Monday, July 29, 2013

Bending the Mold

1983 saw the rebirth of the Kansas City Jazz Festival. Organizers wisely placed a call for volunteers in the program, to help plan and organize the 1984 event. I was looking for an entrée to civic involvement and responded. I remained involved, to varying degrees, through the next seven festivals.

That may be why I still hold a keener interest in jazz festivals than most people.

The festival I helped organize would eventually, after I left, merge with the Blues festival and grow into a much larger event. But it eventually died, reportedly succumbing to a massive debt.

The Rhythm and Ribs Festival was born eight years ago as a grand event. It encompassed two days and all of Parade Park. But financial reports available online tell us it lost money each year.

That’s easy to do with festivals.

In 2009, in the face of the recession, Rhythm and Ribs retired. The next year, a different festival with the same name replaced it. This new event filled a single day, and embraced a much more concise footprint. The downsizing, let’s be honest, was a disappointment. But those online financial reports tell us this was the first Kansas City festival named Rhythm and Ribs to turn a profit. The wisdom of the change is clear.

The new Rhythm and Ribs adopted a formula: A jazz headliner, a blues headliner, and an R and B headliner whose sole purpose was to draw a crowd. Commercially, it worked. Two years ago, when the repackaged musical band War took the festival stage and started singing The Cisco Kid, Rhythm and Ribs, in that year, stopped being a jazz or a blues festival. But give organizers credit. That band drew the largest audience of the day and the audience loved it.

Still, after three years of the same formula, of jazz headliner/blues headliner/r and b headliner to draw a crowd, the format was growing stale. When you’re turning a profit, it takes courage to change. And it takes wisdom to recognize when an event needs to evolve.

This year, Rhythm and Ribs has been rechristened as Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival. The name could stand some pruning, but if that turns out to be the biggest complaint, who cares.

Last week, the lineup was announced. Its emphasis is crossover appeal.

Top headliner George Duke brings solid jazz credentials, but is a name also known in rock and R and B circles. I know little about the second jazz headliner, the Art Blakey Tribute Band, but YouTube videos suggest this group may hold more appeal to jazz traditionalists.

Bettye LaVette is claimed by both the Blues and R and B sides of the fence. I just categorize her as the headliner I most want to hear. Kelley Hunt, who in December will be performing with The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, delivers solid Blues.

(In the ad replicating the festival poster in JAM magazine, both Bettye LaVette’s and Kelley Hunt’s names are misspelled. Let’s hope those typos didn’t make it to the final poster.)

And there’s the R-and-B-Band-Whose-Purpose-Is-To-Draw-A-Crowd: Con Funk Shun.

Last week I noted that in booking the Prairie Village Jazz Festival, a goal was to see it evolve and grow. I believe the goal, however modestly, was met. The renamed festival at 18th and Vine seems to have modestly grown as well. Two solid jazz headliners and two blues headliners expands on the one/one/one formula.

If it seems I sometimes whine about Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival, or show overt interest, it’s because my festival planning years leave me caring for the event. Yes, I’ve helped plan the jazz festival in Prairie Village. But the festival at 18th and Vine is the one bearing the most potential. It clearly has the bigger budget with the more broadly recognized acts. And it has been extraordinarily well organized and executed, minding the details which make a difference to the audience experience.

Kansas City doesn’t need a festival on the scale of Newport’s. Jammin’ at the Gem and the Folly Series and Jazz Winterlude and The Blue Room bring nationally recognized jazz talent to Kansas City throughout the year. But this city, one of a rare few where jazz was born, deserves a major jazz festival. And Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival is the event showing the greatest potential to grow into that event.

Curiously, though, the festival situated where jazz and blues were born in Kansas City seems convinced that acts with crossover appeal are needed to draw a crowd to the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the festival situated out in the suburbs is placing its faith in a day of music that can only be sold as jazz.

If I could make a suggestion to organizers at the American Jazz Museum: When booking this festival, have more faith in jazz.

