Monday, June 25, 2012

Wanted: Aspirations

Headliners for this year’s Detroit Jazz Festival, over Labor Day weekend, in Detroit’s Hart Park: Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis Quintet, Pat Metheny Unity Band, Chick Corea and Gray Burton, Wayne Shorter Quartet, Joe Lovano, Art Blakey Tribute with Terence Blanchard, Lew Tabackin Quartet featuring Randy Brecker, Charles McPherson/Tom Harrell Quintet, Donald Harrison Quintet, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Pancho Sanchez, Artuto O’Farrill Septet with Donald Harrison, Ellery Eskelin Trio, Kenny Garret Quartet, Louis Hayes Quaret.


Headliners for this year’s Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival, on October 13 in the 18th and Vine district: Arturo Sandoval, Joe Louis Walker, Angie Stone.


This year we’ll see the third downsized festival since Rhythm and Ribs’s resurrection. And let’s recognize that last year, organizers staged an extraordinarily professional event. They expertly managed virtually every detail, from the staging of the music right down to the signage. It was marketed strongly. The vendors with whom I spoke were thrilled. I estimated crowd size at around 7000 for the day (as far as I know, no official numbers were announced), and most of them appeared thrilled, too.

The American Jazz Museum’s 2011 audit report, available on the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation website (download PDF here) covers the first revived festival, in 2010. Without breaking out details, it notes that 2010 was the first Rhythm and Ribs Festival ever to turn a profit. It seems reasonable to assume last year’s did, too.

But something is missing.

Museum officials two years back spoke of the 2010 event as a fresh start. After a year’s absence, in 2010 Rhythm and Ribs was back. It was downsized, out of Parade Park, into a more confined (and, presumably, more affordable) space between the American Jazz Museum and the Gregg Community Center, and with a more limited line-up. But that was just the start, officials said. The festival would grow from there.

Two years later, the festival shows no aspirations of growing.

The space is good, the right fit for the crowd the festival currently attracts.

But festival talent seems settled in a pattern of one good but not particularly major jazz headliner, one blues headliner, and one headliner with crossover appeal who presumably will be the one to draw a crowd.

That’s a pattern to bring about 7000 people into 18th and Vine for a day. That’s a pattern to maintain a day of profit and high profile for the American Jazz Museum. Both are solid goals.

But that’s a pattern, not a start. It’s not a pattern showing any confidence in jazz. It’s not a pattern showing any aspiration of building into a significant jazz festival.

And it’s largely not the American Jazz Museum’s fault.

Look at the Detroit Jazz Festival’s web site (here). Look at its history. That festival started in 1980 and received an endowment of ten million dollars in 2006. That’s why it can afford Rollins and Marsalis and Metheny and dozens more in 2012.

The Kansas City Jazz Festival in the 1980s grew not from a bunch of jazz fans, but from a civic organization of young professionals, with strong connections to Kansas City’s business and philanthropic communities, looking to make a contribution to the city.

That’s the support a jazz festival needs to grow beyond a well organized annual fundraiser. Lacking a ten million dollar benefactor, it requires the resources and stature which follow the civic community stepping forward and saying Kansas City needs and deserves something better.

I wrote after last year’s festival that it appeared the civic community had coalesced behind Rhythm and Ribs as Kansas City’s annual jazz event. Now, I’m dubious. Rather, some businesses are contributing to a fundraising day for the Jazz Museum in the guise of a festival.

Every one of us should support that.

But in its third year, Rhythm and Ribs appears to have settled into a comfort zone, and that zone includes no apparent aspirations to be anything more than a profitable day with a jazz guy, a blues guy and someone who will draw a bigger crowd than either the jazz guy or blues guy will draw.

Unquestionably, this city will support a major jazz event. The Kansas City Jazz Festival of the 1980s attracted tens of thousands of people over a weekend. It can happen again.

But it requires more than jazz fans. It requires an organization with strong business ties.

Or maybe there’s another answer.

Maybe an organization can build a jazz festival in Kansas City with the support of a company looking to bring its brand into this market with a major new venture, looking to garner civic support and acclaim, which can be sold on the benefit of attaching itself to a major community celebration.

The Kansas City Google Jazz Festival, anyone?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Urban Renewal and 18th and Vine

As early as the 1930s, Kansas City Realtor, the publication of the Kansas City Real Estate Board, decried the effects of blight on property values in the Central Business District. The federal Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 supplied funding to identify blighted areas, acquire and clear the properties, then redevelop the areas with public housing. 1954’s Housing Act termed this process “urban renewal.”

