Monday, October 29, 2012

A Week Away

An exceptionally busy week at week at work and home ended without time to pen a post. So, I’m taking a week off from putting up a new blog. Thoughts on Kansas City and jazz return, I hope, next week.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Magic Jazz Fairy Is Happy

All that turmoil, that was nearly a year ago, it mused. Surely, everybody knew then, jazz in Kansas City would never survive all that. But look at the venues today. Sure, the scene isn’t perfect. The scene will never again be what it once was, decades back. But a year ago, who expected this? A broad smile crossed its face, and it let its wings flap lightly. Jazz in Kansas City certainly survived the turmoil.

It was the week after Thanksgiving last year that musicians boycotted Jardine’s, seeing enough transgressions by its owner. A Kansas City jazz fixture for nearly two decades, Jardine’s closed and, despite feeble stabs at a couple of parties and New Year’s Eve, thirty-some jazz performances a month disappeared from Kansas City.

Remembering, the Magic Jazz Fairy shuddered. Because the situation then grew worse.

Another jazz club tried opening in the Crossroads district. With inadequate promotional support and schedules unavailable online until it was too late, this venue ran through its cash and locked its doors before the year’s end.

Two jazz clubs, one a two decade old institution, closed in Kansas City. What could a Magic Jazz Fairy do?

Because, as we’ve established before, every city has its Magic Jazz Fairy. The Magic Jazz Fairy flies through town and whispers in the ears of every sleeping fan where jazz performances are happening, so we wake up knowing, just knowing. Because small jazz audiences could not possibly be the fault of savvy club owners who fail to promote. Clearly, those savvy operators don’t promote because they know Magic Jazz Fairies will spread the word.

But what if there’s little word to spread?

Our Magic Jazz Fairy started hearing from unsympathetic peers. The St. Louis Fairy called. “Hey, K.C. Fairy,” it mocked, “I hear you’re chasin’ everyone out of town! What’s left to promote? Maybe a visit from Kenny G? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”

The Chicago Fairy also dialed. “Yo, K.C. Fairy,” it chuckled, “what used to go out for music but now is in bed by six? A Kansas City jazz fan, that’s what! Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh!”

Forlorn, our Magic Jazz Fairy heard whispers of a coffee shop in Leawood, on 151st Street, booking jazz. A coffee shop? In that suburban a location? Is that what Kansas City’s jazz scene had come to? Cappuccino and jazz among the hoity-toity? Still, it felt obliged to check the venue out, to see what was going on. And before the Toronto Fairy called, because that Toronto Magic Jazz Fairy could be especially snide.

The Magic Jazz Fairy flew south, landed, then wrapped its wings tight, so it could step inside the venue unnoticed. “Coffee and Bar,” the sign read. That was encouraging. Inside it found a warm, welcoming atmosphere, and excellent acoustics, and patrons who listened – they listened! – and owners who loved the music and cared. It realized there was nothing wrong with coming here for jazz. They were booking the music several nights a week, and they were promoting it on their web site. This was terrific.

Excited, The Magic Jazz Fairy flew home. The Toronto Fairy called. “You get some cream an’ sugar with your jazz, K.C. Fairy? Huh? Did’ja? Har, har, har!”

“No,” our Magic Jazz Fairy shot back, “I had a wonderful Chardonnay. And I heard better live jazz musicians than you’re gonna hear, unless you’re comin’ to Kansas City!”

The Blue Room reigned at 18th and Vine. Slowly, The Majestic started booking more nights in its jazz club. And add this new jazz spot in the suburbs. It wasn’t Jardine’s, but jazz, real jazz, was live in the metropolitan area.

Then, a month ago, to the Magic Jazz Fairy’s amazement, another jazz club opened. This one sits downtown, in the Power and Light District. It’s still working the kinks out of its operation, and the weeknight music is probably on too late for working Kansas Citians. But Wednesday through Saturday nights, it’s showcasing live jazz. Schedules are listed on its website. It’s active on Facebook. It has a billboard on I-35. It’s a jazz club promoting rum and jazz.