And shorten the name.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Building a Festival

Successful events grab you through their personality.

A few years ago, a group of people, looking to benefit the community, founded the Prairie Village Jazz Festival. They considered a city-wide celebration, but the price of national jazz talent quickly convinced them to scale their plans to a community event, focusing on performers from or with distinct ties to Kansas City.

The second year of the event, I was asked to help. Last year and this year, the festival’s fourth, I’ve booked the talent.

This year’s schedule for Saturday, September 7th at Harmon Park, 7700 Mission Road in Prairie Village, Kansas – with free admission – looks like this:

3:00 – 3:50 p.m.  Andy McGhie Quintet
Andy McGhie, tenor saxophone, Hermon Mehari, trumpet, Andrew Ouelette, piano, Karl McComas-Reichl, bass, Ryan Lee, drums

4:10 – 5:00 p.m.  Parallax
Stan Kessler, trumpet, Roger Wilder, piano, Bill McKemy, bass, Ryan Lee and Brian Steever, drums

5:20 – 6:10 p.m.  Mutual Musicians Foundation All-Stars
Steve Lambert, tenor saxophone and flute, Mike Herrera, alto saxophone, Peter Schlamb, vibraphone, Chris Clarke, piano, Dominique Sanders, bass, Brad Williams, drums

6:30 – 7:20 p.m.  Everette DeVan – Chris Hazelton Quartet
Everette DeVan and Chris Hazelton, Hammond B3 organs, Matt Hopper, guitar, Danny Rojas, drums

7:40 – 8:40 p.m.  Marilyn Maye
Marilyn Maye, vocals, Tedd Firth, piano, Gerald Spaits, bass, Jim Eklof, drums

9:00 – 10:30 p.m.  Bobby Watson All-Star Big Band with Special Guest Jon Faddis
Bobby Watson, alto saxophone, Jon Faddis, trumpet, plus a big band

So just how is a festival like this booked? Out of all of the spectacular talent in Kansas City, how did these acts make the six-slot lineup?

For starters, festival acts need to be dynamic. We’re talking a large stage facing a hill seating thousands of people. Intimate jazz is wonderful in the right venue. A hill seating thousands of people is not the right venue.

Second, consider the audience: Families with picnic baskets out for a fun time. The music can’t be too esoteric, can’t require too much concentration to understand and appreciate. Few on that hill came to concentrate. Make the music accessible.

However, jazz in this city covers a broad range. It’s not the festival’s goal to force the full gamut down audience throats. But neither should this be a full day of swing because swing is accessible. Offer variety.

And grow the event. Last year’s festival was a terrific success, as fundraising coming a bit more easily this year attests. Businesses recognize the success and want to be associated with it. But we can’t offer the same package again. That’s stagnation. Within its parameters – within its personality – this festival needs to evolve into something more significant.

To my mind, that means a mix of established acts and acts unique to the festival. Because it’s through those unique acts that the event sees its greatest chance for growth.

Some acts I knew I wanted long ago. Last year I first heard Andy McGhie’s quintet, some KC’s best young jazz talent, playing bebop standards and originals. The way Andy and Hermon Mehari played off of and drove each other made for an amazing night at Take Five. I knew then that this was the group to open this year’s festival.

Parallax may be the most contemporary band of the day. But its two drums astound and should play extraordinarily well on a big outdoor stage. I realized that early this year.

Everette Devan - Chris Hazelton may be the swingingest group of the day. They were certainly the swingingest in January’s Jazz Winterlude. And dueling Hammond B3s ought to be another big outdoor stage delight. Another early in the year realization.

The festival president argued strongly for inclusion of a local singer he knew. The singer is good and I voiced no objections. Festival committee politics fills a slot.

Meanwhile, I struggled with finding the right headliners. All of you smooth jazz bands who have played the Jazz in the Woods and contacted me: Smooth is their schtick, not ours.

