Monday, April 30, 2012

A Repost on Andy Kirk

The bulk of my last week was spent traveling on business, and when I returned I purchased a new car, replacing a reliable but aged jalopy. My mind has rambled amongst numerous topics this past week, but none of them, alas, was jazz. So today I ponder nothing new. Instead, I offer a re-post from this blog's early days, from January, 2010, when I was recounting tales of my days as an organizer of the Kansas City Jazz Festival (and when hardly anyone read this blog). This particular tale recalls the year we brought to town and I had the delight to meet bandleader Andy Kirk.


Many don’t know that Andy Kirk led what once was the most popular band to come out of Kansas City, Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy. Their 1936 recording of Until the Real Thing Comes Along was that year’s top national hit. Count Basie would leave Kansas City the same year, and by 1937 Basie’s band was recording a string of tunes which not only eclipsed the Clouds of Joy’s popularity but which remain jazz standards today.

For the 1985 festival, we brought Andy Kirk back to Kansas City to honor him. The original idea (mine, actually) was to celebrate Kirk and fellow KC jazz era bandleader Harlan Leonard with a battle of the bands, groups we would assemble and they would nominally lead. But we found that Leonard had passed away a year-and-a-half earlier in California. So we flew in 87-year old Andy Kirk and scrapped the mock battle.

I would introduce Andy on stage. I’d prepared remarks, but wanted to make certain I had all the facts right. The Nelson Museum hosted our hospitality room that year, and that’s where I sat down with Andy.

I’ll never meet anyone nicer, or more delightful. I intended to cover my list of facts in a few minutes. But as I read off each, Andy asked, “Can I tell you a story about that?” For half an hour he regaled me with tales of Kansas City in the 1920s and ’30s, of life on the road, of legendary pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, of the beginnings of Kansas City jazz. Among my great regrets from those festival years is that I did not have a recorder on the table that day.

All that Andy told me is in his autobiography, Twenty Years on Wheels (1989, The University of Michigan Press). Yet, for some reason, one particular story sticks with me still.

When Andy took over as bandleader in 1929, a promoter dubbed the group Andy Kirk and his Dark Clouds of Joy, with “Dark” in the name to insure no confusion that this was a band of black musicians. But Andy didn’t like “Dark” in the name. As he explains in his book:

“I’d heard that expression back in Denver. It usually came from men hanging around in front of a saloon with nothing to do. When some of us came down the street towards them they’d remark, ‘Looks like it’s gonna rain. Dark clouds comin’.’”

Upon taking charge, Andy’s first change was to rename the band, Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy.


Few who know Kansas City jazz will ever forget Claude “Fiddler” Williams. His first recording (to my knowledge) was with Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy in a 1929 session at KMBC radio. Coincidentally, “Fiddler” played in a jam group just ahead of Andy at the 1985 festival. Of course, I know that over the years many people older than I saw “Fiddler” Williams and Andy Kirk together. But I was young and impressionable. And as I watched them greet each other on stage and chat, I was taken by the Kansas City jazz history standing before me.

I still am. I may not be young anymore, but I remain quite impressionable.


The next day, some of the wonderful folks from Kansas City Parks and Rec, who booked the festival that year, took Andy on a tour of downtown. He wanted to see what this city had become. They stopped on 12th Street, in front of the then-brand new Vista International Hotel (today, the Marriott). This, they told him, replaced a strip of old buildings and clubs where he once played. Andy, they later told me, was amazed.

That would turn out to be Andy Kirk’s last visit to Kansas City.

Monday, April 23, 2012

This 'n That 'n a Map

By this time, the Cherry Blossom was a bowling alley. But there was a post office just a couple doors away. The Street and the Booker T. Washington and the Rochester all stood as active hotels. You could see movies at The Gem. There's apartments and homes throughout the district. A filling station sits right along The Paseo, just south of 18th Street. And on 18th, across from what today we call the Boone Theater, and a couple doors down, you could find an undertaker.

