Monday, March 25, 2013

Looney No More

The Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) headlined the 1985 Kansas City Jazz Festival. A stage was built on the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (the lawn was more open then, with less landscaping and no Bloch building), just in front of the portico, facing what was then Brush Creek Boulevard. MJQ almost didn’t go on. The airline lost Percy Heath’s bass. But they found and delivered it to the festival grounds shortly before the group was scheduled to perform.

MJQ musicians Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Percy Heath and Connie Kay remain among the most respected names in jazz history. We were thrilled to book them that August. But their often intimate music demanded a listener’s attention. Maybe, we later realized, that wasn’t the right type of act for a large, outdoor stage.

Everyone in the crowd who listened heard a magnificent show. But the reviewer for The Kansas City Star compared the Modern Jazz Quartet’s performance to Muzak. Tom Leathers, publisher of The Squire, then a popular Johnson County weekly, wrote that we should give up on jazz and stage a free festival Kansas City would appreciate, one with country music.

The same month, a concert at The Music Hall to raise money for building an International Jazz Hall of Fame in Kansas City, with ticket prices up to $150, attracted just 500 patrons. Afterwards, the Count Basie Orchestra, which in 1984 publicly announced plans to relocate to Kansas City, reconsidered its intention to move.

A May, 1987 cover story in The Kansas City Star’s Sunday Star magazine proclaimed its version of “The truth about Kansas City jazz.” An editorial inside declared:

“Who gives a honk. Jazz is and has always been – in my lifetime, at least – an esoteric music form. If it can’t exist in the free marketplace perhaps it should disappear. Sort of America’s musical dodo bird. Let jazz buffs (who as a whole are sort of looney anyway) buy old records and dream of what might have been.”

A few months later, I would take over as chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission after a former treasurer of the Commission was accused of (and would later plead guilty to) stealing city money from the Jazz Commission. The chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee made plans to give the Jazz Commission’s funding to other civic organizations.

Meanwhile, City Hall and underfunded organizations feuded over whether that International Jazz Hall of Fame should be located at 18th and Vine or at 83rd and Holmes.


Last Saturday night, in March of 2013, The Gem Theater at 18th and Vine was nearly filled for the Monterrey Jazz Festival 55th Anniversary Tour. Across the street, Everett DeVan and a pair of vocalists entertained at The Blue Room. Downtown, Grand Marquis defied the snow at the Kill Devil Club while Bram Wijnand’s trio played the downstairs speakeasy at The Majestic. A little bit south, in the Crossroads district, jazz filled the Green Lady Lounge. And quite a ways south, in Leawood, Rich Wheeler’s quartet filled Take Five.

The night before, one of the best jazz groups you’ll hear, Matt Otto’s sextet with Shay Estes, Gerald Dunn, Jeff Harshbarger, Michael Warren and T.J. Martley, played The Blue Room.


There was always an edge back then. Back when I discovered the jazz community, jazz in Kansas City seemed teetering on crisis, constantly.

Jazz is an integral piece of Kansas City’s history. And to those of us who abhorred the identity of a cowtown, jazz and barbecue represented Kansas City’s international renown. That’s why it regularly captured the community’s attention.

Today, though, a welcome calm prevails.

The situation isn’t perfect, certainly.

Jardine’s closed. But other clubs opened.

The community hosts two minor and no major jazz festival, and each of the last two years one succumbed to storms. But we have two jazz festivals.

There’s not sufficient opportunities for this city’s plethora of outstanding jazz musicians to perform. But we welcome an abundance of talent in part because Bobby Watson’s UMKC program keeps turning out magnificent young musicians.

Many of our elder statesmen of jazz, the men and women who created the music, have passed. But the Mutual Musicians Foundation still jams every weekend night, and sponsors its own free program teaching kids on Saturday mornings. At the Foundation, a culture of jazz lives.

18th and Vine remains in many respects an incomplete restoration. But it’s a district showcasing museums and offices and nightlife and wonderful new housing.

In Kansas City today, we enjoy jazz without a feeling of crisis.

Nobody associated with the community is stealing from the city. Nobody is feuding over a Hall of Fame. Nobody is suggesting the festivals be replaced with country music.

And to the best of my knowledge, nobody at The Kansas City Star has compared jazz legends to Muzak or declared jazz fans to be looney for over twenty-five years.

Not publicly, anyway.

