Monday, January 30, 2012

Matt Otto Quartet at Jazz Winterlude

I came to an infatuation with jazz through Basie. And I’ll be the first to admit I was dragged to contemporary jazz by the nose hairs. Some of it remains too extreme for my tastes, and I’m convinced some is transitory. But some of the best jazz being produced today is, indeed, contemporary. And none is better than the music of the Matt Otto Quartet supplemented by voice and piano.

I spent most of a couple weekends back at Johnson County Community College’s Jazz Winterlude. Club-sized crowds enjoyed some of the best jazz in Kansas City today, a mix of traditional and modern music. But of every group I heard, Matt’s stood out as the most extraordinary.

Matt Otto and Gerald Dunn, either of whom could play sax for anyone (Matt on tenor, Gerald on alto), here are at once complementary and competitive, each clearly admiring the other’s solos. Backed by Jeff Harshbarger on bass and Michael Warren’s drums, the base quartet presents Matt’s complex compositions as both supremely engaging and completely accessible. Now add T.J. Martley’s smart and inventive piano. Then layer on Shay Estes’ remarkable vocals. She isn’t singing songs. This is the voice as an instrument, but unlike any instrument played by manipulating keys.

I’m groping for words to explain the wonder which filled the theater. Simply, I have not heard another group like this.

I wrote about and photographed the Matt Otto Quartet last year, here. But I’m so taken by their music, here they are again, from their Jazz Winterlude performance on January 21st. As always. clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

The Matt Otto Quartet. Left to right: Gerald Dunn, Matt Otto, Jeff Harshbarger, and Michael Warren

Matt Otto on tenor sax

Gerald Dunn on alto sax

The front line with Gerald Dunn on alto, Matt Otto on tenor and Shay Estes vocalizing

Michael Warren on drums

Jeff Harshbarger on bass

The Matt Otto Quartet plus two. Left to right: T.J. Martley, Gerald Dunn, Matt Otto, Shay Estes, Jeff Harshbarger, Michael Warren

Shay Estes, vocals

T.J. Martley on piano

Jeff solos as Shay admires

The saxes: Gerald and Matt

Shay Estes vocalizing. Behind her, Jeff Harshbarger.

Monday, January 23, 2012

No, It's Marketing

It’s not the J word.

Last week, our friend Plastic Sax identified the reason Nnenna Freelon’s Folly Theater show failed to draw more than some 400 people (here). “To a large extent, the barrier was antipathy to the j-word,” he wrote. “The jazz label may have drawn three-quarters of the existing audience, but it repelled even more potential ticket-buyers.”

Jazz the Repeller? Is a new super-villain threatening Gotham?

Is this a job for the Magic Jazz Fairy?

Well, maybe. Because it’s all about marketing.

Plastic Sax opines, “Music lovers of all stripes who appreciate Stevie Wonder, Amy Winehouse, Luther Vandross, Frank Sinatra or Mary J. Blige would have loved Freelon's performance.”

I don’t doubt a word of that.

Now, will somebody let those music lovers know?

With the rare exception of shows starring a name with established crossover appeal, the Folly jazz series seems to draw 400 patrons a show, give or take. That’s what happens when you market to the same audience through direct mail and newspaper ads. You’re reaching your core, and that’s important. But so is expanding your core.

The core is not limited by an act being labeled jazz. Plastic Sax himself proved it, last month, in his alternate guise as mild-mannered Business Manager of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra (KCJO).

KCJO’s December concert sold over 1000 tickets. How? In part by selling about 400 seats through new media, through Groupon.

There’s good and bad to Groupon. A business forgoes substantial cash in the promotion. And businesses debate how many of those deal-chasing customers will return at regular price. Each Groupon is effectively a non-scientific data collection experiment.

But, more importantly, through Groupon, KCJO marketed beyond the core. They marketed beyond the 4000 people who receive every postcard. They reached beyond we old fogies who catch their ads in the newspaper. They reached out to a younger and broader demographic.

