Monday, April 29, 2013

A Week Sans Post

My goal is to offer a new blog post each Monday. But family matters kept me away from both jazz clubs and the computer this past weekend. Hopefully, next week the new blog post goal will be met.

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Day in the Life of the Mutual Musicans Foundation

It closes at sunrise.

So let’s place the start of the day, last Saturday, at noon. Maybe twelve-fifteen. That’s about when Denyce arrived.

Denyce Graves, says The Kansas City Star, “has belted out grand operas at the Metropolitan Opera and opera houses around the world and has given command performances for presidents and Supreme Court justices….” She was in Kansas City to perform with the Lyric Opera.

On Saturday, she chose to explore Kansas City’s connection to jazz.

So she visited the Mutual Musicians Foundation.


Count Basie jammed here. So did Lester Young, and Mary Lou Williams, and Jo Jones. This was their union hall. Charlie Parker met Dizzy Gillespie upstairs.

Today the Mutual Musicians Foundation is recognized as a National Historic Landmark for its contributions to American history.

Musicians still rehearse here. Weekend jam sessions still last the night.

And a day can start with a visit from an internationally renowned Mezzo-Soprano.


Downstairs, Denyce greeted guests, graciously introducing herself to every one. She examined the walls, covered with graphic panels explaining the Foundation’s ties to jazz history. She recognized names, asking about their association with this building.

Upstairs, engulfed by photos and portraits of musicians who performed here, Denyce chatted. She was told about youth programs and arranged for the children to be photographed with her during intermission of a Lyric Opera performance.

Then, when one young attendee summoned enough courage to take the stage and sing for her, tepidly, Denyce grabbed her phone to record his performance.

“This,” she said, “is how it begins.”


Shortly after Denyce left, musicians walked upstairs to rehearse. Young musicians. These were the Foundation’s Young Jazz Masters.

Each Saturday, the Foundation offers free lessons to any student who cares to participate. This day, a group was competing in a student festival at the Gem Theater, just down 18th Street. But first they returned to the Foundation’s stage to practice.

For more than eighty years, young jazz musicians have practiced here, in this room. Charlie Parker was one.

Later, this night, the room will fill with people listening to live jazz. Every chair will be taken by guests who will have paid $10 each to come and party and drink and talk and hear and enjoy.

But right now, a future generation is on the stage, practicing.

In the Mutual Musicians Foundation, this is how it begins.


About 1 a.m., the music starts. The doors open at midnight, but 1:00 is when the jam session starts. It will continue all night, just as it has virtually every weekend night since the early 1930s.

Matt Otto commands the stage on sax, with Andrew Ouellette on piano, Ryan Lee on drums and Karl McComas-Reichl on bass. Each one, an outstanding musician playing his best.

Other musicians wait in the back of the room to join the jam. These musicians are in their twenties. That’s the age Basie and Lester and Mary Lou and Jo were when they jammed in here.

By 2 a.m., the room started to fill.

By 3, empty seats were scarce.

At 5, the jam concluded.

By 6, the crowd cleared and staff – board members – started cleaning up.


Somewhere around sunrise, Saturday at the Mutual Musicians Foundation came to a close.

Monday, April 15, 2013

This 'n That 'n Two Big Bands

It's true, the majority of the audience is of a certain age when they collectively gasp at the announcement that the next number will be Tiger Rag.

But put it in perspective. This was a special performance. Every seat sold was an individual ticket, not sales built on top of a season ticket base, and cost $40 or $50. The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra (KCJO) sold 800 of those seats for their April 4th show, A Tribute to Benny Goodman’s Historic 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert, in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

That’s a hundred more seats than were built into the brand new concert hall in the acclaimed SFJazz Center. That San Francisco auditorium couldn’t have seated KCJO’s crowd.

Some will hold their nose skywards at a concert full of music that was new 75 years ago. But they wouldn’t be the ones who heard a big band full of outstanding musicians, a couple of whom are also at home with the completely contemporary People’s Liberation Big Band. They wouldn’t be the ones who heard Doug Talley’s wonderful solo on Don’t Be That Way, sparked with phrasing foreign to 1938. And that was just the opening number.

They also wouldn’t be the ones who heard visiting guest Jerry Dodgion join the band for a couple of solos. Or who smiled when ailing artistic director Kerry Strayer took the stage to an accompaniment of cheers (and proceeded to solo wonderfully).

