Monday, June 24, 2013

Because I See the Potential

The 1984 Kansas City Jazz Festival lost $128,000.

A show at Starlight Theater with Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles drew a fraction of the audience that Ella Fitzgerald and George Benson attracted there the year before. Then rains scattered the crowd at Volker Park on September 2nd, at the festival’s big outdoor finale, leaving a meager crowd for the delayed conclusion of Joe Williams with the Duke Ellington Orchestra conducted by Mercer Ellington.

Leaders of the event negotiated with vendors and slowly repaid the debt. In 1989, the last of it was paid off.

That, coincidentally, was the year I served as festival president, and the year Pat Metheny’s performance succumbed to storms.

I was delighted to turn over a debt-free festival to the organization’s next president. But rains do more than spoil a year of planning. They illustrate to sponsors the risk inherent with their support and lay out vividly that the recognition expected by association with a successful outdoor festival can be washed away faster than you can say Bryan Busby.

A successful event breeds more and more generous donors. I’m seeing it this year with the Prairie Village Jazz Festival. A rainout makes the arduous art of fundraising even more grueling. I saw it after the 1984 and 1989 Kansas City Jazz Festivals and after the 2011 Prairie Village fest.

So I understand the risks. I recognize the obstacles.

And I see the potential.

I chaired the Kansas City Jazz Commission from 1987 into 1989. Different members of the City Council approached me with different agendas: An international jazz hall of fame. Convert the KCMO tower (at 31st and McGee) into a giant saxophone, to rival the St. Louis arch. And, from more than one, combine this city’s multiple jazz festivals – at the time, we hosted the Kansas City Jazz Festival and the 18th and Vine Jazz and Heritage Festival – into one mega-jazz-fest to compete with New Orleans.

The desire has long simmered for this city to host a major celebration of our internationally-renowned heritage. Not one to compete with New Orleans. Recognize that some events are unique and beyond our reasonable reach. But something more grand than any of the relatively minor jazz celebrations that currently pepper this town.

Last week, I bemoaned the formula of the festival staged the last few years by the American Jazz Museum, and that it appears positioned not as an independent event but as a fundraiser for the Museum.

I understand the risks of breaking a successful, if uninspiring, formula. I recognize the obstacles organizers must face coming off a year devoured by rain.

And I point to it because I see the potential for that festival to grow into something grand.

Say it plainly: In Rhythm and Ribs, organizers have executed an outstanding event. They have outlined an excellent flow to the festival grounds, including performance spaces inside the museum. Likewise, there’s a flow to the schedule. The event hosts an overwhelmingly happy crowd. Vendors I spoke with two years ago were pleased (one I knew said demand exceeded his expectations). Details are where many such events go wrong, and here the details are exceptionally well managed. For example, look at the signage. It’s not hand-scribbled slop, but professionally produced placards. This may seem insignificant, but it makes a difference to the image projected.

Even last year, when rain rendered most of the festival grounds unusable, the staff coped, shoehorning crowds into the Gem Theater. Despite the storms, the festival went on. Two years ago, the Prairie Village Jazz Festival was called on account of rain. Likewise the second day of this year’s Corporate Woods Jazz Fest. Where Johnson County wimps out, 18th and Vine perseveres.

The American Jazz Museum has established the base of an extraordinary event. But it hurts not to see the festival grow beyond this base. It hurts knowing Kansas City deserves a major jazz festival, and seeing the start of one, but not yet seeing it grow beyond that start.

I’ve listed the plethora of jazz stars headlining the Newport Jazz Festival this August. As wonderful as it would be, Kansas City doesn’t need to match that. I suspect those three days in August are Newport’s lone gasp of jazz air for the year. We have the Folly and Jammin’ at the Gem jazz series. We have special guests visiting throughout the year, especially at The Blue Room. Kansas City’s jazz exposure isn’t limited to three days. We don’t need to equal Newport’s three days.

Yet we need to improve. The Museum cannot risk losing the kind of money The Kansas City Jazz Festival once lost. But the Museum’s festival nevertheless holds the potential to grow beyond a jazz name, a blues name, and some R-and-B group to draw a crowd.

Perhaps that’s happening.

Not officially announced, as far as I know, the festival known as Rhythm and Ribs is changing its name. The American Jazz Museum’s online newsletter (here) promotes early ticket sales for “Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival (formerly Rhythm and Ribs).”

The newsletter doesn’t actually give us the date of the event, but Ticketmaster (here) is selling tickets for “Kansas City’s 2013 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival” starting at 11 a.m. on Saturday, October 12th.

Does the name change portend a shift in focus? In the wake of a rain-damaged year, has the festival retrenched, or is it building on its exquisitely executed potential?

I’m optimistic.

Because I see the potential.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Thor Hates Jazz

Apparently, Thor doesn’t like jazz.

Thor, of course, is the Norse god of thunder (and, outside of Marvel comics, of lightning and storms). Two years ago, Thor wiped clean the second Prairie Village Jazz Festival. Last year, he vented his rage on Rhythm and Ribs. And this past weekend he decided one day of smooth jazz in Corporate Woods was quite enough, as an afternoon storm tore through and cancelled Saturday evening’s Jazz in the Woods.

