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.

1 comment:

  1. One of the longest-running big-bands in town will be swinging at Johnny Cascone's on July 29th. They're firmly in the "older standards" genre, but that doesn't stop their fans. If you want to hear Kicks Band, make a reservation; the place will be full.


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