I’ve been introduced to Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. The Kansas City Public Library’s web site probably offers the best explanation of them:

“These maps, created by the Sanborn Map Company to assist fire insurance companies to assess the risk of insuring a particular property, are a great resource. Besides showing what buildings existed in a specific area at a certain time, the original shape (footprint) is illustrated, allowing you to pinpoint any remodeling or other changes that may have occurred over time. The footprints are color-coded to indicate building material (e.g., brick, frame, stucco), and other symbols are used to indicate roofing material, location of chimneys, water line availability, and other features….

“Because it was prohibitively expensive to reprint them, employees of the Sanborn company would use a base volume and paste over areas where significant change had occurred (e.g., a new building had been built). For example, a base volume may be dated 1909, but the changes within that volume could date as late as 1945….”

Or 1950, in the case of the Sanborn map for the 18th and Vine district, which you can view on the library’s web site, here. Controls on the site allow you to enlarge and scroll the map.

The map provides a fascinating snapshot of the historic district. It’s a layout of the district three years before urban renewal would begin transforming the surrounding areas. It would be fourteen years before the Public Accommodations Act would pass, forcing Kansas City businesses to serve black patrons. It had been fourteen years since Count Basie left for New York. Musically, we were midway between Lester Young taking down Coleman Hawkins in an historic jam session at the Cherry Blossom, and The Beatles appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show.

18th and Vine’s day as a jazz mecca had passed. The Eblon, which opened as a silent movie theater in 1923, became the Cherry Blossom nightclub in the 1930s and then the Chez Paree (where Jay McShann and Walter Brown performed nightly) in the 1940s, is identified on this map as a bowling alley. The building which opened as the New Rialto Theater in 1924, was renamed the Boone Theater, and later Scott’s Theater, here is a National Guard Armory.

The district at this time was segregated Kansas City’s vibrant black downtown. 18th Street from Paseo to Woodland is packed with storefronts. Likewise, Vine. Most businesses are not identified. But among the ones that are, you find a couple of drugstores, auto repair garages, a bicycle repair shop, filling stations, a couple of printers, photo shops, a post office, offices, restaurants, hotels, homes, apartments, churches, a movie theater, a pool hall, and a building at 1823 Highland that’s labeled, Club Ho[use].

The map is a glimpse of 18th and Vine at a particular point in time, somewhere between its days of jazz and sin and its days of museums and a giant neon greeting.


Diverse Trio with Hermon Mehari, Ben Leifer and Ryan Lee. Millie Edwards and Michael Pagan. Joe Cartwright and “Duck” Warner.

So we know the jazz will be superb.

JazzBeats is a fundraiser for pancreatic cancer next Sunday, April 29th, in the Off-Broadway Theatre, at the edge of Penn Valley Park. It runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The organizers describe it like this:

“Brunch style small plates brought to you by local Kansas City restaurants and food trucks. Our menu ranges from chicken and waffles to tacos to quiche and bagels.

“A come and go as you please festival… an atmosphere of mingling, toe tapping and food sampling.”

More information is on their web site, here.


Two days later is May 1st. That’s International Worker’s Day. And you know what that means.

If you don’t, you can refresh your memory here. That’s the last time I photographed the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City, one of the quirkiest and funnest big bands you’ll find. And International Worker’s Day is their holiday.

Last year at The Record Bar, they celebrated in part by playing a portion of their score to the silent film Battleship Potemkin. I noted in the post, “They have a complete score ready if a theater would show the film. Anyone?”

How about we settle for a library.

On Tuesday May 1st, the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City will play their complete score during a showing of the silent film Battleship Potemkin at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Library. A reception starts at 6 p.m. and the film at 6:30. Admission is free. More details are here.

Until last year, I never thought that International Worker’s Day would become a holiday I look forward to. But, frankly, this year I can’t wait.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Snapshots of History

I’ve written before about the Eblon Theater, which later became the Cherry Blossom, and its unique significance to Kansas City’s jazz history (here).

Which can make it interesting to read news articles from the time of its opening, to understand its perception then.

