Monday, August 27, 2012

This 'n That 'n All Jazz Radio Coming to KC?

On March 11, 1989, plans for The International Jazz Hall of Fame were announced. It would be located at 21st and Vine, incorporating renovated public works buildings facing Vine Street, a new plaza and a new 535 seat theater. Dizzy Gillespie spoke at the press event. A booklet handed out included a color rendering and architectural plans.

The plans show that a smaller existing building behind the structures fronting Vine, connected directly to the theater and to the renovated public works buildings through new corridors, would house administrative offices. And, on the first floor, a jazz radio station.

None of that happened. The Hall of Fame was downsized and combined with the Negro Leagues Museum to fit the available funds. Its name  changed and today it stands as part of the complex at 18th and Vine.

Other than a short-lived soft jazz commercial station, to my knowledge, Kansas City has heard no serious talk about all-jazz radio in the 23 years since those 1989 plans were unveiled.

Until, apparently, now.

Last week, the Mutual Musicians Foundation staged a press event to unveil the new interpretive panels, which I wrote about last week. Among the announcements was news that the Foundation has been granted, by the FCC, a license for a low power radio station.

The Foundation has forged a partnership with Brand USA, established by the 2010 Travel Promotion Act. It began operations in May of last year to “spearhead the nation’s first global marketing effort to promote the United States as a premier travel destination” (from their web site, here). Michael Bennett, a representative of Brand USA, attended the press conference.

When I asked for more details about this radio venture, I was told Mr. Bennett will return to Kansas City for another press event on September 10 and more will be revealed then.


I didn’t know the man sitting next to me at the press conference, upstairs at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. He asked me what I thought about the new panels on the first floor. I told him, as I wrote last week, I found them a mistake, changing the experience of stepping into the Foundation and the character of the downstairs space in a negative way. That was his reaction, too, he responded.

So it’s not just me.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver attended to accept a plaque in his honor. During his remarks, Rep. Cleaver noted that he had helped secure a $163,000 federal grant which made the new interpretive panels possible.

Wait a minute. One hundred and sixty three thousand dollars?

Let’s be clear upfront: I don’t know that the money went only to the panels. A cursory internet search uncovered no further details about the grant. Hopefully, it paid for far, far more than three interpretive panels.

Because I managed art and print production for a large ad agency in the KC area for 14 years. I estimated projects like this every week. And I know three panels like these can be designed, written, assembled, proofed, printed and hung – all three of them – for less than a third of that amount.

I suspect the grant was targeted at a specific cause. Nonetheless, I’m aware of far more pressing needs at the Foundation than fumbled redecorating (I’ve been told the floors contain asbestos, for instance).

So I sure hope that grant covered substantially more than three interpretive panels. Maybe it’s helping to establish the radio station, too.

After all, the only thing worse than calling those panels a mistake would be to call them a $163,000 mistake.


The highlight of the press event, though, was the screening of a new documentary on Kansas City jazz in general and the Mutual Musicians Foundation in particular, titled Still Jammin’.

Stinson McClendon and Rodney Thompson, in the 1980s, produced outstanding documentaries on Jay McShann and Claude “Fiddler” Williams, each released on video tape. Their third documentary was to be on Andy Kirk, but the Kansas City Jazz Commission mistakenly declined to help them secure funding for it (I say that as the Commission Chairman who, after consulting the board, stupidly told them we couldn’t help).

At the time, they filmed interviews with legends of Kansas City jazz when the musicians visited, and with those who lived here. Their archives include unseen footage of Big Joe Turner (shot, they said, at a club on 63rd Street), Andy Kirk, Jay McShann, “Fiddler” Williams, Step-Buddy Anderson, “Piggy” Minor and more.

They started with portions of those interviews. They added new interviews with Chuck Haddix and other historians, and with current KC jazz prodigies (such as Harold O’Neal). Then they included archival photos of Kansas City, 18th and Vine, and our long-gone jazz clubs. The result is a fascinating, well-written and exceptionally well-produced history of the Kansas City the rest of the world knows and wants to know about more.

The documentary will be available soon on DVD at the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

(Would it be petty to add that in all of the documentary’s interviews filmed at the Foundation, the subjects are seated before the glorious photos now removed and replaced with interpretive panels?)

Monday, August 20, 2012

They Changed the Mutual Musicians Foundation

When you stepped into the Mutual Musicians Foundation, history embraced you.

You first see, looming over the lobby, larger than you ever imagined it really was, the 1930 portrait of members of Musicians Local 627 lined up before this building. There’s Bennie Moten. There’s Bill Basie. There’s little Jimmy Rushing. This is our version of the more widely known A Great Day in Harlem. But ours came first.

You stepped into the first floor’s main room, and you were engulfed by photos, clustering all walls, of the musicians who made this building unique. You saw their faces and felt decades of their presence. You understood that you were standing, exactly, where Count Basie stood, where Lester Young played, where Mary Lou Williams socialized, where Ben Webster enjoyed a drink. You’d be surprised if the ghost of Bennie Moten tapped your shoulder here, but it wouldn’t be unexpected.

