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.