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.

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