Monday, February 27, 2012

Fourteen and a Half Years Later

On Friday night, September 5th, 1997, 1500 people packed 18th and Vine for a black tie gala. After eight years and $26 million, Kansas City celebrated the grand opening of the jazz and Negro Leagues museums and the rebirth of the historic district.

Fourteen and a half years later:

From the west, you enter the 18th and Vine district on Eighteenth Street at The Paseo. Atop a building on the north side of the street, a sign rises, lit at night with giant red, green and blue letters, facing Interstate 70, announcing 18th & Vine District. The sign would better fit Disneyland.

On the south side of the street, you see an original district building. Its door facing Eighteenth Street is boarded and plastered with this notice:
Dangerous Building
Do Not Enter
Unlawful to use or occupy this building
Continue down Eighteenth Street. On the north side sit buildings erected for the district’s restoration. Once along here you’d have found the Street Hotel, with the original Blue Room nightclub; the Subway Club, where Mary Lou Williams, Lester Young and Ben Webster jammed; and the Shannon Building, with a third floor boxing club where Joe Louis sparred.

But those structures have been gone for decades. The buildings here now mostly replaced grassy lots, and they're full of activity. A new restaurant is moving into the corner space, The 9th Inning Sports Bar & Grill, appropriate a block from the Negro Leagues museum. From there to Vine Street are offices, the district’s daylight life.

Then turn south onto Vine. Deluxe Night Club, a sign left from when this street served as the backdrop for Robert Altmans’s film, Kansas City, decorates a building where the ceiling appears to have caved in. Next door, an empty lot, once stood the Kentucky Tavern. The next door down was the Cherry Blossom, where Bill Basie was first billed as Count and where Lester Young, Herschel Evans and Ben Webster brought down Coleman Hawkins in a legendary jam session. It burned in 1984, and only a braced facade remains. Across the street stood the Booker T. Washington Hotel, where musicians like Hawkins and Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra stayed. At the end of the block, the Roberts Building, boarded but standing, was the first black-owned auto dealership in America.

This is one of the most important blocks of 20th century American history anywhere. It’s a mess.

But return to Eighteenth Street. On the corner at Vine, the Lincoln Building is filled with professional offices, and on the first floor a cajun restaurant. Across the street, last Saturday night at The Blue Room, I heard jazz legend Benny Golson. You’ll find live jazz there four nights a week. The club is part of the complex housing the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Museum. The museums have their critics, but I’m not aware of any other museums in any other cities built to embrace jazz, or the Negro Leagues, as vibrantly or as successfully as the ones here. Across Eighteenth Street, the Gem Theater, also part of the district’s renovation, was filled Saturday for an original play.

Turn south onto Highland and walk towards Nineteenth Street, and you’re on a block undergoing remarkable transformation. The last half dozen single family homes in the district and the Rochester Hotel are in the midst of renovation into senior housing. Highland dead ends at Nineteenth with apartments on the right and a multi-family home development across the street. All of this surrounds Kansas City’s jazz jewel: The Mutual Musicians Foundation, a National Historic Landmark jumping with incredible joy every weekend late night for over eighty years. You can envision it now. When the housing is complete and occupied, this block will be amazing.

Return to Eighteenth Street. At the corner with Highland, an NEA grant has funded planning to redevelop the old Boone Theater as the home for Folk Alliance International. Across the street, between a bar at one corner and the offices of Friends of Alvin Ailey at the next, sit some empty storefronts in buildings erected for the district’s redevelopment. This is where fingers point when exclaiming the development failed. But these are three story buildings. The upper floors are apartments, all occupied.

Yet, across from the apartments stare back false fronts. These are part of the district’s redevelopment, erected to hide the buildings behind them, one the club where Buster Smith taught a young Charlie Parker, which the city accidentally started to tear down in 1987.

Welcome to the 18th and Vine Historic District, fourteen and a half years later. Your greeting defines what to expect: a Disneylandish sign on one side of the street and a condemned building on the other. On Highland, renovation is creating something wonderful. But Vine between Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets is history in disgraceful disrepair. Empty storefronts and false fronts dot the district and should not, yet they’re outnumbered by offices and homes and museums and nightlife.