They also wouldn’t be the ones counting the cash on what was, from all appearances, a highly successful fundraising event for KCJO’s 10th anniversary year.

There is an audience for this music, an audience which will pay for a night where the goal is fun. And where the goal is met.


Two nights later, it was The Blue Room’s turn to swing. Last week’s post pictured Bobby Watson’s 18th and Vine Big Band. This was a group originally assembled to join the Kansas City Symphony for a Pops concert. But this Saturday night, tuxes were traded for untucked shirts.

The opening number, Satin Doll, was an arrangement by KCJO’s artistic director. Solos by trombonist Jason Godeau, trumpeter Hermon Mehari, saxophonist Steve Lambert, pianist Roger Wilder, bassist Bob Bowman and leader Bobby Watson established this big band as second to nobody.

Only one member of Bobby’s band also claimed KCJO’s stage. The two nights offered a chance to hear a broad sampling of Kansas City jazz talent swing. The two nights offered the chance to hear two bands excel.

Even so, maybe it was looseness unencumbered by black suits and spit-shined shoes. Maybe it was playing in a genuine jazz club rather than a plushly seated shrine to the arts. Maybe it was playing right on top of the audience, tripping over the front row tables, rather than seeing an orchestra pit of space separating the audience from the stage. Maybe it was the interactions with a younger crowd. Maybe it was just having a drink in hand.

But while Thursday night was unquestionably fun, Saturday night was a blast.


Two weeks ago, I wrote about young musicians who, beyond the Mutual Musicians Foundation, have never known the connections to Kansas City’s jazz past. Many play a more progressive, contemporary music, and draw an audience to jazz clubs.

A week and a day after Bobby Watson’s 18th and Vine Big Band performed, the insanely progressive People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City premiered new compositions at The Record Bar.

The range of jazz which can draw a respectable audience in Kansas City today, including more people than they built seats for in San Francisco, speaks broadly to its vitality in this city. Sure, it’s a niche. No jazz artist is going to fill The Sprint Center. But Kansas City can boast an active and diverse jazz community.


Several tidbits:

•  This Saturday night, Beyond the Blues is a fundraiser for Mental Health America of the Heartland. It features performances by the Blues Notions, Todd Wilkinson and Mille Edwards. More information is available here.

•  Kansas City Kansas Community College and The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra team up for the 12th annual Jazz Camp, June 3rd through 7th. Among the faculty:  Doug Talley, Steve Molloy, Everett DeVan, Rod Fleeman, Mike Ning and James Albright. Students can sign up now. More information is available here.

•  Johnson County Community College has announced the lineup for their 2013-14 Performing Arts Series. Among the notable dates: Saturday, January 25th, 2014, when Arturo Sandoval plays Yardley Hall at 8 p.m. as part of Jazz Winterlude.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Bobby Watson's 18th and Vine Big Band at The Blue Room

About a month and a half ago, when they performed with The Kansas City Symphony, they wore tuxedos. This time, Bobby said, they were wearing their slippers.

I didn’t actually see anybody in slippers at The Blue Room last Saturday night. But with Bobby Watson’s 18th and Vine Big Band, I saw a stage filled with a who’s who selection of some of Kansas City’s best jazz musicians. I saw jazz legend Joe Chambers play vibes then drums. And I heard Bobby Watson swing a big band to rival any since Basie left town.

Face it: When you look over a stage and see musicians like Horace Washington, Steve Lambert, Charles Perkins, Gerald Dunn, Jason Goudeau, Hermon Mehari, Al Pearson, Roger Wilder, Bob Bowman, Ryan Lee – I’m not naming everybody – and Bobby Watson out front, you’re seeing a premiere mix of young and veteran Kansas City jazz talent in 2013.

You’re about to hear the big band Bobby assembled to play with the Symphony.

And then they start swinging a packed Blue Room with Kerry Strayer’s arrangement of Satin Doll.

Follow that with a version of Corner Pocket that may make you wonder if the roof’s coming off.

And that’s just the appetizer, because then Joe Chambers joins the band.

If you’re sorry you missed it, well, you should be.

But at least I can show you how a bit of how it looked. Below are photos from last Saturday night at The Blue Room with Bobby Watson’s 18th and Vine Big Band. As always, clicking on a shot should open a larger version of it.