Kansas City became so good at urban renewal that in 1958, Look magazine, in its article, City Honored for Face Lift, awarded us its Community Home Achievement Award, citing our redevelopment of slum areas. In 1959, the American Institute of Architects awarded the Kansas City chapter its Citation of Honor Award, at that time given in just 15 instances over 102 years, for its plan to revitalize downtown.

So just what was it we did so well?

18 urban renewal projects, starting with North Side (1953 - 1960, 6.6 acres, along Main Street between Sixth and Ninth Streets), continuing with Attucks (1955 - 1965, 54.2 acres, from Truman Road to 18th Street and Woodland to Brooklyn, displacing 478 black residents, 0 white residents and 85 businesses), and concluding with 12th and Vine (1969 - 1972, 33.1 acres, displacing 309 black residents, 19 white residents and 49 businesses).

In between, South Humboldt (1956 - 1965, 27.6 acres, displacing 28 black residents, 203 white residents and 66 businesses) and East Side (1958 - 1965, 58.3 acres, displacing 88 black residents, 582 white residents and 95 businesses) cleared land for construction of the downtown interstate highway loop.

And there were 13 other projects.

18th and Vine itself was not a part of any urban renewal project. Neither of the studies I reviewed suggest it was ever targeted. But the surrounding neighborhoods were decimated. Contiguous stretches of homes and businesses were torn down then bisected by interstates, insuring they could never return. The density of population needed to support a thriving business district, which 18th and Vine had been, scattered and has never returned.

But it’s difficult to say these were the wrong moves. One history of Kansas City describes the land cleared for the North Side project, along Main Street, as a “skid row.” And of the Attucks project, adjacent to 18th and Vine, the book says, “This area contained as bad a slum as any in the United States. Here some families lived without running water or toilets, and some of the buildings had dirt floors.”

A March, 1950 article in Holiday magazine declared, “Kansas City is marked by sharp physical contrasts. There are tenements only a few blocks from skyscrapers, the landscaped lands of elaborate homes face vacant lots cluttered with billboards, and there are shanties only a short distance outside the business district.”

It’s easy today to look back and ask why we tore down all the jazz clubs, why we destroyed, arguably, our most significant history.

We look back romantically today at the Reno Club, where Count Basie was discovered. It’s easy to mourn the history lost when looking now over the cracked pavement of the police station parking lot which replaced it. But saxophonist Buster Smith described the Reno Club as, “nothin’ but a hole in the wall. Just mediocre people mostly went in there. A lot of the prostitutes and hustlers and thugs hung out down there.”

Today, we decry tangible history no longer here. But at the time, urban renewal was clearing shanties and holes in the wall. Large swaths of population left and never returned. But many left for better conditions.

And in the mid-1950s, less than twenty years had passed since our most famous jazz musicians and the culture they helped build had moved on. It was too soon to recognize that the music, and barbecue and steaks, would define Kansas City forevermore.

Still, one resident, in the study from which many of the facts which open this post were quoted, looked back and noted:

“There had been semi-economic centers for black businesses that were around 12th Street, 18th Street, coming up Vine, say to 25th Street, because I remember Barker’s Market, Johnson’s Drug Store, and a cab company and a bunch of stuff like that. And all of the clientele was in walking distance, mainly because in the 1940s and early 1950s…people lived closer together. With urban renewal and people moving out, they lost their clientele.”

A look at population maps from 1950 and today make clear that 18th and Vine will not again be what it once was. Not in my lifetime, anyway. Right or wrong, not returning to what a district once was defines the heart of urban renewal.

But you can walk through the jazz district and see apartments and homes along 19th Street and along The Paseo, and more housing on Highland. You see a couple restaurants and a couple museums. You see modern offices. Yes, you still see some blight and you shouldn’t. But at the Mutual Musicians Foundation and at the facade of the Cherry Blossom, you can still touch jazz history.

I don’t know how the district builds beyond the groundwork. So far, nobody has figured that out. But, decades after urban renewal removed both slums and life, the groundwork is there for the area to grow into something better.


Facts about urban renewal are quoted from the 2001 article, A City Without Slums: Urban Renewal, Public Housing and Downtown Revitalization in Kansas City Missouri. It can be read online here, or a PDF can be downloaded by clicking here. More illustrations and maps can be found in the 2009 thesis, Development at 18th and Vine: Understanding Problems and Formulating Strategies for the Future. A PDF can be downloaded by clicking here. The quote by Buster Smith is from the 1987 book, Goin' to Kansas City. Other facts come from the 1978 book, K.C.: A History of Kansas City, Missouri.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Dearth of Swing

In 1932, in Kansas City, Mary Lou Williams turned 22 years old. Lester Young and Ben Webster turned 23. Count Basie turned 28.