Last week, The Atlantic published an excellent story on the district, The Jazz District Authenticity Problem (here). The next day, NPR’s A Blog Supreme questioned whether jazz is sustainable branding at a time when it’s learned and experienced very differently than during 18th and Vine’s heyday (here).

In Kansas City, it’s not.

But then, jazz never did thrive here on its own. It was part of a culture of gangsters, prohibition-era booze, gambling, prostitution and segregation. In Kansas City, it was the score to sin. Kill that culture and jazz needs new cohorts. Perhaps a sports bar or a folk alliance. Here, jazz alone cannot spark a district. It never did.

18th and Vine in 2012 is an incomplete success. Jazz is a critical element, but it’s one element.

2012 is not 1932. Today, romanticized history supplemented by diversity is more likely to thrive. And that’s what 18th and Vine, fourteen and a half years later, has embraced.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Kansas City in the Early '30s, Part 1

The facade of the Cherry Blossom. The ruins of the hospital. Of all the places and all the people recalled below, that’s all that’s left. 

And the music.

Seventy five to eighty years ago, here, in Kansas City:

“Oh my, marvelous town. Clubs, clubs, clubs, clubs, clubs, clubs, clubs. In fact, I thought that was all Kansas City was made up of, was clubs at one time…. I mean, the cats just played. They played all day and tomorrow morning they went home and went to bed. The next day, the same thing. We’d go to one job we’d play on, then go jamming until seven, eight in the morning.... We never really thought too much about bread. Just wanted to make your rent, something like that. Everybody chipped in. It was good times….”
— Count Basie, Goin’ to Kanss City

“Anybody that came through town, they’d come and get me. If I was home and somebody was in the city, Ben Webster or somebody would come and scratch on the window and say, ‘Come on out, everybody’s jammin’,’ and I’d get up and go out with ’em. [There were] just thousands of clubs. I’ve never seen so many clubs in all my life. On Twelfth Street, there must have been fifty. They were clean clubs, but not anything classy.”

— Mary Lou Williams, Goin’ to Kansas City

“Now Eighteenth Street, from about Charlotte up to Prospect, was mostly joints. You know, booze houses.”

— Charles Goodwin, Goin’ to Kansas City

“The Yellow Front Saloon was at Eighteenth and Lydia, near [Wheatly Provident] Hospital, and sometimes, when things were really jumping in the joints in that neighborhood, you could come in there and there would be musicians leaning out of the windows of the hospital, playing their horns. I’d never seen and heard anything like that in my life.”

— Count Basie, Good Morning Blues

“…We’d go down to the Sunset Club. That was really something, about twelve feet wide and maybe sixty feet long. It was like going down a hallway. They hired a piano player and a drummer to come on at midnight, but we’d get there before that and there’d maybe be ten musicians on the stand. That’s where I first met Prez [Lester Young] and Ben Webster…. They’d fight it out ’till daylight, sometimes to ten o’clock…. Around nine o’clock in the morning, we’d go across to the Sawdust Trail, a dining room with sawdust on the floor, where all the musicians met. The Lone Star, where Pete Johnson was playing, was directly across from the Sunset…. The Sunset was not a bucket of blood, but you might see some fighting in it, and you’d have to break out of there.

“Another place where we had after-hours jam sessions was the Subway, over on 18th Street [1516 E. 18th Street]. Piney Brown ran it and he was a big man in all that black neighborhood, although Felix Payne was actually the boss. Piney was a friend to the musicians and in with the politicians, because he could get you out of jail. Felix Payne had an open lottery right on the street, with a roulette wheel and everything. You could go right in there and gamble, and there was always peace, although that was the area where you found the hustlers and the good restaurants.”

— Gene Ramey, The World of Count Basie

“In Kansas City all them big clubs were [run by] them big gangsters, and they were the musician’s best friend. They give you a job, and something to eat, and work regular. We didn’t know nothing about their business, they didn’t know nothing about ours. All they want to do is play the music and keep the crowd happy.”

