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.



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