Monday, February 25, 2013

This 'n That 'n Evolution

Granted, I was there nights when barely twenty people sat scattered around the room. But I was also there when they couldn’t honor my reservation because every table was filled, and on weekend nights when I stood at the bar for lack of open stools.

When I started this blog, coming up on four years ago, two clubs dominated Kansas City’s jazz scene: Jardine’s and The Blue Room. True, the Phoenix still booked The Scamps every Saturday afternoon, but it wasn’t long before they would mostly forsake jazz for the blues. And while The Majestic’s downstairs club was still swinging every night, the restaurant was floundering and would soon close.

Other spots featured jazz here and there. The People’s Liberation Big Band was building a following the first Sunday of each month at the Record Bar. The Drum Room gave over some floor space to a weekend band, but in a bar with TVs tuned to ESPN.

Not long into this blog’s life, if you wanted to hear jazz in Kansas City, you wanted Jardine’s or The Blue Room.

Then Jardine’s died.

One club, 1920 Main, hiccuped onto the scene and was gone.

The state of Kansas City jazz venues looked dire.

But what we didn’t recognize, what is now becoming apparent, is that with the dominance of Jardine’s gone, new opportunities could flourish.

Venues not known for jazz stepped cautious toes into the void. Grunaur in the Crossroads district booked some of the music. The Westport Coffee House hosted the premiere of Stan Kessler’s new group Parallax.

Meanwhile, out south, Take Five Coffee + Bar transformed from hey-did-you-hear-about-that-coffee-shop-in-Leawood-that-books-some-jazz-yeah-jazz-in-Leawood-for-godssake to a genuine weekend jazz bar where the musicians covet playing and where audiences applaud paying a cover charge to benefit the musicians. That’s right, they’ve applauded paying a cover charge. In Leawood.

Same time, The Majestic claimed a new owner and reopened. Cautiously, they first booked jazz downstairs on Fridays and Saturdays. But over time, music in the former speakeasy has expanded to seven nights a week.

And the young musicians started dominating the weekend jam sessions at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. First, they staged and broadcast on the internet their own Friday night jam sessions. Then they moved to the main jam stage upstairs.

The Power and Light District played with jazz. The lounge adjacent to the theaters was deemed a jazz club, but (from stories I’ve heard), internal squabbles doomed that venture. Which is why I was dubious when the Kill Devil Club opened last year. But Kill Devil has hit on a mix of music and high-priced rum that appears to be working and drawing a stylish crowd.

And recently, in the Crossroads district, the Green Lady Lounge quietly opened and started booking jazz. First, a couple nights, and now six nights each week. Where Kill Devil is upscale in a spanking-new abode, Green Lady lives in a building that’s been there forever, with a classic feel and prices the neighborhood can afford. It’s two jazz venues within a close drive, but with atmospheres and business models different enough that both can thrive.

And let’s not forget, The Blue Room continues to be the Kansas City jazz club that makes Downbeat’s 100 best list each year, and deservedly so. Four nights a week, this is where you go to experience where jazz began.

Kansas City boasts more jazz venues now than when Jardine’s and The Blue Room co-dominated. We no longer have a Plaza area jazz supper club lording over the scene. Instead, as it always has, the Kansas City jazz scene has evolved. In 1933, the Eblon Theater on Vine Street was remodeled into the Cherry Blossom, where some of Kansas City jazz history’s greatest moments occurred. In the 1940s, it was rechristened the Chez Paree. Later, it was turned into a bowling alley. Then it closed. Then it burned. Classic jazz dives along 12th Street succumbed to urban renewal. Jardine’s succumbed to a revolt against management. But Take Five and Kill Devil Club and Green Lady Lounge opened.


In Kansas City, jazz survives. I’ll not pretend it claims the dominance it held when Basie played the Cherry Blossom. But it’s not going away.


