Monday, July 23, 2012

Changing of the Jazz Club Guard

Step inside and you first notice everything not there anymore. There’s no piano, no soundboard, no speakers. The stage lights have been stripped from their hooks. The stage is stacked with unopened mail, mostly bills. If you stepped in the pile, it would cover your ankles.

A group contemplating a jazz club where Jardine’s once ruled recently asked for my assistance. I walked through the empty space then met with restaurant consultants who had also seen it.

There’s good reason that space still sits empty. Deferred maintenance is apparent. A knowledgeable operator will see the need for investment before reopening, especially anyone planning to stay there awhile. We’re talking investment in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which needs to be balanced against the potential financial return of a relatively small space (less than 1800 square feet on the main floor).

For instance, there’s no grease traps, a modern necessity of most full-service kitchens. But balance the costs of adding those (likely in the tens of thousands of dollars) against a different concept, maybe one featuring more limited food offerings. How would those adjusted income projections impact a business model supporting a substantial annual cost to book live jazz?

That’s just one example in an admittedly enticing space – because a jazz club did operate there, for decades – full of such considerations.

The Jardine’s space can reopen as a jazz club. But only a savvy, experienced operator, with a solid concept and a carefully considered business plan, is likely to succeed there.


So, look elsewhere.

The Kill Devil Club is under construction in the second floor space at 14th and Main in the Power and Light District, and is scheduled to open in September (delayed from a previously announced August opening). At their website,, you can sign up for a promised email newsletter but, currently, little more. They also offer a Facebook page, here, and a Twitter feed, here.

(Hint, Kill Devil people: Link to your Facebook page and your Twitter feed on your web site. And on your Twitter and Facebook pages, link to your new website, not to the Power and Light District site.)

An email describes the music the club will feature as, “upbeat and vivacious jazz music, funk, and other tunes that local artists bring to the venue,” with an emphasis on upbeat.

It’s a solid and promising direction for a new jazz club. The fact that they’re already getting their promotional toes wet with an online presence is encouraging. So is the fact that they’re reaching out to the jazz community. And so is the involvement of Manifesto owner Ryan Maybee.

My main concern is that Power and Light’s Marquee Lounge (now the Chesterfield Club) started as a live jazz club, but tales of operational discord quickly upended that focus. I trust district operator Cordish learned some lessons from those travails and will give The Kill Devil Club the time to find its jazz audience.


Besides, another newer jazz spot keeps looking more and more enticing.

At the other end of the Kansas City world, geographically, in suburban Leawood, sits Take Five. Its bookings as a jazz venue rank second to no other establishment. There’s no coddling a Johnson County crowd here. Last Friday night, Rich Wheeler, Matt Otto, T.J. Martley, Ben Leifer and Sam Wisman performed Matt’s complex contemporary jazz compositions to a standing room only house. And, unlike so many other places, everybody was listening (except maybe the yawning little girl, who might have been out past her bedtime).

It’s a unique environment, a cozy living-room-like space, not designed for music which nonetheless captures the sound with near perfection. It’s like listening to a live jazz band at home among friends.

Take Five has blossomed into a bona-fide jazz venue while Jardine’s wilted then closed. It does not completely fill the Jardine’s void. It programs fewer nights. And its suburban context cannot replace Jardine’s gritty urbanism or Plaza panache. It’s a different place. But it’s a place in the Kansas City area where you’ll consistently find outstanding jazz.


Last Saturday night, I heard Matt Otto again, at The Blue Room, with the sextet I photographed last January (here). The room was packed. The music proved that some of today’s greatest jazz musicians reside in Kansas City.

The Blue Room reigns as this area’s premiere jazz club. We can also boast of The Majestic. Some might toss The Phoenix into the mix, though I’ll argue it’s more blues than jazz. Meanwhile, the Mutual Musicians Foundation swings unopposed on weekends overnight.

But beyond those venues, we’re witnessing a changing of the jazz club guard. The Jardine’s space could yet reopen with jazz. Making the business case is challenging but possible. The empty club is waiting for the right operator. Yet, regardless of what happens there, Take Five is thriving as a suburban jazz hotspot. And The Kill Devil Club promises that the chance for a little more downtown grit with your jazz is in KC’s very near future.

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