I know how it feels. I helped on the Prairie Village festival that Thor decimated (though the event returned last year and plans are proceeding for a fourth festival this year). And I was president of The Kansas City Jazz Festival in 1989 when Thor looked down on a packed Volker Park, Brush Creek Boulevard jammed with cars, and nevertheless decided to pummel the grounds with torrid rains and force cancellation of The Pat Metheny Group.

There was no Norse god of music. Too bad. Thor could use a little culture, and someone to tell him to back off of our festivals.

At least Jazz in the Woods managed one night of celebration. Its soft music focus is not my cup of jazz tea. I’m programming this year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival. You’ll find a sampling of my type of tea when contracts are finalized and that lineup is announced.

But give Jazz in the Woods, the Corporate Woods Jazz Festival, credit for 24 continuous years as a free outdoor jazz festival. Its organizers have built a successful event that, in recent years, has typically attracted tens of thousands of people with blankets and lawn chairs to hear music and, by purchasing concessions, raise thousands of dollars for local charities.

The Corporate Woods Jazz Festival was started by a pair of refugees from the rained-out 1989 Kansas City Jazz Festival I presided over. Two board of directors members of my Thor-shortened event did not like the person who took over as president of the Volker Park festival in 1990 and fled to Johnson County to start a new jazz festival.

In 1990, the Kansas City area hosted The Kansas City Jazz Festival, The 18th and Vine Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Corporate Woods Jazz Festival. Today, only the Corporate Woods event survives.

My friends turned over organization of the festival to a civic group. I’ll cite that as proof that the success and continuation of a jazz festival is not dependent on jazz fans. The success and continuation of a jazz festival requires civic support and involvement.

And some way to keep Thor appeased.


This past weekend’s Jazz in the Woods and the Coleman Hawkins Jazz Festival up north in St. Joseph, Missouri, starring a plethora of Kansas City’s best jazz ensembles, reminds us that festival season has arrived.

And it reminds us that Kansas City is not home to a major jazz festival.

Newport, in early August, hosts a major jazz festival. Among their 33 announced headliners: Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spaulding, Natalie Cole, Chick Corea, Robert Glasper, Joshua Redman, Jim Hall with Julian Lage, Roy Haynes, Paquito D’Rivera, Marcus Miller, Terrance Blanchard.

Hopefully, Rhythm and Ribs will return, surviving last year’s storms. It’s an extraordinarily well produced festival. Organizers manage all of the details (except parking) extremely well, which is key to a wonderful experience for guests.

But this event seems content presenting an unimaginative formula of a mid-level jazz name, a mid-level blues name, then an R-and-B name to draw a crowd.

According the the American Jazz Museum’s 2012 audit report (downloadable from a link on the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation’s web site, from this page; click on View Financial Details to go to the audit links), the previous two Rhythm and Ribs turned a profit, the first in the festival’s history. I suppose that reduces any incentive to risk producing something more grand. And if, as the audit suggests (but does not spell out), that profit feeds the museum rather than seed the next fest, there will never be a base from which the festival could grow. If Rhythm and Ribs survives, it appears destined to live its life as a Jazz Museum fundraiser.

Having booked this year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival, I can predict a step up from last year’s event. And with solid support from the Prairie Village City Council and the community, there’s reason for optimism that this fest can continue to grow without resorting to the Woods’ soft jazz mush.

But this is still a six act, one day jazz festival in a Kansas City suburb, just two years removed from a near-death cancellation. Newport need harbor no fears that Prairie Village, Kansas is close to stealing its thunder.

Kansas City, this home to jazz with institutions and a tradition other cities can envy, sits mired in minor festivals.

Reviewing that Newport list, we’re the city deep with envy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

What It Is, What It Was

The last tour in this blog, a few weeks back, ended at the corner of 18th and Vine. So let’s pick up there. But this time, look down the south side of 18th Street, east from Vine. In this 1940s photo, Matlaw’s clothing store (owned and operated by a white Jewish family) ocupies the corner space in the Lincoln building. Gazing down 18th, you see the Gem Theater and the Boone Theater.

Today, Danny’s Big Easy holds the space once filled by Matlaw’s. The cars parked along the street are newer. Otherwise, the view is remarkably similar.

And here’s the other side of 18th street in 1940, across from the Gem Theater.

Today, this view is remarkably different. All of the pictured buildings and businesses have been replaced by The American Jazz Museum / Negro Leagues Museum complex. Today, new construction lines the north side of 18th Street in the Historic District.

On May 4, 1930, the members of Musicians Local 627 lined up in front of their new union hall at 1823 Highland Street. Standing with Bennie Moten’s orchestra is their pianist, Bill Basie, and singer Jimmy Rushing.

All of the musicians in the 1930 photo are gone. But the photo fills the wall when you walk into that building today, the Mutual Musicians Foundation, where their music lives. The houses at the right are gone. But the Rochester Hotel at the left was recently remodeled and reopened as The Rochester at Highland Place, apartments for seniors.