Monday, March 18, 2013


I try to post new thoughts each Monday in this blog. But a busy weekend ended without time to muse on Kansas City jazz. So this week, I take a pass on a new post. I'll simply note to check out the calendar links in the right hand column of this page. They will reveal some outstanding jazz to be heard in Kansas City this week.

Monday, March 11, 2013

This 'n That 'n Uncommon Similarities

You’d think they have nothing in common.

Last Sunday morning I completed compiling quotes for last week’s post recalling Count Basie’s big band as it uniquely developed in Kansas City. Then Sunday night, at The Record Bar, I took in the quirky and unconventional People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City (PLBB), a 21st century musical collaboration with a big band sound that couldn’t be more unBasie-like.

In one city, over seventy five years apart, two big bands epitomizing big band extremes. Opposites. The definition of dissimilarity.

Until the similarities start to strike.

Two big bands built in Kansas City.

Two big bands built on unique arrangements capturing and spitting right back out the youthful voice and attitude of their respective eras.

Two big bands built with musicians clearly enjoying themselves before audiences sharing in the joy.

Two big bands built with some of the most outstanding musicians of their time.

Dave Scott guested with PLBB last weekend. And hearing the band shift from their own accessibly eccentric compositions to Scott’s original but more conventional big band voicings, spoke to the magnificent and versatile talent stacked on that stage. Solos by Matt Otto, James Isaac and Rich Wheeler – for starters – only underscored that impression.

Here are some of Kansas City’s finest musicians coming together, imbuing big band jazz with a contemporary sense of fluke and fun, performing some of the most memorable solos you’re going to hear, and leaving a happy audience with a collective smile.

So did that last sentence describe the People’s Liberation Big Band or Count Basie’s Kansas City big band?

Wildly different sounds, yes. But more similarities than you may have thought.

(And among the similarities, I didn’t even bring up big, burly bassits.)


PLBB’s big, burly, bassist, Jeff Harshbarger, and PLBB’s Rich Wheeler also make up half of Kansas City’s Turkish jazz combo, Alaturka. Beau Bledsoe on guitar and oud and Brandon Draper on percussion comprise the other half.

When I first wrote about Alaturka (here), Sait Arat’s nearly unhuman playing of the darbuka grabbed my attention most. But when Sait departed, Brandon Draper’s percussion took the void, and the group’s sound started to evolve.

On Alaturka’s first outstanding CD, Taman Abi, simply not being able to see Sait play brought a different focus to the music than seeing the group live. On recordings. Beau’s guitar and oud gained prominence.

Each member carries a pivotal piece of Alaturka’s voice. The first time I heard Brandon with the group, at Jardine’s, I heard that voice refocusing. In January at Jazz Winterlude, I heard a completed evolution. This is Turkish music by jazz musicians. Brandon contributes a percussive feel different from Sait, one with equal measures of expert support and wonderful surprise.

Last night at the Record Bar, Alaturka released their second CD, Yalniz. In Yalniz we hear a blending on Turkish stylings and jazz improvisation where every musician shines.

Here you’ll find a beautiful conversation between tenor, guitar and percussion on Children's Songs No.1 followed by a wonderful blending of all instruments on Nikriz Saz Semaisi.  All of the musicians, within a Turkish mold, contribute to setting this recording apart: Beau's solo and guest vocalist Nihan Yesil on Divane Aşık Gibi, Rich’s inviting yet commanding tenor on Faint, Brandon’s defining percussion on Ciftitelli Zenkov, Jeff’s solid bass upon which each song builds.

With Yalniz, Alaturka melds four of Kansas City jazz’s finest musicians – Beau Bledsoe, Jeff Harshbarger, Rich Wheeler and Brandon Draper – together at their best.

I don’t see Yalniz available online yet, but I suspect when it is you’ll be able to find it here and here.


Vine Street Rumble is a new Kansas City jazz combo, led by Kent Rausch, recalling traditional Kansas City swing. Their premiere outing is Monday, March 11th at Californos in Westport at 8 p.m.

Vine Street Rumble. People’s Liberation Big Band. Alaturka. The diversity of jazz in Kansas City today is unprecedented. The talent of jazz musicians in this city is amazing. The number of young musicians here speaks to the music’s future, as do new clubs opening and finding an audience.