Bobby Watson with his 18th and Vine Big Band, plus Joe Chambers on vibes

Joe Chambers

Bobby Watson

Charles Perkins

Al Pearson

Gerald Dunn

Hermon Mehari

The 18th and Vine Big Band

Watching Joe Chambers solo

Bobby Watson's 18th and Vine Big Band

Monday, April 1, 2013

Jazz Beyond Links

One of his favorite stories was of New Year’s Eve, 1932. He paid Kansas City vice squad members $10 each to raid his club at 12:30 and 3:30 a.m., to clear the joint out and turn the crowd.

In 1974, a writer for Atlantic Monthly described Milton’s like this:

“For more than 20 years, Milton Morris’ dark vault of a bar has been a way station for suburban kids who sensed there had once been some ineffable richness to this city and that if any of it still existed, Milton would know where.”

I was one of those suburban kids.

A 1989 cover story in The Kansas City Star’s Sunday Star magazine described Milton Morris like this:

“Milton Morris was about five feet, six inches, and though most people today remember a skinny little man, he once weighed close to 240 pounds and looked very much like the comedian Lou Costello. Back then, as late as the 1960s, he drank a case of beer every day, usually Heineken’s.

“In his later years his drink was Cutty Sark with a splash of water. He drank from his own special glass, a 14-ounce ‘Texas size’ highball glass. Though his choice of liquor had changed, his consumption remained prodigious. He drank at least a fifth of Scotch each and every night. He smoked huge Macanudo cigars – $2 each – and bought six or eight boxes at a time. He truly loved those cigars….

“Milton talked something like a hip W.C. Fields, sprinkling his conversation with musician’s jargon. When a patron left the bar, Morris always muttered, ‘Later.’ His advice to one and all: ‘Drive fast, talk back to the cops – and tell ’em you know me.’

“The last part of this oft-repeated slogan took on new meaning to those underage drinkers astute enough to notice an interesting pattern. There were times when the phone rang and then [Milton’s wife] Shirley quietly walked around the bar telling the underage customers they had to leave. Such calls were always followed – after a decent interval – by a police visit.”

For many of us, Milton Morris was the link to Kansas City’s illustrious past of gangsters and jazz. He sold “medicinal” whiskey from a drugstore at 26th and Troost during prohibition.  When prohibition ended, he opened the Hey Hay Club at Fourth and Cherry. He employed Count Basie and Charlie Parker and Ben Webster and Jo Jones when they called KC home. And until his death, he told us stories about the Kansas City that was, stories often grounded in dubious truth, from a stool at the front of Milton’s Tap Room at 3241 Main Street.

Next November will mark 30 years since Milton Morris passed.

This past Friday night, I enjoyed Eddie Moore and his group The Outer Circle at Take Five Coffee + Bar in Leawood. The audience was fairly small. I suspect more Kansans were watching, then mourning, KU’s NCAA Tournament basketball game than were out listening to music. But the performance of Eddie Moore on keyboards, Matt Hopper on guitar, Dominique Sanders on bass and Matt Leifer on drums was outstanding, riffing on Eddie’s original compositions.

Most, perhaps all, of these musicians were born after Milton Morris passed.

For many of us, Kansas City jazz began with that link to the past. It was a given. It was part of Kansas City’s jazz life. Kansas City and booze and mobsters and the origins of swing would always clutch a historical bond.

Which sometimes leaves it striking to hear jazz in Kansas City musically unbound and unlinked.

But that shouldn’t surprise when recognizing that jazz in Kansas City today is dominated by young musicians, most born after some of those most vital links were gone. These musicians could not have heard, first hand anyway, the stories I was told. Their interest in jazz is more purely musical, without taints of the the culture and history which fascinated me.

(It also shouldn’t surprise when realizing I was hearing the music in a location which was probably a wheat field an hour outside the city in Milton’s day.)

Friday night’s music fits just one definition of Kansas City jazz: It is music composed and performed by outstanding Kansas City jazz musicians.

True, Matt Hopper’s guitar sometimes riffed on the blues. But mostly, this group’s music held a contemporary, fresh feel while maintaining that accessibility some modern jazz performances lack. It doesn’t rage. Rather, it offers a hook to reel a listener into a vivacious, progressive feel.

It’s not music I would have heard in Milton’s. It doesn’t obviously tie back to Kansas City’s gangster-and-jazz past.

It is jazz by terrific musicians still evolving and growing the music three decades beyond the direct ties to the past I knew. It is a statement on jazz’s continued vitality in Kansas City some thirty years later.