So did that younger and broader demographic realize they were buying a ticket to something called (horrors!) jazz?

They were buying a ticket to see The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra.

Yep, I’m fairly certain they knew this was jazz.

Will all return for another show? No. Will there be some level of stickiness? Yes, absolutely.

This was a jazz concert in Kansas City which sold over 1000 tickets. So don’t tell me a jazz concert in Kansas City can’t sell 1000 tickets.

For December, KCJO’s guest was to be Kevin Mahogany (who, unfortunately, couldn’t attend due to an injury). No doubt many came to hear Kevin. He grew up in this area. Kansas Citians know him. But is his appeal inherently broader than a properly-marketed Nnenna Freelon? Of course not.

It’s incumbent on both her management and the presenting theater to make her appeal known. If she really could attract “music lovers of all stripes who appreciate Stevie Wonder, Amy Winehouse, Luther Vandross, Frank Sinatra or Mary J. Blige,” why doesn’t somebody tell them? Why doesn’t somebody market her performance through new media, with links to song snippets and videos where a potential ticket buyer can hear the appeal for himself? Were there advertisements in media where lovers of Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross would hear them? Were there efforts to expose an audience beyond the core to Nnenna Freelon’s music?

Was the marketing geared towards telling the core, hey, guys, we’re having another jazz concert, wanna come? Or did anyone try to market Nnenna Freelon, the Event? Because if it’s the former, don’t plan on needing to accommodate more than 400 people, give or take.

This year’s Rhythm and Ribs Festival drew, by my estimation, 7000 fans. Last year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival was rained out, but organizers claim the 2010 event attracted a similarly-sized crowd. KCJO sold over 1000 tickets to their December concert. And everyone attending all of those events knew they were predominantly (or completely) jazz.

You could argue that festivals are events and are seen and sold differently than a monthly music series, so my comparison isn’t fair. I’ll argue that you pick concerts in your series that can be sold as events and promote them as events to fill the house. And I’ll argue that nearly every show must be marketed beyond the core audience.

Isn’t a street-definition of stupidity doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? There’s nothing stupid about marketing to your core. Never ignore them. Never take them for granted. But if you market only to your core, why would you expect different results? If you market only to your core, why would you expect a larger audience?

Some jazz products will only appeal to that core. Know which those are and don’t spend marketing dollars unwisely. But others will reach more broadly. Recognize them.

The word jazz itself is no super-villain. But never attempting to reach beyond the base? There’s the threat.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Jazz Winterlude 2012

On this, I am unabashedly biased.

Because I first worked with Doreen Maronde when I was a volunteer organizing jazz festivals and she was with our partner, Kansas City Parks and Recreation. She left that post for Johnson County Community College (JCCC). She’s since retired from there, but not from organizing jazz festivals. For the third consecutive year, this retiree is organizing Jazz Winterlude. It happens this Friday through Sunday, January 20th through 22nd.

Friday’s music starts a 6 p.m. with the Bill Crain Quartet, followed by Crosscurrent, then headlined by Dave Brubeck’s sons with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet.

Saturday’s music starts at 12:30 p.m. with the Jazz Disciples. Also this day: the Brandon Draper World Jazz Quartet, Lynn Zimmer and the Jazz Band, the Matt Otto Quintet, the Will Matthews Quartet and the Kansas City Brass Quartet. Finally, Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band headline Saturday night.

On Sunday, join a jazz brunch with pianist Roger Wilder leading a trio while you eat.

Friday actually starts early for 250 students participating in daylong clinics. Members of the Brubeck Quartet are hosting four of those sessions. And anyone can come and observe. One of the most intriguing sessions: At 4:30 p.m. Friday, Chris and Dan Brubeck host, Growing Up a Brubeck.

