It was the middle of the week, a Wednesday night. I didn’t recognize the name of the leader of the group, but he was a drummer from California, and quite good. He brought a clarinetist with him. The group was rounded out with a local bassist and trumpet player.
Much of the audience was in their 40s, and younger. The cover charge was $15.00. Nearly everyone held a drink. Maybe half had ordered dinner. The jazz club, about a hundred seats by my guess, was sold out.
On a Wednesday night. With a $15.00 cover charge.
In Denver, Colorado.
I wanted to hear them, last Saturday night at Take Five, because these are five of Kansas City’s best young jazz musicians. I knew I’d hear good jazz. But I didn’t expect this.
Andy McGhie on tenor sax and Hermon Mehari on trumpet meshed like a single instrument, then on solos individually exploded. Andy and Hermon play a more modern sound, but I know where I’ve heard this before: On recordings of “Sweets” Edison and Jimmy Forrest. This is what “Sweets” and Jimmy would sound like if they were raised a couple of generations later and recorded in 2012 instead of 1958.
Behind them, Andrew Ouellette on piano and Ben Leifer on bass provided perfect support and provocative solos. But the night’s best interplay was between Hermon and drummer Ryan Lee. The synergy between these two musicians, the way one drives the other and each instinctively responds, is jazz at its best.
Some groups of young musicians try to stretch the music's edge, and sometimes that doesn’t work. But Saturday night, I heard young masters playing modern jazz, and everything worked. The music was fresh, accessible and superb.
A vacation in Denver a couple weeks back included a peek at the city’s jazz scene. With a metro area population about 600,000 more than Kansas City, a large downtown thriving day and night with new art and history museums and Coors Field, an expansive light rail system, nearby University of Colorado, and mountains, Denver is home to a couple of well known downtown jazz clubs.
Most famous is Dazzle, sporting a reputation as Denver’s premiere jazz and supper club. Walk in and choose to sit at a bar outside the music area or pay the cover charge and slip through black drapes into the entertainment room. There, a large stage stretches across the front. Small tables are packed together, wait staff barely able to slip between them. Maybe 100 patrons will fill the room. Sound is excellent. Meals run in the $16 to $20-plus range. Food is good but not exceptional. This is the Denver equivalent of Jardine’s.
Dazzle’s website says cover most weeknights runs $5 to $7, so apparently I caught a special act. Regardless, I was impressed that the room was filled in the middle of the week despite the substantial cover. And this was the first of two shows that night. Another cover was required for the 9:00 performance.
I left impressed but despaired. Dazzle made obvious the hole ripped through Kansas City’s jazz scene by the loss of Jardine’s. Kansas City currently hosts no comparable venue.
The Blue Room is an outstanding jazz club. But no suppers – or any kind of food – are found there. The Majestic serves suppers, but priced to make them a rare experience. Take Five offers meals, and its environment is wonderful, but it’s not a jazz club.
The music at Dazzle was good but, outside of the drummer leading the group, the musicians seemed tight. At the end of the set, I sensed more relief than enthusiasm.
The night before, I visited other Denver jazz spots. El Chapultepec, a couple blocks from the baseball stadium, has featured jazz for over thirty years. Walls are lined with photos of Milt Hinton, Slide Hampton, Budd Johnson, Buddy Tate, Sweets Edison, and dozens others. It’s a mix between Milton’s and The Phoenix when Karrin Allyson played there. A piano dominates the small stage. Music starts at 9. This night, the singer was fun, and her pianist and bassist were good. But with a drummer who pounded his instrument like his goal was to break it, one set was enough.
The bartender suggested checking out Herb’s, an easy walk away. There a jam session, anchored by a Hammond B3, was swinging the bar, with some fine musicians rotating in and out. The manager said Herb's books a variety of music, but Tuesday is jazz jam night.
In Kansas City, there’s hope. A new jazz club opens next month in downtown’s Power and Light District, where Peachtree once served. Developer Cordish has brought in Ryan Maybee, who knows Kansas City’s jazz scene and whose bar Manifesto is arguably the best place in town to buy a drink.
To be called The Kill Devil Club, its 5400 square feet and 120 seats sounds large for a jazz venue. And they’re talking a food menu of small plates, which was not a rousing success when Cordish tried to open the nearby Marquee Lounge as a jazz club. But between Cordish’s backing (they will own and operate the club) and Ryan’s experience, there’s reason to be optimistic that The Kill Devil Club will be given the chance to find its audience.
Meanwhile, the Marquee has been rechristened the Chesterfield to recount KC’s jazz age, though it’s not clear whether that recounting will include live jazz.
And I’m aware of at least one other group working to establish a new jazz club in Kansas City.
We do not have a jazz supper club. Not right now. But we have the musicians. That’s what sets Kansas City apart.
Granted, a couple weeknights on the town provides just a glimpse of Denver’s jazz scene.
But the jazz I heard in Denver does not approach the quality and excitement of the jazz I heard in a Kansas City suburb last Saturday night.
I’m jealous of Denver’s venue.
But we have the musicians.