— Buster Smith, Goin’ to Kansas City

“Some people seem to think the Cherry Blossom was a ballroom, but it was the old Eblon Theater turned into a huge nightclub. It was on Vine Street, between 18th and 19th, directly across the street from the Booker T. Washington Hotel, which had become the most popular one for musicians. Next door to it, on the right, was the Kentucky Tavern, where jam sessions would usually start around two o’clock in the afternoon. ‘Spook breakfasts,’ we called them in Kansas City! Anybody who stayed up all night we called spooks or ghosts. Jay McShann got his name ‘Hootie’ because he’d stay up so late he was up with the hoot owls. They also used to say that he would hoot like an owl when he’d drunk some whiskey!

“I slipped away from school the night Hawk played at the Cherry Blossom. Ben [Webster], Herschel [Evans], Dick Wilson and three or four other local tenors were there, and Hawk was cutting everybody out. Until Prez got him. He tore Hawk apart. He tore Hawk up so bad he missed a date in St. Louis. Hawk was still trying to get him at twelve o’clock the next day. Seemed like the longer Prez played, the longer that head-cutting session went on, the better Prez got. He played more creative things.

"The adage in Kansas City was – and still is – say something on your horn, not just show off your versatility and ability to execute. Tell us a story and don’t let it be a lie. Let it mean something, if it’s only one note, like Louis Armstrong or Duke would do.”

— Gene Ramey, The World of Count Basie

“Kansas City was a musicians’ town, and there were good musicians everywhere you turned. Sometimes you just stayed at one place, and sometimes you might hit maybe two or three or more, but you could never get around to all the jumping places in that town in one night. There were just too many.”

— Count Basie, Good Morning Blues

Monday, February 13, 2012

It Hurts

Let’s not kid ourselves about this.

Yes, The Blue Room is booking great jazz acts as often as ever. And Benny Golson there, later this month, Jardine’s would not have had that.

True, Take Five is a marvelous new venue in a location where I never thought jazz could thrive. But there it is, showcasing jazz several nights a week, and about to add even more jazz.

Absolutely, the former speakeasy in the Majestic is seeing some of its largest crowds, as jazz fans re-discover what a wonderful music space it is (even though it’s mid-February and they still don’t have this month’s schedule online, for chrissake).

Yes, even though it’s mostly a blues bar now, you can find jazz at the Phoenix occasionally. Same for The Buzzz, which is changing names, in Johnson County. WestChase Grille is mostly restaurant, but can be counted on for jazz four nights a week. The Record Bar chips in a couple Sundays each month. There’s hotel bars here and there. Last Friday you could catch Alaturka on a new stage on Main Street. And never forget the Mutual Musicians Foundation every Friday and Saturday late night.

You can still find jazz in Kansas City.

But let’s not kid ourselves. With Jardine’s dark for two-and-a-half months, its name stripped from the building, its loss has had a significant impact on the availability of Kansas City jazz. Sure, food there was inconsistent and overpriced. Service could be good or mediocre. Last summer, parking was a challenge. But losing a place where you knew you could find live jazz seven nights a week, where you knew every month you could hear Shay and Mark and Megan and Ida and Sons of Brazil, losing that hurts.

Rumors say a couple parties could be interested in purchasing and reopening Jardine’s. And this city has a recent history of closed jazz clubs successfully changing hands. The Phoenix’s doors were locked for more than a year before the current operator took control. The Majestic was closed for six months. Following that path, Jardine’s could be dark for months to come and still pick right up where it left off, right?

Such a resurrection is becoming increasingly tough to envision.

Jardine’s spent years building a name as the place to find jazz in Kansas City. But the explosion of boycotting musicians and unpaid staff which slammed shut its doors sullied the public perception. Its equity as a club to which people will gladly return diminishes each day those doors remain locked, and a swirl of glue on the front brick wall, where a plaque once proclaimed Jardine’s, tells every passing motorist, move on, there’s nothing to see (or hear) here.

One report says back rent may be approaching $30,000 due. What other debts hang over the club? Is that a nut it makes business sense to absorb?