All this takes place inside JCCC’s wonderful Carlsen Center (with attached covered parking). Tickets are available at the Center’s box office, or by calling 913-469-4445, or online here. Any students with a current ID gets in for just $5 each day. More info on the festival is here. The weekend’s schedule is here.

Still don’t believe this will be a great weekend of jazz in Johnson County? Then take a look at the photos below from last year’s fest (clicking on one should open a larger version of it).

Millie Edwards Quartet. Left to right: Michael Pagan on piano, Bob Bowman on bass, Mille Edwards, vocals, Ray DeMarchi on drums

Diverse Trio. Left to right: Hermon Mehari on trumpet. Ben Leifer on bass, Ryan Lee on drums

Bram Wijands

Westport Art Ensemble with Gerald Spaits on bass, Dave Chael on saxophone and Todd Strait on drums (not pictured: pianist Roger Wilder)

Singer Megan Birdsall and saxophonist Steve Lambert with the New Jazz Order Big Band

Kim Park Quartet. Left to right: Joe Cartwirght on piano, Zack Beeson on bass, Kim Park on saxophone, Tommy Ruskin on drums

Hermon Mehari

Bram Wijands Trio. Left to right: Bram Wijnands on piano, Rod Fleeman on guitar, Tommy Rusklin on drums

New Jazz Order Big Band

Monday, January 9, 2012

So You Want to Own a Jazz Club

It can be done. I’ve done the research. I’ve written the business plan. I’ve prepared a five year budget showing annual profits while projecting less business than experienced consultants said it would draw, because I wouldn’t invest my own money unless the numbers worked with a cushion.

So I know it can be done.

1911 Main started as a jazz club and was gone in a proverbial flash. Jardine’s has been buried in high profile turmoil for most of the last month-and-a-half. That’s it. What more proof do you need that a jazz club cannot survive today in Kansas City? You want to own a jazz club? It would be easier to just throw your cash into a bonfire.

Bull. I know it can be done.

It takes a knowledgeable operator, the right location, solid marketing, sufficient operating capital, and a tight business plan.

I wrote a business plan to open a new jazz club in Kansas City over two years ago. I retained consultants who own and operate successful restaurants and clubs in Kansas City and other markets.

Research revealed two basic operating models for a successful jazz club: Turn the room twice a night with a high cover charge (used by clubs in New York and Seattle, and by Jardine’s on weekends) or open for lunch, not just at night, to generate sufficient revenue.

I found an ideal location within the downtown loop. Four other businesses on the street open for lunch, suggesting meaningful foot traffic. Research identified over 20,000 workers in walking-distance offices. And it was adjacent to two residential areas.

The space could be adapted to the character of a classic jazz club. The address was simple and memorable. Supported by professional operation and marketing, this location could draw music fans for dinner and drink at night and turn a profitable lunch operation during the day. The consultants saw enough potential that they offered to reduce their fees in return for an ownership stake.

Now consider 1911 Main.

I looked at that location. I saw a space that, with some tweaking, could become an ideal jazz club. But minimal weekday foot traffic in an area with less densely-packed offices limited its opportunities. True, other nearby restaurants have established solid daytime business (Grinder’s and the Cashew), but I was concerned it would take an establishment building an identity as a jazz destination too long to match their lunchtime success. More importantly, rent was nearly half again as much as the downtown locale.

I ran the numbers. 1911 Main would have been relatively inexpensive to move into, and that was attractive. But cold analysis said that once open, I could not project sufficient business to support a profitable jazz club there.

1911 Main Restaurant and Lounge, during its short jazz club life, eschewed cover charges and opened for lunch. Its choice of business model was clear. But I'd projected more than two years ago that at that location, that business model would not work.

Add to their woes poor marketing (ads in The Pitch, except during First Friday events, reached the wrong demographic) and start-up pains (twice when dining there I returned silverware covered with water stains) which discouraged business.

Success takes a knowledgeable operator, the right location, solid marketing, sufficient operating capital, and a tight business plan.