Across the street, at 1824 Highland, stood this single family home in 1940.

Today, the house has been beautifully remodeled as a duplex.

Next door in 1940, at 1826 Highland, stood this house.

Today, it still stands, recently remodeled for rental. Note that what was an empty lot south of it in 1940 today is filled with a modern apartment building.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Magic Jazz Fairy Is Busy

It was tired. It was tired because it had been so busy. There were so many nights and shows to promote, and the information was, mostly, readily available. So, yes, it was tired, but this was a good tired.

Think about it (not that you, personally, have any experiences you can directly relate to this). But flapping wings, especially large wings, to levitate a body then propel it quickly from jazz fan to jazz fan while they sleep, must expend considerable energy.

So imagine you’re the Magic Jazz Fairy. As we’ve established before, every city of any consequence has one. Because in so many cities – and heaven knows Kansas City nightspots of the past have been guilty of this – club owners fail to promote their jazz offerings and just expect audiences to show up because it’s jazz. And they can get away with that because they know there must be a Magic Jazz Fairy who flies to every jazz fan while we sleep telling us when and where jazz can be heard, so we wake up knowing, just knowing, so it clearly cannot be the club owner’s fault if nobody shows up.

And Kansas City recently has seen – of course nobody is pretending this is New York or Chicago or L.A., but for Kansas City – an exceptional story to tell. Jazz every night of the week. Sundays Mark Lowrey jams at The Majestic while Bram Wijnands followed by another show swings Green Lady Lounge, and some Sundays add a band at Take Five. Mondays mean a jam or big band at The Blue Room and Millie Edwards at The Phoenix. Tuesdays are Everett DeVan’s turn to jam at The Phoenix, Hermon Mehari’s at The Majestic, and someone different each week at Green Lady. Green Lady keeps jumpin’ on Wednesdays. By Thursday, you can add the Kill Devil Club and The Blue Room back to the list. And on Friday and Saturday, Take Five and everybody else kicks in, some clubs spotlighting a couple shows each night, plus the Mutual Musicians Foundation jamming all night.

And these aren’t trivial performances. Drum star Winard Harper visits KC this month. Trumpet Summit – Mike Metheny, Stan Kessler and Hermon Mehari, all at once – perform this month, too. And Matt Otto's quintet. And Sons of Brazil. And Book of Gaia.

Not only that, the Magic Jazz Fairy smiled, but each of the clubs maintains an online calendar, and maintains it reasonably well.

Now throw in special evenings of more eclectic jazz at GrĂ¼nauer (Fado Novato, Snuff Jazz) or The Record Bar (People’s Liberation Big Band), occasional nights at Louie’s Wine Dive, and hotel bars here and there, and Kansas City’s Magic Jazz Fairy has suddenly found itself with plenty to stay on top of.

It’s the situation every Magic Jazz Fairy craves: Lots of jazz to whisper to sleeping fans and, whether through online calendars or notices on Facebook, shows reasonably easy to discover.

Stopping a moment from its frantic rounds, the Magic Jazz Fairy took a breath to note Kansas City jazz today was lively but peaceful. An uncommon stability has seemed to settle over the scene. No faction of the jazz community, as far as this Fairy could tell, was battling another. No club was threatening to go out of business. New performance spaces were dipping their toes into the jazz-related waters. The Pitch has even started promoting a jazz show a week (the name writing that new piece seemed awfully familiar, but the Magic Jazz Fairy couldn’t quite place it).

There was no sniff of friction in the air.

In fact, the local music festival to cancel itself was Kanrockas, an oddly-named event which one organizer described as targeting “three genres: electronic/DJ, hip-hop, and about 55 to 60 percent of the lineup will focus on alternative rock.” Gee, the Magic Jazz Fairy wryly contemplated, if that had been a jazz festival in Kansas City going under, commentators would be wetting themselves to morbidly declare jazz is dead. Surely the same standards apply here. Surely this event bucket-kicking must mean electronic/DJ, hip-hop and alternative rock are dead. Surely those commentators don’t hold the mortality of jazz to a different standard.

The Magic Jazz Fairy giggled with sarcasm. Oh well, it smiled, those commentators must have missed the article in the newspaper.

The winged being turned its attention back to jazz. It understood the scene holds room for improvement. Jazz will never again thrive here as it did in the 1930s, of course. But Kansas City could support a jazz supper club, as do Denver and Seattle. And this city’s heritage demands a major festival to compliment or supplement the pair of not-so-major events the metropolitan area currently hosts each fall.

But, the Magic Jazz Fairy mused, young talent continues to emerge. And Kansas City supports a culture of jazz greater than other communities its size.

It stopped on a rooftop and pulled those large wings back for a moment’s rest. It broke out a cigar. Striking a match on the roof, it lit the cigar then puffed then sighed.

This wasn’t always the case. But being Kansas City’s Magic Jazz Fairy these days, it realized, was not a bad gig.