Kansas City’s black and white populations. It was a good location.

Later, the jazz festival merged with the blues festival and moved to the more multiple-stage accommodating Penn Valley Park. That was another good and neutral location.

Two weeks ago I wrote about perceptions of 18th and Vine and how they impact the Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival. It drew several comments, all of which are greatly appreciated.

To clarify a few points:

• I don’t accept that racism, with rare exceptions, plays into suburban residents staying away from 18th and Vine. It’s an undeserved perception of danger, an image which has plagued the district for decades, which scares potential patrons away. The failure to overcome that image both frustrates and angers me.

• One commentator noted people not wanting to venture into the areas surrounding 18th and Vine. That’s a valid point.

When I was chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission, in the mid to late 1980s, the Executive Director of the Black Economic Union showed me extensive blueprint plans for renovating the jazz district. Most of it was not what was eventually built (though some of the since-constructed housing was there).

My reaction at the time was that these were plans for an oasis surrounded by blight. You could not, I said more than 25 years ago, expect people to come to this jazz mecca if they had to pass through neighborhoods which were then far more uninviting and intimidating than what surrounds 18th and Vine today.

The Executive Director agreed and assured me that renovation would grow beyond what I saw in those blueprints. But that’s never happened. As the Crossroads area has extended east – at one point including a performance space at 18th and Troost, which was featured in a story on KCUR – I hoped the uninviting neighborhoods would be bridged. But that, too, has never happened.

• Also noted was a desire for a jazz festival in a neutral site, no doubt remembering the ones described in the opening of this post.

One commentator is right in noting that parking around 18th and Vine for this year’s Rhythm and Ribs was a challenge. I was frustrated to see most of the known lots blocked off for use by, it seemed, anyone but me. I wound up parking in the VIP lot, on the west side of Paseo, not because I’m a VIP, but because I saw spaces available and nobody standing guard to tell me I couldn’t.

The parks of the old festivals held advantages. But the fact is that in the 21st century, nobody is staging a jazz festival on those sites. Nobody is organizing volunteers, or raising money, or pulling in Kansas City’s civic structure, to stage a jazz festival in Volker Park or in Penn Valley Park. Instead, Kansas City’s civic community has coalesced its resources behind a jazz festival at 18th and Vine.

Look for a moment at the 2007 Rhythm and Ribs Festival. All of Parade Park was fenced off. Headliners included Al Jarreau, George Benson, Pat Metheny and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Unless B.B. King was added, I don’t know how you could come up with a more stellar, all-star lineup for a jazz and blues festival in this century. The space, the star power, everything was in place for a breakout event. I don’t know how that festival drew or how it fared financially. But the fact that two years later there was no festival, and it subsequently returned downsized to accommodate around 7000 people, suggests much.

A person with the proper pull could conceivably walk into Kansas City’s civic structure and use that example to suggest the city would be better served by a jazz festival in Penn Valley Park. But that person had best come prepared with a plan, the organization, and the backing to make the event happen. And that person had best come prepared to counter the participants favoring an 18th and Vine location, participants who this year hit their stride in producing an excellent event.

I don’t see that happening. I’m not suggesting it should. The fact is, this city’s major jazz festival is taking place, for the foreseeable future, at 18th and Vine. I maintain the challenge to overcome is how to draw more people to the area.


When the Mutual Musicians Foundation introduced Kansas City wine last August (here), also introduced was a 2012 Charlie Parker calendar. Each month showcases a photo of the great Kansas City-born alto saxophonist, ranging from age 14 months to a clipping of his funeral notice. In between are ubiquitous photos you’ll recognize – Bird with Jay McShann’s band – and some I haven’t seen, such as one of Parker performing in Birdland with Lester Young and Hot Lips Page.

The Charlie Parker 2012 Calendar is available for $10.00 plus $2.50 shipping from SPG Publications, 1146 Harrison Street, Kansas City, MO 64106, or by phoning 816-842-9068, or by emailing

Monday, November 7, 2011

Two New Jazz Spots in Town

I remember the old days, when each bi-monthly issue of Jazz Ambassador Magazine profiled a different Kansas City jazz club.