The Blue Room was recently recognized as one of the premiere jazz clubs in the country, and deservedly so. Jardines, if rumors are to be believed, will rise again. The Majestic showcases jazz in a space that was once a speakeasy. Take Five is pushing jazz to conquer the suburbs. The Phoenix has morphed into more of a blues bar, but still highlights nights of jazz.

Yet this area will support another jazz club. I’m certain of it.

The right location is one research says will support noontime business. The right operator is one experienced in the service industry, or one who employs operators with never-a-water-stain-on-the-silverware experience (the role my consultants would have fulfilled). The owner will have the capital to operate at least ninety days as he or she builds the business. And that business will be built through word of mouth, sustained with astute marketing, including strategically placed ads and a day-one online and social media presence.

The consultants told me, based on their operational experience, the business my jazz club would do in year one. I reduced their projections by $100,000 and still showed a profit. I then projected four to four-and-a-half percent annual growth and showed investors earning an eighteen percent return on their investment after five years.

Sadly, the recession bit a key investor and the club never happened. The space I targeted is no longer available. I’ve since resumed a career in advertising.

Any new business involves risk. But starting another jazz club in Kansas City, done right, need be no money bonfire. I have a business plan which says so. Other ideal locations exist.

I know it can be done.

Monday, January 2, 2012

In Lieu of 1000 Words: A Metheny Celebration

This waited two months because Pat was on tour, and his mother insisted it not interrupt work. That’s how she was, he explained.

Lois Metheny was mother to two of Kansas City’s – okay, Lee’s Summit’s – most celebrated musicians, Mike and Pat Metheny. Mike lives in the area (and, as I’ve repeatedly told him, needs to perform more often). Pat you may know from his 18 Grammy awards. Or, you may know Pat from his years growing up here.

Lois encouraged both in their music careers. She passed in October. But one of her last requests was a Celebration of Life jam session and party. As Mike put it, “It was her wish to go out on an upbeat note rather than with a sad funeral, so we are going to make sure it happens that way.”

Two days after Pat finished an 80 city tour, it did.

On December 11th, at the Arrowhead Yacht Club at Lake Winnebago, musicians, family and friends gathered. Mike and Pat led the jam session. Among the other musicians participating were Paul Smith, Bob Bowman, Tommy Ruskin, Gerald Spaits and Marilyn Maye.

Sometimes with jazz, you’re fortunate to be at the right place, right time, and hear something special. When Marilyn Maye and Pat Metheny – who may have won Grammys for more exotic music, but who grew up in Kansas City’s jazz community – performed a vocal and guitar duet, we heard magic.

As afternoon turned to dusk, we stepped outside. Lake Winnebago was a location where Lois asked her ashes be spread. Mike, Pat and Pat’s wife and children walked towards the end of the dock. Red tinged the clouds. The setting sun glazed the lake, beautifully.

Then Pat called out, “We’ve never done this before! We don’t know what we’re doing!”

They figured it out.

Mike suggested I bring my camera. The photos below are from the celebration’s jam session. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

Pat and Mike Metheny. Mike is playing the E.V.I., or Electronic Valve Instrumement.

The jam session. Left to right: Pat Metheny, Tommy Ruskin, Mike Metheny, Bob Bowman, Paul Smith.

Mike Metheny plays. Behind him is Tommy Ruskin.

Pat Metheny on guitar

Paul Smith on piano

Marilyn Maye and Mike Metheny

Pat and Mike Metheny

Gary Sivils tells the story of teenage Pat’s first professional gig, with Gary’s group at a local lounge. At the right, Pat reacts. I couldn’t possibly retell the story here as well as Gary told it. If you run into Gary, ask him about it.

Bob Bowman on bass as Paul Smith watches

Pat Metheny on guitar and Tommy Ruskin on drums

Pat Metheny and Marilyn Maye duet

Mike Metheny

Pat solos while Mike watches

Lois Metheny’s boys