The following article is from one of Kansas City’s black newspapers in 1923 (the city had four black newspapers at the time):
New Pleasure
Place Completed
At Cost of $60,000

Finest Materials Used To Build
New Features Into Vine
Street Playhouse

A modern, reinforced concrete and steel structure costing $60,000 will be thrown open into public when the Eblon Theatre opens its doors to patrons.

Only the finest materials have gone into the building and installation of the fixtures has been done by some of the most competent workmen and foremost firms in the city.

M. Huppe, owner of the Lincoln building and the Lincoln Furniture Company, put the stock of Lincoln Furniture at the disposal of the furnishers and decorators of the theatre. A number of articles to enhance the beauty of the interior of the house was purchased at the furniture company. The Lincoln Furniture company proved in this instance that it is able to care for all needs from the kitchen to the attic - and even to outfitting a theatre.

The Coles Theatre Supply company furnished all the theatre supplies in the New Eblon. A new silver screen, 12 by 16 feet, assures patrons of perfectly reproduced pictures. The screen is draped with heavy velour draperies on either side. In the projecting room on the balcony is top be found the last word in motion picture machinery. Two big Powers No. 6B projecting machines are guarantees against breakdowns and poor projection of the films. Power and light will be had from the latest model Westinghouse generator, which with other machinery, was installed by the Coles company.

A complete steam heating plant has been put in the theatre by the U.S. Engineering company, which also had charge of the plumbing installation. A big boiler and its auxiliaries stand as insurance against uneven heat. An air circulation system will provide a change of air constantly, preventing “stuffiness.”

All lumber and millwork that went into the building was furnished from the yard of the Dierks and Son Lumber company. the doors to the lobby, by the ticket taker’s cage and the balcony are all from the millwork department of this company.

Brick work on the structure was done by colored masons.

The general contractor for the building was the E.E. Williams company on Main street, which had general charge of construction and sublet the other contracts.

Nothing had been spared to make the new building one of the finest owned by colored people in the city. The theater has a full frontage on Vine street and extends a half block to the alley. It is but another step in Kansas City’s march to the front in the number and caliber of Negro business establishments maintained.

A photo which ran around the same time was headlined The Pioneer Builder and was identified as Homer (“Jap”) Eblon. The caption read:
The smiling proprietor of the Eblon Theater is here caught in characteristic pose. He smiled in his salad days as one of the popular young men, he smiled when he answered his country’s call and went to La Belle, France, and he smiles now that his hurculcean task is done of building a theater, complete from pit to dome, with every appointment in place, The temporary mixture of freight which has held back his placing the seats, annoys but does not overwhelm him.

The Eblon Theater opened in October, 1923. Homer “Jap” Eblon operated it from 1923 until moving with his family to California in 1928. He was killed in a car wreck in California in October, 1929. He was survived by his wife and daughter.

The building burned in an arson fire in 1984. Its braced facade still stands at 1822 Vine Street.


The Street Hotel, at the corner of 18th Street and The Paseo, was the preeminent hotel for black patrons in segregated Kansas City. The original Blue Room nightclub and the popular Red Room restaurant were inside.

What did it look like?

Here’s a postcard which pictures the hotel:

And here’s a photo taken in front of the hotel:


One more shot of buildings lost. This is 18th Street looking west from Highland (across the street from today’s museums). We see a building which no longer exists, the Gem Theater, and the Lincoln Building:

Monday, April 9, 2012

Jazz Fests

Kansas City, I present the competition.

Last week, the Detroit Jazz Festival, staged over the Labor Day weekend, announced a portion of their 2012 lineup (here): Sonny Rollins, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Wynton Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Gary Burton, Randy Brecker, Joe Lovano, Lew Tabackin, Poncho Sanchez, Arturo O’Farrill, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. And I’m just hitting the highlights.

This year’s Newport Jazz Festival (here), staged the first weekend in August, this year features Dr. John, Pat Metheny, Kurt Elling, Diane Reeves, Jason Moran, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Jack DeJohnette, Christian McBride, Maria Schneider and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

The Monterey Jazz Festival, September 21st through 23rd (here), this year stars Tony Bennett, Esperanza Spaulding, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Jack DeJohnette, Melody Gardot, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Christian McBride, Eddie Palmieri and Trombone Shorty.