Then in early April, I heard what was then billed as Bobby Watson’s 18th and Vine Big Band at The Blue Room. This was the big band Bobby assembled for a pair of February Kansas City Symphony pops concerts. The personnel were a who’s who of Kansas City jazz in 2013. That night, I asked Bobby if he could assemble the band again for the Prairie Village Jazz Festival in September. Yes, he could. Now take this a step further. If you could feature any guest you wanted with the band, within reason, who would it be?

A couple weeks later the answer came back: Jon Faddis will do it.

This was what I was looking for. With Jon Faddis, one of the most respected names in jazz performing with Bobby and his big band, we keep the KC connection the festival committee wants. And we feature something unique. Sure, this isn’t going to draw the New York literati. But if you want to hear two jazz greats, Bobby Watson and Jon Faddis, perform together backed by an all-star big band, you must be in Prairie Village, Kansas on September 7th.

That left one open slot. To my surprise, fundraising was proceeding well enough to consider another headline-level name. I’d been thinking Marilyn Maye from the start. She was available and wanted to do it. Done.

Then not done. We found the singer festival committee politics selected wasn’t actually available that day. Once more, one more slot needed filling. This was an opening between the days’s most contemporary and swingingest groups. I needed music to bridge that contrast. I considered four groups and offered it to one. They weren’t available.

After some thought, I phoned a board member at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. How about bringing a Foundation jam to Prairie Village? How about a group with some of the best musicians jamming 18th and Highland on a Friday or Saturday night? Quickly, the band came together. Musically, it fits the slot. And it’s one more group unique to this festival.

The schedule is finalized. Contracts are signed. Goals were set and I hope they’re met. On September 7th, we’ll find out.

We’ll find out whether the 2013 Prairie Village Jazz Festival grabs you through its personality.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Big Bands Live

I saw at least two guests carrying oxygen tanks, so wisecrack about the age of the audience if you must. But when I heard that The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra (KCJO) April Tribute to Benny Goodman concert netted nearly $120,000 – largely through donations given in support of the event – my respect didn’t just grow. It jumped somersaults.

All but one number at KCJO’s tribute concert was played by Goodman’s band in 1938 (though solos that night sprinkled in more contemporary phrasing).

Last Saturday night, a new big band born to recreate KC jazz as it was heard way back then, played its second gig. Kent Rausch’s Vine Street Rumble is orchestrated not like a contemporary big band, but the way big bands were built in KC in the ’20s and ’30s: four sax, four or five brass, and four rhythm. Genuine orchestration to produce the genuine jazz. When Vine Street Rumble plays, you can hear 1930s KC sounds in 2013.

Another Kansas City big band also draws its orchestration from KC’s jazz origins, but this one couldn’t sound more different. The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City (PLBB) celebrated its fifth anniversary at the Record Bar last Sunday, of playing original – and quite contemporary – compositions bounced with a whimsical flair. PLBB is built on a preference for the less brassy 1930s KC four/four/four orchestration. But when the People’s Liberation Big Band plays, you hear that orchestration through a 2013 blender.

One all new KC big band premiered last Wednesday. The Mutual Musicians Foundation has been home to this music for over 80 years, but recently not so much to a big band. Not until last week, anyway, when the Foundation 627 Big Band (or is it the Mutual Musicians Foundation Big Band? I’ve seen both names) swung charts ranging from Basie to originals. Missed it? I see the band is booked for August 1st at Green Lady Lounge.

Last Tuesday night you could have heard Clint Ashlock’s New Jazz Order Big Band (actually, you can hear Clint in a bunch of these big bands. That’s a good thing). This band plays a longstanding gig most weeks at Harling’s (though word is that come September they scootch over to the Green Lady for the Tuesday shows). This band’s book places it squarely between KCJO and PLBB.

Bobby Watson assembled a big band to play a pair of pops concerts with the Kansas City Symphony. From veterans to exceptional youth, this is a band of genuine 2013 Kansas City jazz all-stars. Bobby assembled them again for a show at The Blue Room a few months back. And I have inside info that they they’re coming together once more, with a special guest, for the finale of a September jazz festival.