And one of the quirkier but funnest bands jazz survives with is The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City. The first Sunday of each month this collection of outstanding musicians performs quite untraditional jazz spiced with whimsey at the Record Bar.

This coming Sunday, March 3rd, they’re joined by San Francisco trumpeter Dave Scott. Scott’s resume includes touring and recording with groups as diverse as those of Boz Scaggs, Rosemary Clooney and the Honolulu Symphony.

Sunday night, The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City will be playing Scott’s compositions and arrangements. The fun starts at 8:00. See you there.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Friday Night and the Green Lady Lounge

Bobby Watson put together a big band and, with the Kansas City Symphony, crammed the Kauffman Center. At the same time, The Folly stood nearly half filled – better than recent shows – for Kenny Garrett. Stan Kessler’s quartet was playing Louie’s Wine Dive over at 71st and Wornall. Ken Lovern’s trio entertained a packed Kill Devil Club downtown while Charles Williams brought piano mastery to The Blue Room at 18th and Vine and Michael Pag├ín’s trio played The Majestic’s one-time speakeasy and Rob Foster’s violin fronted Take Five way out in Leawood. Later, overnight, crowds would swarm the Mutual Musicians Foundation. And let’s not forget that Lonnie McFadden opened the night at The Phoenix.

So don’t try to tell me jazz is dead in Kansas City.

Especially when you can add another new club to the list.

By 9:00 on Friday night, on Grand Boulevard just south of 18th Street, in the Crossroads district, the Green Lady Lounge was filling up for Mark Lowrey on piano, Sam Wisman on drums and Shay Estes’s vocals.

With jazz six nights a week, the Green Lady Lounge is growing an urban audience in a distinctive space.

If listening to jazz in Leawood’s Take Five is like enjoying a live band with friends in your uncle’s living room, walking into the Green Lady Lounge is like stepping back in time some 70 years. This must be what it felt like in the jazz bars lining 12th Street when Count Basie and Mary Lou Williams played them. A long, thin space, the bar hugs one wall and black booths the other. A few tables sprinkle the front and back. A tin ceiling hangs overhead. Everything is red: the drapes, the walls. But near the front, as you step inside the door, sits a magnificent grand piano and the space where a jazz band performs. The room can be noisy, but speakers line the walls to carry the music just right.

The Blue Room books wonderful music, but looks like what it is: a bar in a museum. The Kill Devil Club is a modern delight. The Mutual Musicians Foundation is authentic history, and downstairs at the Majestic retains its speakeasy heritage. But there is something about this space – maybe it’s the red walls, or the faux-classic paintings hanging on them that pretend to bestow class, or maybe it’s that big grand piano greeting you – that transcends time and leaves 2013 outside the front door.

It’s an urban juke joint with a neighborhood atmosphere. Last Friday night, the crowd was friendly, predominantly thirty-somethings, not your stereotypical jazz aged. Some danced. The staff was welcoming. Drinks were priced reasonably. Food is a short offering of small plates. The one I sampled was quite good. The music was superb. Parking, as in most of the Crossroads district, is challenging. But if you don’t mind walking a block, south of 19th Street on Grand, at least last weekend, sat plenty of unused on-street spots.

The Green Lady Lounge is quietly building an urban jazz delight. Their website is here. Their calendar is here. Their Facebook page is here.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Re-Post: A Portrait of the Foundation Last Saturday Night

Preparing for a presentation at work claimed priority over prepping a new blog post this past weekend. So this week, I present a re-post from the past, specifically from the week of April 11, 2011. Enjoy.


Around 3:45 a.m., they temporarily stopped letting people go upstairs. Too many guests were already up there.

Meanwhile, downstairs, the line of people snaked out the door. One man in a military uniform asked if he could get in free. No, he was told, this was the only means of income. Think of the cover charge as a donation. He did.

People wandered around downstairs, looking closely at the portraits of Kansas City jazz legends which line the walls. I prefer the ambiance downstairs.