The Atlanta Jazz Festival (here), staged over Memorial Day weekend, this year features Cyrus Chestnut, Kathleen Bertrand, Roy Ayers and Lionel Loueke.

The Jacksonville Jazz Festival, Memorial Day weekend in Jacksonville, Florida (here, here and here), this year headlines Sonny Rollins, Chick Corea with Stanley Clarke, the Jazz Crusaders, Madeline Peyroux, Trombone Shorty and Karrin Allyson.

The Chicago Jazz Festival will be held the same weekend as Detroit’s. Their lineup is not yet announced, but after looking at Detroit’s, I’m not sure who’s left.

It seems likely that the Kansas City area will again host a pair of jazz fests, Rhythm and Ribs at 18th and Vine and the Prairie Village Jazz Festival. Full disclosure: I’m helping Prairie Village’s jazz festival committee book talent for their September 8th event. Prairie Village’s fest is a small-budget day with a local focus, and no pretensions of competing with any lineup above.

Which leaves us Rhythm and Ribs as Kansas City’s major jazz event. I noted after last year’s festival that the city’s civic community has coalesced its resources behind this festival (here). This year, it’s time for the civic community to step up that support.

Last year’s Rhythm and Ribs headlined a jazz star, an elderly bluesman, and a once-popular funk group with baby-boomer name recognition. This year, that’s not good enough. Look at the lineups above. Sure, some of those festivals also include has-been pop groups which I didn’t bother to list. But you can get away with that when you’re selling an extravaganza of legitimate jazz stars.

I’m not proposing that this year’s Rhythm and Ribs should outshine long-established name festivals in Monterey or Newport. But for pity’s sake, why should we be partying in Jacksonville’s shadow? This is Kansas City. This is a city where jazz was born. This is our heritage, our international renown.

Last week, our friend Plastic Sax posted his annual plea for Kansas City’s jazz community to come together in a kumbaya moment to produce a major jazz event (here). He compared our more tepid jazz festivals to last week’s bigger and broader Middle of the Map music event in Kansas City.

One point of the comparison is solid: Middle of the Map secured a wide breadth of sponsorships to financially support their festival. That’s what it took to stage jazz festivals in Volker Park through the 1980s. Beer sponsorships, soft drink sponsorships, airlines, hotels, an ice cream brand, a retailer in Crown Center, an insurance company, American Express, they all contributed.

Success doesn’t require a jazz community kumbaya, because success means reaching beyond the jazz community. Success requires a dedicated group of people who want to do something for this city. It requires more time and energy than you’ll ever expect. And it requires Kansas City’s civic community stepping in with greater support.

That civic involvement can come from people with high level connections spearheading the festival and drawing on their own network of monied interests. It can come from a spirited leader inspiring civic excitement for the festival.

And it can come from civic leaders realizing that this is Kansas City. This is a city where jazz was born, this is our heritage, this is our international renown.

18th and Vine is where the civic community has chosen to anchor its jazz festival support, behind an event presented by the American Jazz Museum. This is the third year of the reborn festival. The economy is improving. This year, everyone needs to take the next step. The American Jazz Museum needs to assume the leadership that drives a bigger festival. And Kansas City’s civic leadership needs to understand the significance of that event and pull in broader support. Complacency only ignites a path to failure.

After all, wouldn’t it be monstrously embarrassing to Kansas City to see our jazz festival trumped by Jacksonville, Florida? Especially when I run this comparison:

Great jazz names who came out of Kansas City: Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams, Jay McShann, Big Joe Turner, Pete Johnson, Ben Webster, Buck Clayton, Jo Jones, Pat Metheny, Bobby Watson. That's for starters.

Great jazz names who came out of Jacksonville, Florida: Um, need a little help here.

Monday, April 2, 2012

This 'n That 'n Bill Caldwell

I didn’t know Bill Caldwell personally, but I knew his music. I loved it.