Kansas City also is home the the New Vintage Big Band, and the Louis Neal Big Band, and the Abel Ramirez Big Band. And there may well be some that I missed.

Big bands are alive and, from all appearances, quite well in Kansas City.

So what’s going on? Weren’t big bands and their music supposed to be dead by now? Didn’t their days of commercial viability end with World War II?

For starters, nobody told the musicians. Some enjoy composing for various big band voicings. The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City, five years after taking up monthly residence in the Record Bar, boasts a book of over fifty original compositions. These compositions have grown the big band sound into 21st century sensibilities.

And many musicians enjoy playing big bands and their charts. With the extraordinary wealth of jazz talent calling Kansas City home, we have the musicians today to populate nine (or more, if I missed any) big bands playing a broad range of music.

Well, then, what about these bands specializing in the Basie and Goodman sound? Didn’t those bandleaders die decades ago?

They did. And they left behind classic American music that parts of the public still enjoy. Our blogging colleague, Plastic Sax, has posited on the pending death of swing. Perhaps eventually he’ll be right. Yet the fact is, in 2013, while it’s not sharing any stages with hip-hop, there’s enough people who still enjoy this music to keep an audience in front of big bands playing it.

A few years ago, The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra stood at the precipice of survival. I managed it for a few months then, and will claim no credit for pulling the group back from that ledge. But a move to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts brought the orchestra increased respect and recognition, and put more people in seats.

So what if KCJO’s Kauffman Center seats are largely filled with the less spritely. There will always be less spritely people. Many, with money to support this art.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Repost: Race, On Independence Day

A busy weekend allowed little time to write about Kansas City or jazz. So today, I offer a repost, from Independence Day week two years ago.


The great jazz and rhythm and blues singer and Kansas City native Priscilla Bowman is buried in a cemetery adjacent to the Quindaro ruins. Her grave sits at the crest of a hill, under the shade of a large tree. It’s an appropriately beautiful setting for someone whose singing brought joy to so many of us.

I saw the gravesite some years ago while on a guided tour of the Quindaro ruins which, with permission of the nearby Allen AME Church, included the cemetery.

(If you don’t know, Quindaro was established in the mid-1850s as a town for slaves escaping across the Missouri river, from current day Parkville, to find help and a route to freedom on the underground railroad. The town’s ruins, today within Kansas City, Kansas, were uncovered in the 1980s.)

Priscilla Bowman’s gravesite is one of the few properly identified in these burial grounds, one of the few anchored by a marker. Most of the grounds are littered with the stumps, if that, of the tombstones which once filled the cemetery. The tour guide said that in the 1950s and 1960s, police or sheriff’s deputies (I don’t now remember which) used the tombstones for target practice, firing bullets at them until none remained.

I cannot imagine the feeling of knowing your mother’s or grandmother’s gravesite was desecrated, and her tombstone destroyed, by authorities using it for target practice.

People, of course, are shaped by experiences common to their community. And sometimes others of us cannot understand those experiences, because we know no comparable frame of reference.

Differences were unspoken but prominent when I first encountered Kansas City’s jazz community in the 1980s. Back then, if you stepped into the historic Mutual Musicians Foundation on a Saturday afternoon – and often, I did – you would find many of the musicians who created Kansas City jazz in the 1930s. But, while you were welcome in the landmark, you understood that you were walking into the elderly musicians’ domain. You were walking into the gathering place of supremely talented people who, throughout their career, had been personally banned from certain hotels and restaurants and public water fountains.

You knew you were walking into an institution which existed because, until the mid-1960s, Kansas City had separate unions for black musicians and white musicians. And you were walking in there less than twenty years after those unions merged.