“How do they do this?” one person asked, looking away from the wall, throwing the question out to anybody. “How can they stay open all night? Do they have a special permit?”

“The state of Missouri passed a special law just for this place,” I offered, from across the room. “This is a National Historic Landmark, after all.”

Upstairs, every seat was filled. People lined the back of the room and the thin aisles between tables. Most held a drink. Everyone I saw looked happy.

The crowd was diverse – black people, white people, Asian people – and enjoying each other’s company. I came alone and shared a table with strangers. But they weren’t strangers. We introduced ourselves. The other guests started asking questions.

“Do you come here often?”

“Not too often,” I answered. “At my age, I need an afternoon nap to stay out this late. But I’ve been coming here since the 1980s.”

“So who has played here?”

“Just about anyone associated with jazz. Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Mary Lou Williams, Big Joe Turner. In fact, I saw Big Joe Turner here.”

“You did?”

“Yes, downstairs. I was standing about an arm’s length away while he shouted the blues.”

People upstairs stood, bought a drink, apologized when they bumped into each other, then sat down to chat and to listen and to marvel.

Let’s be honest: This was a beautiful spring night. And at 3:45 a.m. on a weekend night in Kansas City, here and the casinos are the only places I know where you can (legally) enjoy entertainment and drink. Some people were here because they could be. Some just weren’t ready for bed yet on such a gorgeous night.

But some in the audience came for the jazz. The people I spoke with came to touch history. Here, it touches back.

On stage, a rhythm section anchored the Saturday night jam session (Sunday morning, actually; it started at 1 a.m.). They were joined by trumpet, trombone and tenor sax. There was solid experience, a veteran of Kansas City jazz, behind the piano. But on trumpet, Chalice is young and here regularly. I’ve heard him before, and before he sounded inexperienced. But tonight his sound is more controlled. He’s growing in mastery of his instrument. I’m not the only one who noticed.

Is this what Kansas Citians had the chance to hear 75 years ago, when a young Charlie Parker once squeaked his sax – in, among other places, this building – then gradually grew and mastered his instrument? Sure, we don’t know where any young player will end up. It’s improbable that I’m hearing the maturing of a future jazz great. I understand odds stand stacked against that.

But it’s possible. Because in this building, history touches back.

Downstairs, I chatted with Anita, who is in charge. I told her that after some recent turmoil on the Board here, I asked a friend, a musician, what was going on. My friend told me, “Don’t worry, Anita will take care of everything.” Anita laughed. My friend was right.

Outside, cars lined both sides of Highland Street, leaving a single lane on a two-way street. I stopped to chat with another friend. On the street, a car and a taxi approached from opposite directions and stopped, facing each other. Someone from the car, who maybe had a bit to drink, stepped out, flashing muscles (“he’s done steroids,” my friend decided) and yelled at then kicked the taxi. The taxi driver just talked on his cell phone. The car pulled to the side, between two parked cars, and the taxi passed. As it did, the driver of the car yelled at the taxi driver. The taxi driver continued to talk on his cell phone.

I walked down the street, smiling, to my car, then drove off for the night. I drove through the Crossroads district, seeing maybe two other cars on the road. The rest of Kansas City was asleep.

When I pulled out of my parking spot, on Highland, and drove off, I saw another car pull into the space. I saw two people step out.

As I drove up the ramp to I-35 from West Pennway, to head back home, I wondered if those two people had found their way upstairs yet.

— Last Saturday night at the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Good, the Bad and the Not So Ugly

One member of the trio has blonde hair. One has dark hair with grey streaks. One is completely grey.

This doesn’t actually define three generations of musicians. Not in this group, anyway. But it is an another thread of extraordinary talent coming together and the Kansas City jazz scene perpetuating itself.

Jeff Harshbarger’s newest group, Sequel, brings together Jeff on bass, Ken Lovern on organ and Brian Steever on drums, adapting in admiration the instrumentation of Modeski, Martin and Wood. Saturday night at Take Five Coffee + Bar, they played compositions by Ellington, by Coltrane, by Jimi Hendrix, and loads of rollicking funk.