The Magic Jazz Fairy leaned back in its chair, its stubby legs outstretched with pride. All those jazz nights lost after Thanksgiving last year? They’re back. Some are downtown, some are in the suburbs, but they’re back.

The mystical being now leaned forward, to its computer, and it clicked on a link. There’s the schedule for The Blue Room, oddly not on the page where it used to be, but clearly linked from the American Jazz Museum’s home page. It clicked another link. There’s The Majestic’s schedule. Not complete, not listing musicians’ names every night, but it’s there. It clicked a new link. There was the schedule for the suburban locale, already listing dates through mid-November. One more link. There’s the new downtown club, its schedule online for a month out.

Not only is Kansas City hosting all the jazz nights of a year ago, the Magic Jazz Fairy found, but they’re all promoted online.

The Magic Jazz Fairy sat at its desk, fat and happy. It was ready to take the St. Louis Fairy’s, or the Chicago Fairy’s, or the Toronto Fairy’s call.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Rhythm, No Ribs

It reminded me of a festival in the mid-80s. Was it 1984, ’85, or ’86?

The 18th and Vine Festival was staged in the historic district each September back then. 18th Street was closed between The Paseo and Woodland. A stage was erected at the northeast corner of 18th and The Paseo, another at the northwest corner of 18th and Woodland – both corners then were grassy lots – and the location of a third stage changed from year to year. Vendors lined 18th Street. The Mutual Musicians Foundation was open all day and filled with music, too.

But that year it rained, and the outdoor performances were cancelled. One I was looking forward to was Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Harry “Sweets” Edison. That night, “Lockjaw” and “Sweets” relocated to a club then at the corner of 18th and Vine, Eblon, where Danny’s Big Easy sits today. They set up in the corner, right about where a band was playing in Danny’s last Saturday night. And there, backed by Rich Hill’s trio in a noisy club, maybe a hundred of us heard “Lockjaw” and “Sweets” perform some fantastic jazz.

At an outdoor festival, you can control everything but the weather. If you stage a festival enough years, you will be rained out. I know. I was president of the Kansas City Jazz Festival in 1989 when a performance by The Pat Metheny Group – arguably the biggest name of that festival’s Volker Park years – succumbed to a storm. Last year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival staged two acts before a storm blew in, damaged equipment, and forced the cancellation of the rest of the day’s schedule.

Last Saturday, rain curtailed the 2013 Rhythm and Ribs Festival in the 18th and Vine Historic District. Acts scheduled for The Blue Room and the museum’s atrium went on. But, like “Lockjaw” and “Sweets” in the ’80s, the big names were moved indoors, this time into The Gem Theater. Even with extra chairs and people packing the aisles, The Gem accommodated maybe 600 fans. And with the daylong rain, that was enough. A festival which last year drew a crowd of, by my estimate, perhaps 7000 people, this year counted an audience in the hundreds.

Give the staff of the American Jazz Museum credit. They made the best of a bad situation. Apparently, food vendors (and the ribs) went home. But the organizers staged some outstanding music for those of us who came.

I shot a few photos. Take a look. As always, clicking on one should open a larger version of it.

Joe Louis Walker's group in The Gem Theater

Joe Louis Walker

David Basse Orchestra in The Blue Room

David Basse

Book of Gaia in the museum atrium

The ladies of Book of Gaia. Left to right: Nedra Dixon, Pamela Baskin-Watson and Angela Hagenbach

Brian McKnight in The Gem Theater

Arturo Sandoval in The Gem

Monday, October 8, 2012


Two performances at the Prairie Village Jazz Festival won a standing ovation: Bobby Watson and Megan Birdsall.

That brings you current. Now, start four months back.


She looked anguished as we talked, standing outside The Blue Room. Suddenly, her legs buckled and she nearly fell, grabbing the arm of the musician next to her. She scurried to a nearby car for medication. The pain caused all that, she told me later.

This summer, doctors found acute infection on Megan Birdsall’s prosthetic jaw. Surgery was required to take out four plates implanted with the jaw but no longer necessary.