Led in part by Bennie Moten (who, in 1932, turned 38), they and other musicians developed a style of swing derived from 12-bar blues, with extended solos, backed by riffs, a unique music which secured Kansas City in jazz history.

When I first went to the Mutual Musicians Foundation, in the early 1980s, some of the masters who played the music at its height could be found there, still playing. Herman Walder had performed with Moten. Bill Saunders, Joe Thomas, Step-Buddy Anderson, “Piggy” Minor, Ben Kynard, Sam Johnson, Sr., were among the regulars who would sit across a table from you and describe what Kansas City once was.

Or, you could head over to 32nd and Main and let Milton Morris regale you with tales from the days when Kansas City peaked. If you were lucky, you might walk into Milton’s Tap Room on a Saturday afternoon when Count Basie was visiting.

Claude Williams’s and Jay McShann’s music epitomized Kansas City swing. But when “Fiddler” passed eight years ago, and “Hootie” six years ago, we lost our last geniuses with direct ties to Kansas City’s internationally renowned past, who could often be found playing around town. And with that direct influence gone, jazz in Kansas City has changed.

Pockets of Kansas City swing can still be found here. The Wild Women of Kansas City are wonderfully fun. The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra still plays the music though, between booking acts like the Four Freshmen and pricing the cheap seats at $40 next season (they were $25), the Orchestra appears to be targeting a limited audience.

Kansas City today is brimming with outstanding jazz musicians around the ages that Mary Lou Williams and Lester Young and Ben Webster and Count Basie were in the days they were exchanging musical ideas and developing Kansas City’s signature sound. But these young musicians are seeking their own voice and their own sound. And in many cases, lacking direct links to decades past, that voice is the antithesis of Kansas City jazz.

That’s not entirely bad and it’s not entirely good. Charlie Parker came out of Kansas City and, with musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, developed the voice of bebop. Miles Davis was constantly moving forward, absorbing the music around him and adding his own signature, eschewing what he had played before. Some of jazz’s best musicians thrive on constant growth.

And some Kansas City groups have shed this city’s signature jazz sound with resounding success. The People’s Liberation Big Band has reinvented big band music in Kansas City, its wit bringing accessibility to some way-out-there sounds.

But other groups showcasing original compositions perform with mixed results. At one recent show I attended, I endured during one number a sonic debacle. This may be part of the process of young musicians finding themselves. Or it may be young musicians demonstrating that, nope, the 21st century’s Lester Young – a player regaled for his tone, his unique style, his masterful and original solos – isn’t in this group.

I understand musicians wanting and needing to find their own place in jazz. I understand their absorbing the influences immediately surrounding them. That’s what a young Basie and Lester and Ben and Mary Lou did in creating Kansas City jazz. But I’m not a musician. I’m an enthusiast, a fan. And I also understand that playing the unfamiliar can lead to limited audiences. Matt Otto noted, in an article in Jazz Ambassador Magazine, that he needed to play more accessible tenor sax to support himself in Kansas City.

There’s the key. The music needs to be accessible. I’m not going to buy a painting that I don’t understand no matter how good the painting technique. Likewise, I’m not going to enjoy sitting through a performance if the music fails to draw me in. Some of Kansas City’s young musicians venture into originality at the sake of accessibility.

It surprises and disappoints me how quickly, our masters gone, that Kansas City jazz has largely abandoned its signature sound. I’m booking acts for this year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival. The principal sponsor favored a more traditional Kansas City jazz sound, appropriate for the family audience this festival attracts. The purpose of this festival is not to force Prairie Village to understand something musically new. It’s to entertain up to 10,000 people, on blankets and lounge chairs, from a large stage. Much of what I hear today on Kansas City jazz stages does not fit that profile.

I was surprised at how difficult it was to fill the limited spots in the festival. Not every act booked fits the profile. And one musician agreed to play some more traditional jazz, because that’s what it took for his group to secure the booking. In Kansas City today, there’s a dearth of Kansas City swing.

Jay McShann performed in the 1986 Kansas City Jazz Festival with “Sweets” Edison, Buddy Tate, Al Grey, Gus Johnson and Major Holley. A recording exists of that concert. Not long before he passed, one of Jay’s daughters played the recording for him. She suggested he should put together a group like that one more time. He couldn’t, he told her, because everyone who could play like that was gone.

That’s not entirely true.

One of the best live music shows I’ve attended over the last year was Ernie Andrews at The Blue Room. There, Bobby Watson, known for more complex music with his group Horizon, swung like he’d played 18th and Vine in 1932 with Basie and Lester and Ben and Mary Lou.

I’m not suggesting that’s what musicians looking for their own voice should adopt.

