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.