Here’s musicians sharing music they clearly love and keeping a room swaying in its seats for a couple hours. Here's diversity finding a new outlet.

Here’s jazz in Kansas City in 2013.


And here’s jazz in Kansas City in 2013: According to a review in The Kansas City Star, only about 300 people didn't fill the Folly for James Carter’s organ trio.

Let’s back up.

In his December 27th column, Star Jazz Town columnist Joe Klopus noted sparse crowds at some of 2012’s bigger KC jazz concerts. He added:

“Really, the audience is out there. You just have to connect with them somehow, to inspire them to move outside the comfort zone of consumer culture for a little while.

“It can be done. We’re proving it over and over again every weekend in small ways.

“We just need to make it happen on a bigger scale. That’s the thing that keeps eluding us, and keeps hurting us the most.”

I’m looking at you, Folly.

A few blocks over, in the shiny new palace to the performing arts, The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra’s last performance drew four times the crowds The Folly attracted for James Carter. Sure, performing in the shiny new palace helps. But the fact is, the Jazz Orchestra appears to have rebounded from a shrinking base a couple years back to now packing ’em in.

They’ve proven you can draw a crowd downtown for a jazz concert.

They do it in part through familiarity. The audience that comes knows and enjoys their sound. And their first couple of guest artists this year, Kevin Mahogany and Karrin Allyson, remain Kansas City favorites.

A year ago I chastised The Folly for failing to market jazz beyond its core audience. A year later, they’re still not reaching beyond the core, their audience hasn’t grown, and some of that core is walking out of the shows they’re booking.

The Folly is a wonderful facility. And this year’s jazz series stands as one of their most artistically exceptional seasons.

But this is a series started decades ago by a group of fans who incorporated as Friends of Jazz. Originally, Friends booked programs at various facilities, then settled on The Folly following its renovation. Eventually, The Folly took the series over as its own.

But now The Folly is booking acts, like Vijay Iyler, who are recognized as among the greatest talents in jazz today, but who play a more contemporary style of jazz than the longtime core will appreciate. They’re booking acts that some of the longtime core will walk out on.

Meanwhile, other groups prove that modern jazz can fill The Folly to its rafters. Witness the December performance of The Mouse King by the Owens/Cox dance troupe with music by The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City.

The difference? Owens/Cox has built the right following for their performances. They've built anticipation for their December show. They’re marketing – they're speaking – to a modern core.

You can program for the audiences the Jazz Orchestra is drawing to the Kauffman Center. Or you can build a modern core.


Because Kansas City’s remarkable jazz talent, coming together in new ways to perpetuate itself, makes this city, this size, unique.

A New York Times article late last month (here) applauds the opening in San Francisco of “the SFJazz Center, a $64 million performance space, proudly billed as the first stand-alone building designed for jazz in this country.”

But the fact that stood out to me in the article was the size of the center’s star auditorium: 700 seats.

In San Francisco.

In a metropolitan area of 4.4 million people.

In a metropolitan area 2.2 times the size of the Kansas City area.

700 seats.

Maybe that speaks bundles about the state of jazz. Maybe that says if, in an area of 4.4 million people, they figure they’re not going to need more than 700 seats for a jazz performance, you can stick a fork in jazz ’cause it’s done.

But if so, what does it say about Kansas City that for the last performance of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, you would need to use every seat in that fabulous new San Francisco jazz center, plus you would need to add every seat in the Gem Theater at 18th and Vine to accommodate the crowd?

Maybe, just maybe, it says in Kansas City the audience is out there. Clearly, the talent is here. I’m not suggesting James Carter could fill the Kauffman Center. I am suggesting he could attract more than a few hundred souls.

Saturday night, Sequel connected with the audience. Their audience will grow.

Perhaps some venues can yet learn to connect.