On August 7th, in Dallas, the plates were successfully removed.

Doctors then advised surgery to replace the entire prosthetic jaw, as soon as possible.

No, not again.


I wrote about Megan a year ago (here), this sprite with a spectacular voice. I first heard her with a big band. On stage, I saw a smile that seemed to fill half her face. Then, amazingly, I heard a singer equal to any in jazz. With her uptempo version of Miss Otis Regrets, the packed club exploded in applause.

Afterwards, I discovered her story. Cartilage in Megan’s jaw had deteriorated and a shifting facial structure was crushing her windpipe. An operation replaced her jaw with a prosthetic jaw to save her life. At the time, doctors didn’t know whether she would be able to sing again. Recovery took a year.

She had suffered constant pain during the two years since. Doctors found she was allergic to five of the eight metals in the prosthetic. They attempted having her inject the metals into her stomach to reverse her body’s rejection. That failed. Tumors grew under one cheek.

Then, last Fall, an auto accident – the other driver ran a stop sign and broadsided her car – left her with two bulging discs, a physical therapy regimen, and more pain.


Medications help to control the pain. But nothing helps more than singing.

Last July at Take Five, Megan closed the night with her yearning yet rousing interpretation of Wichita Lineman. The house was filled. Everyone stood to applauded.

If you don’t know her story, you’d never guess. She doesn’t want the audience to know. Occasionally you might catch her wince, but you don’t realize why. And you don’t know why she might sit on a stool rather than stand. On stage, she catches you with that vivacious smile, and her voice. She owns every song. She owns the room.


They want to replace Megan's prosthetic jaw with one built almost entirely of titanium. With this newer, more advanced prosthetic, doctors could work to desensitize her body to just one metal rather than five.

She endured this surgery, this replacing her jaw, before.

Not again.

There was one other possibility. New blood tests were taken, using a different method. These tests could return new results. They could show reduced, or no, allergies. Then, a less radical operation might clear the pain.

Otherwise, she faces a process which starts with desensitizing, injecting concentrated doses of titanium into her stomach every day. Side effects impact the body and mind. Histamine and serotonin normally control the side effects, but Megan is allergic to those, too.

And there’s no guarantee it will work.

But assume it does. Next, her face is cut open to remove the existing prosthetic jaw and replace it with the newer all-titanium prosthetic. The  cost is more than $100,000. This prosthetic is so new it has not yet completed the FDA approval process. So insurance does not cover it.

Afterward, she may not be able to sing for a year.

Not again.

Two weeks into her recovery from removal of the infected plates, results of the blood tests were delivered.

Megan is allergic to five of the eight metals in her prosthetic, including titanium.

Keeping the current prosthetic means risk and continued pain, maybe more incidents like the one outside The Blue Room.

Replacing the prosthetic starts with a trip to Dallas to prepare for daily desensitization injections which may or may not succeed. Then surgery to replace her jaw.



I booked talent for this year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival, and I did it with a couple of conditions. One was that Megan perform in the event, so everyone could have the chance to hear.

That was before the infection was discovered. That was before doctors decided she needed surgery a month before the event. They warned her recovery could require up to six weeks.

Before the surgery, Megan emailed me. She promised she would make the festival date. But she might need extra makeup to cover bruising from the operation.

Makeup? Who cares?

This performance was critical to her, and to her recovery. Megan’s group was scheduled just ahead of the headliners. Thousands would fill the festival grounds. A month after one surgery, preparing to raise funds for another, debilitating operation, she needed to prove to herself she could do this, that she could take a major stage and perform the music so important to her, before thousands of people.

And it was important that, outside of family and some friends, the crowd not know about the pain. If she succeeded this night, she would succeed not from sympathy, but because of the music.

A side effect of her surgery was vertigo. She needed to grab someone’s arm to walk the festival grounds, so she wouldn’t fall. Always thin, this day she looked especially frail.