But I will suggest music doesn’t get any more accessible than that.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Magic Jazz Fairy Screams

It had been there several times last year, its wings wrapped tight behind its back so nobody would recognize it. It wanted to be discreet, to enjoy jazz on the outdoor patio, nestled in The Plaza, and a drink on a warm summer evening.

Last summer the same singer and pianist played the patio each Wednesday evening, sometimes with guests. They promoted the shows on their Facebook pages, through some tweets, with occasional emails. Crowds filled the deck.

This year the restaurant has chosen to feature different jazz artists each week. The pianist and singer opened the season. The mystical being saw that on the pianist’s Facebook page. And a trumpeter would be playing later this month. That was in the trumpeter’s email newsletter. But who else would be there each week? The Magic Jazz Fairy needed to know, so it could spread the word.

Because, as we’ve established in previous posts, every city has a Magic Jazz Fairy who flies through town at night and whispers in the ears of sleeping jazz fans when and where to find the music, so we wake up knowing, just knowing. That must be the way jazz promotion works because, of course, small crowds couldn’t possibly be the fault of savvy restaurants and bars for not telling anyone they booked jazz.

But before it can spread the word to all of us sleeping jazz fans, the Magic Jazz Fairy needs to know the schedule. Surely this restaurant, with the outdoor patio nestled in The Plaza, this major restaurant, part of a nationwide chain, renowned for exquisite seafood, surely this restaurant has properly promoted their weekly jazz happy hour.

The Magic Jazz Fairy sat down at its computer and, with a quick Google search, found the restaurant’s website. Ah, a tab for Calendar. The mystical being clicked it. Up came this:

What? A blank screen? A page filled with black?  It clicked back, then clicked the Calendar tab again. Again, a page of black.

How could that be, the Magic Jazz Fairy sputtered. How could the national restaurant with the patio nestled in The Plaza and exquisite seafood, how could that restaurant be promoting its weekly jazz event with a blank, black page?

Did that national restaurant want to know how to promote jazz? the Fairy thought aloud. Did it? Well, then, just look at this website, for a local downtown steakhouse with exquisite steak and jazz every night. Just look at their calendar. The mystical being clicked, and up came this:

There, see, the Magic Jazz Fairy harumphed. Look at it, and I can tell you that this weekend the jazz group there is...

The Magic Jazz Fairy looked. The calendar said, Live Jazz Band. Okay, I know that, the Fairy thought, but which jazz band? Who? The mystical being clicked a link. A window popped up which told him that playing at the downtown restaurant with exquisite steaks this Friday was...a live jazz band. It clicked Saturday’s link. Playing that night would be...a live jazz band.

Upset and annoyed, the Magic Jazz Fairy declared, “I’ll show you both. Look at this. Look at the calendar for this city’s premiere jazz club in the historic jazz district. Look at how easy it is to find who’s there this Saturday night.”

The mystical being clicked a link, and up came this:

It triumphantly turned to its computer and announced that there this Saturday night was...Saturday In The Blue Room. The Fairy looked again. The jazz club’s calendar described nothing more. It didn’t for half the month.

“What is going on?” the Magic Jazz Fairy yelled out. “How can I fly around town and tell every jazz fan while they sleep who is playing jazz so they wake up knowing, just knowing, if nobody announces who is playing jazz?”

Anger welled. Ever since a major jazz club closed last year, the music has been more difficult to find. It’s been up to the musicians, through Facebook posts and emails and whatever other communications they could muster with no budget or time, to tell fans where to find them. But too many post the day of the event, I’m here tonight. That’s not good enough. That doesn’t allow for planning. Besides, it forces Kansas City jazz fans to subscribe to the email or the tweets or the Facebook page of every musician they know to have any inkling of where to find them playing jazz.

Red glazed the Fairy’s eyes. It pounded its mystical fist on its desk once, twice. Besides, it maintained, the restaurant or club stands to gain the most through promotion, through more jazz fans showing up and buying food and drinks. It’s not unreasonable to expect a musician to announce a gig on Facebook. But marketing and promotion are responsibilities which lie heaviest on who gains most. Is it too much to expect more than a nebulous listing? Or a black page?

“No!” the being yelled. “Don’t complain that jazz draws nobody when you do nothing to tell anyone who's playing the jazz!”

“Knock, knock” cried the furious being, its wings flapping wildly.

“Who’s there?” answered a feeble voice in its head.

“The Magic Jazz Fairy!" it cried out, its feet off the ground.

“The Magic Jazz Fairy who?” queried the voice.

“The Magic Jazz Fairy who wants to poke your eyes out for promoting a fun weekly jazz event with a blank page!” the Magic Jazz Fairy screamed.

Enraged, the mystical being flew out a window. It needed a drink.

Or to poke somebody’s eyes out. Euphemistically, of course.