You understood you were welcome in the space some of history’s greatest jazz musicians created. It was a feeling unlike any other, at least in Kansas City.  You knew otherwise, yet every sense suggested you had stepped out of the 21st century.

Not anymore.

The lobby photo remains. But the photos filling the downstairs walls are gone. They have been moved upstairs, where they’ve lost the cluster, accessibility and overwhelming intimacy they enjoyed for decades downstairs.

They have been replaced by interpretive panels.

Each of the three new panels reproduces select photos from the Foundation’s collection, with more significant musicians pictured individually. A few paragraphs of well-written history expand on the time period the panel covers. Photos and copy connect through swirls of names.

Why the change? Mutual Musicians Foundation (MMF) Vice President Anita Dixon explained:
The MMF is facing new times, new directions and was questioning whether the status quo was serving us. We came to the conclusion that it was not. We then consulted on several levels (both local and national) as to what would tell the story of the MMF through the eyes of the community from which it organically grew.

Local 627 was not just the place to play. It was a gathering place for children studying music, church groups with their box lunches and socials and many other things that Basie, Mary Lou and those we revere and love had much to do with. We wanted the story of the MMF to come through and the panels represent the entire picture of what happened.
Anita is a dear friend who I respect tremendously. And I understand when she further explains that the Board wanted panels to relate the history to the visitors who still crowd the Foundation for Friday and Saturday night jam sessions. And they did not just want to tell the history, but to portray it in the context of the African American community where the Foundation grew.

But these interpretive panels are the wrong solution.

They change the basic character of the Foundation. You’re no longer stepping into a cacophony of photos. You no longer feel like you’re experiencing a space as Prez and Ben and Mary Lou knew it. The feeling, the magic, of stepping out of the 21st century is gone. Now, you’re standing among three big, modern interpretive panels.

They were not necessary to achieve the Board’s goals. Just three of the photos which were already hanging, one per wall, could have been moved to accommodate the new historic copy. Tags identifying faces in the photos would have always been welcome. Those simple updates would have conveyed as much information as the interpretive panels reveal, but in a way that would have made you look for it a little bit, a way where it would have stuck with you more.

More than that, just walk outside. Look at the houses and hotel surrounding the Foundation. They’re being rebuilt. As soon as the construction is complete, stepping into the neighborhood will provide context to the kind of life which surrounded this landmark. Details and elaboration on the Foundation’s walls, done right, are fine. Experiencing the restored neighborhood will be better.

Part of the Foundation’s magic is that it is not a museum (“We are still not a museum,” Anita declares). It is living, thriving history. If interpretive panels providing historic context for 18th and Vine are needed, someone should be taking that up with the museum down the block and around the corner.

The Foundation’s new panels have been up for several weeks. But they will be officially unveiled at a ceremony this Friday, August 24th, at 2 p.m. at the Mutual Musicians Foundation at 1823 Highland.

Monday, August 13, 2012

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Gerald Spaits Quartet

I ran into Gerald the night before. I told him I’d be at Take Five the next evening to hear his group, and I’d bring my camera. I’ve featured plenty of the terrific young jazz musicians in Kansas City today, but not so many of the guys who….

“Are old?” Gerald interjected.

No, not old. I haven’t showcased nearly enough of the guys who were playing jazz in Kansas City when I first discovered the music in the 1980s. Because these musicians are still performing at their magnificent peak.

Take Gerald Spaits, for instance. This in-demand bassist will support both Karrin Allyson and Mike Metheny in this year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival. You only command those gigs when you’re acknowledged as one of the best.

There’s far too few opportunities to hear Charles Perkins these days. I first learned his name as the star alto soloist with Eddie Baker’s New Breed Jazz Orchestra. Charles stood out as a saxophonist I couldn’t hear enough. He still is. Meanwhile, Jack Lightfoot dominated as one of this city’s premiere trumpeters. Arny Young on drums fits right in.

Last Friday night at Take Five Coffee + Bar, the Gerald Spaits Quartet proved why Kansas City has been known as home to jazz masters continuously from Basie to today.

These four you can call outstanding. You can call them incredible. You can apply nearly any adjective of praise.

Just don’t call them old.

(As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.)

The Gerald Spaits Quartet. Left to right: Gerald Spaits on bass, Arny Young on drums, Charles Perkins on alto saxophone, Jack Lightfoot on trumpet.