The days when Basie dominated Kansas City music have long since passed. But jazz still lives in Kansas City.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Built in Kansas City

Trombonist Dicky Wells:

“So I think the real difference between the Basie band and most others was the way they broke down arrangements the way they wanted them. Sometimes, Benny Carter’s bands sounded almost too perfect. That’s the funny thing about jazz. You may rehearse until you’re hitting everything on the head, and here comes a band like the Savoy Sultans, raggedy, fuzzy-sounding, and they upset everything. ‘What am I doing here?’ you wonder. But that’s the way it is. That’s jazz. If you get too clean, too precise, you don’t swing sometimes, and the fun goes out of the music….

“You could compare it to a lot of kids playing in the mud, having a big time. When the mother calls one in to wash his hands, he gets clean, but he has to stand and just look while the others are having a ball. He’s too clean and he can’t go back. Same way when you clean up on that horn and the arrangements are too clean: you get on another level. You’re looking down on those guys, but they’re all having a good, free-going time.”

Drummer Jo Jones:

“At that time in Kansas City a local band had to to play opposite visiting bands, and when some met up with Basie’s raggedy band they got egg on their faces. They’d rather have paid us and had us not play. You ask Earl Hines about the night his band and ours played together…. Fletcher Henderson? McKinney’s Cotton Pickers? They never had a rhythm section. Chick Webb? Great, but never had a rhythm section….

“We worked at it, to build a rhythm section, every day, every night.... I didn’t care what happened – one of us would be up to par. If three were down, one would carry the three. Never four were out.”

Dicky Wells:

“I don’t think the Basie band had anything new except the idea of the two tenors. After all, Fletcher had swung just about everything that could be swung. Maybe Fletcher’s things were a bit more polished, but Basie had those tempos like Bennie Moten had….

“Basie’s two battling tenors were two of the best, and the crowd went for them. I heard them going like that at the Cherry Blossom when I was in Kansas City with Fletcher Henderson. Plenty of bands had two trumpet soloists, or two trombones, but not two tenors…. As soon as Herschel  [Evans] stood up, before ever he went down front, the people would start yelling. The same when Lester [Young] stood up. I think that started the tenor sax duet within a band. Before that it had been drums and trumpet.”

Trumpeter Buck Clayton:

“Our reputation, before we came east, was built on nine pieces, and I don’t think we ever had a bad night in Kansas City. But when we added five or six men it made a lot of difference. The band had to be enlarged to go on the road, but it slowed everything down and made it sluggish.... Then Benny Morton, Dicky Wells, Harry Edison and Earl Warren came in and it began to sound like a good big band.

“At first it was a disappointment, especially as compared with the band in Kansas City. Anyone who heard it there heard the swingingest band in the world. It was really a pleasure to play in it. Of course, we weren’t making any money to speak of, but things were cheap then and I think my rent was only about three dollars a week.

“We always had fun some kind of way.”


On Saturday, October 31st, 1936, Count Basie’s band played a farewell dance at Paseo Hall, at 15th and The Paseo, before leaving Kansas City.

Count Basie:

“The first Halloween dance was at Paseo Hall that last Saturday night. We advertised it as our farewell dance. They always liked farewells and homecomings in Kansas city, so we called this our farewell thing. But actually we went right back into Paseo Hall that very next Monday night and played our last gig as the local union band. The big headline attraction that night was Duke Ellington….

“It was a very special night for everybody, because Duke had been coming to Kansas City for at least several years by that time, but this was the first time he was coming to play a dance at Paseo Hall. All the other times he had been booked into the big theaters downtown….

[At that time, Black patrons could not attend Kansas City’s downtown theaters.]

“But I didn’t get to hear him that last night in Kansas City, because we went on first, and we couldn’t stay for the main event because we were scheduled to leave for Chicago that very same Monday night. In fact our bus was parked outside, ready to pull out as soon as we finished our set and loaded our instruments. Our suitcases were already on board….

“We went on early, and of course, we did our best to liven things up in there, and we always did. But then when Duke’s famous musicians began arriving, the crowd couldn’t help showing how excited it was about having them there. So, as many friends and well-wishers as we knew we had in Kansas City, I don’t think there were many more than about a dozen people who came outside to see us off.

“But Duke himself came out…. I hadn’t yet had a chance to get to know him personally at that time…. But that last night he made it his business to come outside of Paseo Hall and give us his congratulations and wish us good luck, and he gave me a few words of encouragement and a big pat on the shoulder just before I got on the bus. He was beautiful.

“‘Go ahead,’ he said. ‘You can make it.’”


Quotes by Dicky Wells, Jo Jones and Buck Clayton are from The World of Count Basie by Stanley Dance. Quotes by Count Basie are from Good Morning Blues, The Autobiography of Count Basie.