We sensitive, liberal youth responded naively. The Kansas City Jazz Festival was staged in Volker Park because that was a universally accepted location, where most people would go, near both the Country Club Plaza and the city’s black community/white community dividing line – even more decisively so then – of Troost Ave. We consciously scheduled a balance between numbers of black and white musicians on the festival stage. We envisioned a common gathering place and a common reason to celebrate – jazz! – bringing Kansas City together. In the end, we contributed no particular good but created no harm.

In 1989, Sprint was the festival’s title sponsor and chose to produce a CD of Kansas City jazz, entirely local musicians. When a representative of the company faxed to me the list of groups their producer planned to include, I faxed back that there was a predominance of white musicians and that could cause them problems within the jazz community. As a result, Eddie Baker’s New Breed Orchestra was added.

During my festival years, I succeeded at persuading big corporations to react naively, too.

Today, I can't help but note the preponderance of white musicians playing Kansas City jazz. I shouldn’t note it, but I can’t shake instincts and sensitivities built on past experience.

Jazz is, after all, a music which grew from black experiences. In Kansas City, during years of prohibition and overt racism (Count Basie once described Kansas City as “a cracker town, but a happy town”), jazz provided a living and a route to national recognition for talented musicians in a tight community. Performers from throughout the Southwest flocked to Kansas City for the opportunities available here. In certain, less obvious and more modern ways, maybe 18th and Vine of the 1920s and 1930s was a Quindaro of its day.

When I question some of Kansas City’s young jazz musicians today on whether race is an issue for them, I might as well be asking if they’ve visited Mars. I’ve received odd looks that the question should be raised. It’s not an issue.

What a perfect response.

Yet, I know of pockets of insular attitudes within Kansas City's jazz community, mostly among some who personally experienced or whose parents personally experienced the worst of exclusion. Some people in the community have told me they’ve tired of encountering these attitudes. But I greet them with respect.

Because I cannot imagine the feeling of knowing your mother’s or grandmother’s tombstone was destroyed by authorities using it for target practice.

Monday, July 1, 2013

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Trumpet Summit at The Blue Room

The show started at 8:30. That's when I walked in, give or take a few minutes. I was about to hand over the $10 cover charge when the ticket seller warned me, “It’s standing room only.” I thought a moment then gave her my money, adding, “Good. I’m glad that room is packed.” The ticket seller laughed (then she found me an open seat on the floor. It pays to be a regular and make the ticket seller laugh).

The Blue Room remained standing room only through the second set last Saturday night. Because Kansas City still knows a great jazz show when we hear one.

Trumpet Summit is a spectacular mix of KC jazz veterans and youth. With a front line of Mike Metheny, Stan Kessler and Hermon Mehari, you start with three of the best trumpet (and flugelhorn and EVI) players anywhere. Add a rhythm section of Gerald Spaits on bass, T.J. Martley on piano and Brian Steever on drums, and you have one of the most talented jazz ensembles anywhere.

Hearing the ensemble’s take on compositions ranging from Gil Evans to Thad Jones, and from originals to the blues (with an especially wild version of The Chicken Shack), it’s easy to understand why the audience stayed.  Between magnificent solos and the masterfully arranged blending of two and three horns (which, as Stan noted, isn’t easy; you don’t want it sounding like the Tijuana Brass), this Trumpet Summit is brass at its best.

If you missed the group, you can catch them at their CD release party in September at Take Five. And you can see below a sampling of how Saturday night looked (as always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it).

Trumpet Summit. Left to right: T.J. Martley , Stan Kessler, Gerald Spaits, Brian Steever, Hermon Mehari, Mike Metheny

Stan Kessler on trumpet while Hermon Mehari listens

Mike Metheny

Hermon Mehari on trumpet while Mike listens

The rhythm section: T.J. Martley, Gerald Spaits and Brian Steever

Gerald Spaits on bass

T.J. Martley on piano

Brian Steever on drums

The front line: Stan Kessler, Hermon Mehari and Mike Metheny

Stan Kessler

Hermon watches while Mike solos on EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument)

Hermon Mehari

T.J. takes a solo

Stan and Hermon