Gerald Spaits

Charles Perkins on alto

Jack Lightfoot

Arny Young

Charles on bass clarinet

Charles, Arny and Jack

Enjoying Gerald's bass

Charles on flute

The Gerald Spaits Quartet at Take Five Coffee + Bar

Monday, August 6, 2012

Three Years of kcjazzlark

In the Blue Room: Matt Otto on tenor sax, Gerald Dunn on alto, and Shay Estes, vocalizing, harmonize into a single instrument, a unique sound on Matt’s unique composition. It’s a sound like none I’ve heard before, not live, anyway. Instinctively, I lean closer to the stage. I don’t want to risk missing any of it. I want to hear more.

At the Mutual Musicians Foundation: The trumpet is as big as his torso. But even at age five, Charles can hold his own in this band. Every Saturday morning, kids from Charles’s age through high school benefit from free music lessons at the Foundation. The morning I visit, they’re preparing for a competition at The Gem. But right now, I see young students rehearsing, surrounded by photos of the jazz royalty who preceded them in this room. I shoot a photo of Charles. He shoots back a dirty look.

At Take Five Coffee + Bar:
Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Andy McGhie on sax, Andrew Ouellette on piano, Ben Leifer on bass, Ryan Lee on drums. This is a collection, a subset, really, of some of the outstanding young talent dominating Kansas City’s jazz scene today. They have captured the crowd. Hermon and Andy blend perfectly, then fly off into wonderful solos. This, I realize, must be the 21st century equivalent of what it was like to hear “Sweets” Edison and Jimmy Forrest perform together fifty years ago.

In this blog: The commentator passionately disagrees. He doesn’t like what he perceives the message of a post to be and defends what he feels I’ve attacked. Others respond and the first commentator posts again. I don’t participate in the exchange because, after all, I’ve already offered 800 to 1000 words on what I think. But I appreciate the disagreements. I welcome the counter opinions. I respect their passion. I enjoy the flow of thoughts.

At the Westport Coffee House:
Ryan solos first. His drumming has always been impressive, since I first heard him with Diverse, but there’s more subtlety, more maturity evident now. Brian responds, building on Ryan’s lead and delivering an equally masterful solo back to him. Ryan takes that fastball and returns it. Then Brian. Then again. Stan Kessler promoted this new group heavily, through his newsletter, through Facebook posts, through personal emails. He knew this group would be special, featuring two of Kansas City’s best young drummers, Ryan Lee and Brain Steever. I have a confession: I generally don’t enjoy drum solos. Too many come across as so much banging without the intricacy of a good trumpet or sax or piano solo. I have another confession: I love listening to the drums, to the back-and-forth of two young masters, this night.

At Lake Winnebago:
Mike and Pat Metheny, Tommy Ruskin, Paul Smith, Bob Bowman, Gerald Spaits and Marilyn Maye unforgettably swing a celebration of the the life of Lois Metheny. Gary Sivils tells stories about Pat that Pat’s children, sitting up front, probably shouldn’t hear. After the music concludes, as the sun sets behind the waters, Mike and Pat, and Pat’s wife and children, spread Lois’s ashes across the lake. I’m honored to have been invited, to have been asked to bring my camera, and to have the opportunity to share photos of a magic afternoon.

At the Plaza Library:
Seeing the film Battleship Potemkin to the score of the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City played live, you understand what home theaters can’t do. They are not a large screen in an auditorium.They don’t accommodate a big band. They can’t replicate the experience of being mesmerized by what’s in front of you, accompanied by live music, a communal experience shared by hundreds of fans. At the time, I described this show as spectacular. Looking back, yes, that was the right word.

In this blog:
A post, one of my blog posts, is linked to by NPR’s web site. I get a big head. Later, NPR’s jazz blog challenges both Plastic Sax and me to respond to an Atlantic Cities article, focused on 18th and Vine, on the sustainability of jazz branding. NPR links to my response. I get a bigger head.

At Take Five Coffee + Bar:
Rich Wheeler and Matt Otto, both on tenor sax, own the crowd. This is contemporary jazz, mostly Matt’s compositions, not something easy to swing or swing with. Folding chairs have been set up, but those filled, too, so some of the audience is leaning against counters or walls. Nobody is talking. We’re in the suburbs, in Leawood, Kansas. On a Friday night, a packed coffee house is where to find jazz. While Jardine’s withered, Take Five quietly grew into an engaging jazz venue. The KC area hosts the same number of jazz sites as we did when this blog began. Only the neighborhoods and atmosphere have changed.

At The Blue Room:
I'd had a bad day, and a friend offered to buy me a drink at The Blue Room. A big band and vocalist were performing and, my friend assured me, they should be good together. A young, red-haired waif strutted onto the stage and belted an up-tempo version of Miss Otis Regrets. I was astounded. Here was a jazz vocalist as outstanding as anyone, anywhere. Hearing Megan Birdsall that night inspired me to go out and discover other young performers capturing Kansas City’s jazz scene. And finding them inspired me to start this blog.

These are some of the reasons you’ll find a new post on Kansas City and jazz here most Mondays.

This week marks the third anniversary of this blog, kcjazzlark.

Thank you, everyone, for coming back and taking another look.