I know nothing about the legalities involved. I know nothing about what the lease on the space stipulates or allows. But I wonder at what point it makes sense not to negotiate with the business owner but with the landlord. I’d assume, if rent is left unpaid, the landlord regains control of his property. I’d assume at some point a new restaurant and club, with a different name and owned by a different legal entity, could open there, without the baggage now bundled with Jardine’s.

And why couldn’t that restaurant and club feature jazz which has, after all, proven to work in that space?

Jardine’s holds a 3 a.m. operating license and, outside of the downtown loop, those are hard to obtain anymore. There is some value in purchasing the business. But at what point has the business value diminished to where it just isn’t worth pursuing?

I’ve said this before: Kansas City can support another jazz club. We have an abundance of jazz talent ready to perform. We have an audience which for decades paid high prices for inconsistent food and service so we could hear that music. You can depend on us. In the right location, we’ll do it again.

The right location may be on Main Street just north of the Plaza, or it may be somewhere else. But as the larger crowds re-discovering The Majestic prove, we’ve waited long enough, thank you. We’re ready to again hear Shay and Mark and Megan and Ida and Sons of Brazil every month, in a jazz club open seven nights a week. And we don’t really give a damn what the place is called.

I remember walking into Jardine’s about 11 p.m. one Saturday night last summer. Ida McBeth had played the dinner shows, and the room was still packed. I squeezed into a spot at the bar. Shay Estes was on stage with her group, with Mark Lowrey on piano. The jazz was wonderful. I stayed until 1:30 a.m., and there were still plenty of us buying drinks and soaking up the jazz.

Summer is approaching. Baseball’s All-Star game is in town this year, adding gobs of visitors, some looking for live jazz.

So, I have a question:

Who wants our money?

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Rest of Winterlude…Well, Much of It

Not everything, but I did capture more than one group.

The last post showcased photos of Matt Otto’s remarkable group. But Johnson County Community College’s Jazz Winterlude, on January 20th and 21st, offered plenty more jazz than that. I didn’t catch it all, but I had the chance to photograph many of the exceptional acts over the weekend.

For instance, Sam Wiseman’s Crosscurrent, playing music by and inspired by Lennie Tristano, was a Friday night favorite, with Sam on drums, Matt Otto and Steve Lambert on tenor sax, T.J. Martley on piano and Ben Leifer on bass.

The Jazz Disciples opened Saturday with Gerald Dunn on tenor sax, guest Jason Goudeau on trombone, Everett Freeman on piano, Bill McKemy on bass and Michael Warren on drums.

The Brandon Draper World Jazz Quartet followed with Brandon on drums, Peter Sclamb on vibraphone, Rich Wheeler on tenor sax, and Jeff Harshbarger on bass.

Later on Saturday, the Will Matthews Quartet featured Will on guitar, Charles Williams on piano, James Ward on bass, and Ryan Lee on drums.

Photos of all are below. As always, clicking on a shot should open a larger version of it.

Jazz Disciples. Left to right: Jason Goudeau, Gerald Dunn, Everett Freeman, Bill McKemy, Michael Warren

Count Basie Orchestra guitarist, former president of the Mutual Musicians Foundation and leader of the Will Matthews Quartet: Will Matthews

Crosscurrent. Left to right: Steve Lambert, T.J. Martley, Matt Otto, Ben Leifer, Sam Wiseman

Leader of the Brandon Draper World Jazz Quartet: Drummer Brandon Draper

Jazz Disciples bassist Bill McKemy

Brandon Draper World Jazz Quartet. Left to right: Jeff Harshbarger, Rich Wheeler, Brandon Draper, Peter Schlamb

Jazz Disciples pianist Everett Freeman

Brandon Draper World Jazz Quartet saxophonist Rich Wheeler

Jazz Disciples rhythm section: Everett Freeman, Bill McKemy and Michael Warren

Crosscurrent saxophonist Steve Lambert

Charles Williams, pianist with the Will Matthews Quartet

Brandon Draper World Jazz Quartet vibraphonist Peter Schlamb

Crosscurrent: T.J. Martley on piano and Ben Leifer on bass