His saxophone immediately commanded your attention, then lifted you from your seat and carried you on a joyous, swinging ride. Don’t believe me? Listen to Bill’s solos on I’m Getting Sentimental Over You on 1993’s The Real Thing with Everette DeVan. A smile will break out on your face. I dare you to try to stop it. You can’t.

Back in my days of helping to organize jazz festivals, Bill was one of the hot young saxophonists in Kansas City. He moved to Branson to play in orchestras there for 14 years, and most recently taught in Wichita. But when he returned to KC and I had a chance to hear him play, I heard wonderful jazz.

Bill died of an apparent heart attack last week. He was 49 years young.

Here’s another test. Same CD, The Real Thing. Listen to Bill’s solo on It Could Happen to You. I dare you not to smile. Can’t suppress it, can you? The music is just too happy.


I was talking to a friend last week, at The Blue Room. We used to run into each other regularly at Jardine’s .

Where do you go now, she asked. Take Five, in Leawood, is a favorite, I replied. She hadn’t been there. There was jazz last week at Nica’s on Southwest Boulevard, I noted. She knew about that but missed it. Well, there was a set at The Brick a week or two back. Or how about Mark Lowrey’s Tuesdays at Czar Bar? And there’s that place at 135th and Quivira.

We both sighed. It used to be so much easier to find jazz in Kansas City.

The last time I wrote about the loss of Jardine’s as a jazz club, some bemoaned they had read quite enough about the place. I understand the sentiment. The internet has been rife with speculation. And there’s plenty of outstanding jazz musicians in town who rarely played the joint.

But there’s plenty of outstanding jazz musicians in town who did play there. And the Jardine’s loss has impacted the local jazz scene more than I expected.

A couple of months ago, KCUR’s Sunday program KC Currents ran an excellent story on the state of Kanas City jazz (here). Our friend Plastic Sax quite presciently said in the story that, in light of the Jardine’s closing, it’s going to be more difficult and take more work to find jazz in Kansas City. I snorted a “harummph” at his crazed words.

But he was right.

Yes, The Blue Room is as vibrant as ever. Jazz fans are re-discovering The Majestic. Take Five is filling a suburban void. The Mutual Musicians Foundation remains a one-of-a-kind jazz experience on weekend late nights.

But none of those places showcase combos six or seven nights a week. And The Blue Room and The Majestic, while broadening their offerings, generally offer their regulars, just as Jardine’s did. The diversity another jazz club brought to the Kansas City jazz scene is now scattered throughout town.

Since early on in this blog, I’ve hand-slapped clubs for making their schedules difficult to uncover. Nobody wants to work to find their fun. Jazz schedules need to be delivered to our virtual doorstep. Jardine’s excelled at such promotion. But concise scheduling becomes impossible when acts are scattered one here, one there, from 119th Street to the Crossroads.

My friend and I co-commiserated at The Blue Room. We miss the second weekend shows, which started at 10:30 and ran to 1:30 in the morning. We miss a central spot where a select group of Kansas City jazz favorites could be found. I can’t speak from the musicians’ perspective, but from the fans’ perspective, there’s a hole in the Kansas City jazz community.

I didn’t expect that.


So what are the odds of another jazz club filling the Jardine’s space? After all, it’s a location of proven jazz success. And now you can get in there by working directly with the property owners, American Century, without needing to buy the previous business.

But for now, there is a reason to approach the previous owner. Not for the Jardine’s name. The equity in that has substantially dissipated. Rather, for the 3 a.m. license on the space.

A 3 a.m. license can be a financial gold mine for a club. And outside of the downtown loop, today they are nearly impossible to come by in Kansas City. A space just off the Country Club Plaza with such a license holds exceptional appeal. Word is, the last owner is asking $20,000 for the business including the license. Is it worth that much? Without running the numbers a business plan requires, I don’t know.

But if it is, it is worth that much to more than just a jazz club. It’s worth it to a hip-hop club. It’s worth it to a country music club. If it’s worth that much, it’s worth it to anyone wanting to own a nightclub.

The only limitation is who American Century will allow as their neighbor.