It’s been a long time since the publication could do that.

Since long before I started this blog, Kansas City has been home to three jazz clubs: Jardine’s, The Blue Room and The Majestic. Four jazz clubs if you count The Phoenix, though that bar has mostly veered towards the blues. The Phoenix apparently decided a fourth club in KC couldn’t survive on jazz.

Two new jazz spots beg to differ. And they’re doing it wonderfully.

1911 Main is both name and address of KC’s newest jazz restaurant and club. In the space once known as Bar Natasha, a semi-circular stage pushes musicians forward among listeners and diners, letting their music fill the room.

On my first visit, a Monday with few in the audience, the room’s abundance of hard surfaces (concrete floor, brick walls) presented the music with a harsh edge.

But last Saturday night the space was filled with people and the sound differed, not harsh but excitingly full and alive. Last Saturday night, Matt Otto’s tenor sax, nearly always played with perfect tone, sounded as smooth yet crisp and precise as I’ve heard it. Backed by T.J. Martley on piano, Ben Leifer on bass and Brian Steever on drums, and playing standards and some of Matt’s more accessible compositions, this group in this space was a genuine jazz delight.

And the music could be clearly heard and enjoyed despite a chattering full house. No series of overhead speakers is needed here to carry the sound. No speaker volume needs to be cranked to enjoy jazz over the crowd.

There’s no cover charge. Food is a fraction of the price of its restaurant-and-jazz-club competition 25 blocks down Main Street, maintaining a quality and consistency – everything is served hot! What a novel concept for a jazz club! – those of us who have dined repeatedly at that competition have long dreamed of experiencing with our jazz.

If 1911 Main had a weak spot, until recently it’s been promotion and an easy way to discover just who is playing there each night. But a new website at tells you everything you need to know. Their online calendar is now linked at the right of this blog. And a recent Groupon promotion found over 820 buyers (excellent results for a new and largely not-yet-known establishment). Given that each of those Groupons was for two or four diners, there’s more than 1600 people ready to discover the new jazz kid on Main Street.

Excellent jazz. Good sound. Good food. Reasonable prices. No cover charge. Ample parking (in a lot at 20th and Walnut, connected by an alley). What more could you want?

How about another outstanding jazz spot, this one in the southern reaches of suburban Johnson County?

Walk into Take Five Coffee and Bar, in the strip mall at the northeast corner of 151st Street and Nall, and you’ll first notice posters of Ella, of Lady Day, of Bird and Diz and Pops. This place is obviously owned by a jazz lover.

Then check out the November calendar posted prominently by the door: Rich Wheeler Quartet, Killer Strayhorn, 9plus1 (every other Monday), Stan Kessler. Matt Otto will be here, too, with a different group, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

There’s a lineup to compete with any music space in KC.

But in a coffee shop (where, let’s note, they serve an outstanding cappuccino)? No worry. They offer some excellent wine, too.

Even more importantly, owner Lori Chandler may have hit on the right formula for presenting nightly jazz in Johnson County. Over the years, I’ve seen jazz bars in this suburb come and go. But here is a relaxing atmosphere, where someone may be reading a Kindle while enjoying wine with his live jazz. Quiet talk by patrons serves as a unique contrast to the more bombastic atmospheres in town. Meanwhile, angled ceilings capture and reflect back the music with exceptional clarity and presence.

If you want a meal and a Scotch with your jazz, I know of a couple of places on Main Street to direct you towards. But if your wish is for a  more genteel environment to savor exceptional music (and maybe a Kindle), welcome to the suburbs. This is a different but no less wonderful setting for enjoying jazz.

The schedule is not just available on the chalk board by the front door. Check out the excellent web site at which includes that monthly lineup, now linked at the right of this blog.

Two new Kansas City jazz spots serving live music four to six nights a week…Y’know, I’m not sure it’s possible to write a better blog post than this.