At 7 p.m., a musician wrapped his arm around hers and walked Megan onto the stage. She sat on a stool, surrounded by her pianist, bassist and drummer.

And she sang, to thousands of people, for an hour.

Megan closed her set with Wichita Lineman.


Two performances at the Prairie Village Jazz Festival won a standing ovation: Bobby Watson and Megan Birdsall.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Traditional Jazz Lives

Congratulations to The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra.

Their inaugural show in the Kauffman Center’s Helzbergs Hall could have been a flop.

Not artistically. Not with Kerry Strayer leading an orchestra of some of the finest musicians playing jazz in 2012. Not just in Kansas City. Anywhere.

But – and I say this as someone who managed the orchestra’s business affairs for a few months early last year – it could have been a financial flop, or an audience flop.

Because traditionally, this orchestra has drawn barely more than 600 fans to its fall concert. And they had the audacity to play a 1600 seat hall? Traditionally, this orchestra has lost money, oodles of money, on their performances, and they dared to take on the additional expenses of the Kauffman Center? Traditionally, this orchestra shed fans by the dozens, sometimes by the hundreds, when moving a concert away from The Plaza. Plenty of free, covered parking, a nice dinner and a pleasant stroll to Unity on the Plaza for some outstanding traditional jazz was the experience the orchestra’s aging audience craved.

The cheap seats at the Plaza locale cost just $25 at the door. At the Kauffman Center, $40 is the lowest price (same day student sales excepted). Add on a service charge and fee for that covered parking, and here the cost to walk in the door more than doubled. More than that, when the orchestra did fill Unity’s thousand-plus seats last year, they did it largely with half price social media promotions. Discount success suggested that outside of a 600 body core, the public found this experience overpriced. And they raised the price?

The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra (KCJO) moving into the Kauffman Center’s Helzberg Hall? From a business perspective, this looked to me like a dive off the high board into KC jazz’s belly flop of the year. Enjoy hobnobbing with the big boys while you can, KCJO. Arts audiences and bank accounts are mighty tough to refill.

I could not have been proven any more mistaken.

The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra drew more than 1000 fans to their inaugural concert at the Kauffman Center. Comp and student tickets aside, the orchestra sold more than 900 seats at $40 or $50 each. To the best of my knowledge, none were filled through social media near-giveaways.

I’m not privy to the orchestra’s financials. But an audience that size, paying that much money for a ticket, should have more than covered any additional cost of performing on Kansas Citys premiere concert stage. In fact, it should have closed a large chunk of the orchestra’s traditional gap between ticket sales income and concert cost.

And how did they do this? Did they draw a substantial crowd by playing modern jazz? Did they merge jazz and hip-hop? Did they hire a rapper?

Nope. They swung the Kauffman.

They played a tribute to Count Basie. They featured Kevin Mahogany singing the songs of little Jimmy Rushing. They expertly performed a night of jazz as traditional as it gets.

And an audience of over a thousand fans loved it.

You can call it an older audience. Fifty-plusers dominate the crowd. You can argue this group proves big band’s dead end, with sparse youth support in sight. You can say enjoy the moment, because this audience isn’t going to live forever. Some may not make it to the next concert, you can snark.

Or you can look at more than 900 people, right here in little ol’ Kansas City, who paid $40 and $50 a ticket, and a service fee, and who probably paid for parking, and say, Here is an audience who will part with good money for jazz. They can afford it. They appreciate a night of traditional sounds. They will pay to hear an outstanding performance of jazz music they enjoy. They exist.

They’re not, mostly, our youth. But maybe as our youth ages, and can more easily buy a $50 ticket, and not need that ticket to be something that will bestow more credence Monday morning among their friends, maybe an audience of fifty-plusers will still be here to spend good money on jazz.

Because traditional jazz may be a niche but it’s not going away. It’s a niche being constantly rediscovered and freshly performed.

A goal of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra is to be recognized as the jazz equivalent of the Kansas City Symphony. A few weeks ago, they took a major step forward. A few weeks ago, The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra proved it belongs on that same stage.