Monday, August 26, 2013

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Vine Street Rumble at The Blue Room

With every seat filled, people pressed against the walls, more streaming in (“We have a group of 17,” one host alerted another), The Blue Room exploded to the big band sounds of Jumpin’ at the Woodside, the way it was heard in this neighborhood 75 years ago.

Kansas City’s Vine Street Rumble is a new big band dedicated to recreating for Kansas City in 2013 the music which defined Kansas City in the 1930s, just as it was originally performed.

Much of the book is built on transcriptions of classic Count Basie, Bennie Moten, and Mary Lou Williams-arranged Andy Kirk sides for which, often, no written arrangements exist. Here is the chance to hear the way Bennie Moten’s band wickedly swung Toby, not through your iPhone headphones (yes, the Moten side in on my iPhone) but live, with the big band blowing just a few feet away.

Yet, I found the band’s third set its most fun. That’s when the group deviated most from transcriptions to more extended improvisation. Three minutes was a recording limitation of the original music’s era. I wasn’t there, but I have a tough time believing that live performances were played in three-plus minute chunks. I’ll bet Hot Lips Page and Lester Young and Herschel Evans took solos extending several choruses when Basie played the Reno Club. Vine Street Rumble sounded its best when Barry Springer and Brad Gregory and Al Pearson and Steve Lambert and Jay Sollenberger – to name but a few of the band’s outstanding musicians – had a chance to do the same.

Singer Talya Groves’s vocals brought a terrific freshness to these sides. She’s young. Her voice may not yet convey the depth of experience of Jimmy Rushing or Big Joe Turner at their legendary best. But her presence as she swung the band’s blues added interest and excitement to transcriptions of music I’ve heard through headphones dozens of times.

This band has performed publicly just a few times so far. And I’d recommend them to anyone wanting to hear the music that put Kansas City on the world’s map. But as the band grows, I hope they recognize more opportunities to let authenticity meet the talent of 2013. I’ll bet then we’ll really experience what it was like to hear the Bennie Moten Orchestra swing Kansas City in 1933.

But that hope detracts nothing from a wonderful night of music in The Blue Room. If you weren’t there last Friday, below you can at least see how it looked (as always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it).

Vine Street Rumble in The Blue Room

Bandleader Kent Rausch coveys snippets of history and significance between songs.

On some numbers, trumpeter Barry Springer filled the shoes of Buck Clayton, on others Hot Lips Page. He fit them all perfectly.

Talya Groves singing blues Jimmy Rushing made famous.

Jurgen Welge brought his own refreshing voice to the drums.

Jay Sollenberger, left, and Al Pearson trade trumpet solos.

Brad Gregory channels Herschel Evans on Blue and Sentimental.

As bassist Walter Page anchored the Count Basie Orchestra, bassist Zach Beeson anchors Vine Street Rumble.

Expert trombonist Jason Goudeau

Hearing Mike Herrera solo is always a delight.

On some songs he was Count Basie and on others, Mary Lou Williams, or Pete Johnson or Jay McShann: versatile pianist Walter Bryant.

Talya Groves singing Big Joe Turner’s Cherry Red. I saw Big Joe Turner sing Cherry Red. He didn't look like this.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Eighty Four Years and Two and a Half Blocks Later

In 1929, Cab Calloway’s band was swinging the El Torreon. A “crystal ball” reportedly made of 100,000 mirrors lit the ballroom where 2000 dancers would pack the dance floor.

Calloway’s music proved so popular that El Torreon’s rival, the Pla-Mor Ballroom, brought in Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy from Oklahoma to compete.

Last Saturday night, eighty four years after Cab Calloway swung El Torreon, and a block east and a block and a half north of the still-standing building:

The Allie Burik Quintet
Jazz filled the street. I parked a half block away. I hadn’t been here before. But I arrived after the show started, and I only needed to follow the sound of trumpet and sax to find the front door.

Clint Ashlock. Behind him, Karl McComas-Reichl
This is M Productions, the office of jazz chanteuse Megan Birdsall. Here, outside, lights wind through a performance space sporting speakers and a stage up front. Brick walls lining three sides focus the music towards the audience, while a beautiful open sky prevents any of the sound from overwhelming.

Allie Burik
This night opens with the Allie Burik Quintet. Allie is the emerging, young – very young, as in starting college in a few weeks young – saxophonist, vocalist and composer, this night backed (and mentored) by Clint Ashlock on trumpet, Andrew Oullette on keyboards, Karl McComas-Reichl on bass and Matt Leifer on drums.

Michael Schults
Changing out Allie for alto saxophonist Michael Schults turned the band into Forward, Clint’s and Michael’s originals-playing combo.

New Jazz Order Big Band
Next, adding another dozen musicians to the group filled the bandstand – and some seats surrounding the bandstand – with Clint’s New Jazz Order Big Band, a Tuesday night regular at Harling’s and one of the premiere big bands in a city which today is full of big bands.

Clint also conducts The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. Lead trombonist Jeff Hamer sits in both bands. Add Todd Wilkinson, Mike Herrera, the rhythm section and saxophonists who played earlier, just to name a few. New Jazz Order Big Band is a showcase of outstanding musicians.

Megan Birdsall, singing, with Clint Ashlock, trumpet, Andrew Oullette, keyboards, Karl McComas-Reichl, bass, and Matt Leifer, drums (and a big M).
Over its ballroom life, El Torreon hosted Bennie Moten’s legendary orchestra and Andy Kirk’s. Today, El Torreon mostly sits empty. But last Saturday night, a nearby neighborhood swung for the better part of two hours to the big band music of Basie and Ellington and Thad Jones.

New Jazz Order Big Band at the M Productions outdoor performance space.
M Productions’s space isn’t going to accommodate 2000 dancers. But on a summer night when a band wants to perform there, they’ll charge a cover to pay the musicians and fill with jazz an acoustically delightful outdoor performance area. The surrounding neighborhood will resonate with music, too, eight and a half decades and two and a half blocks from the ballroom that Cab Calloway and Bennie Moten once swung.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Four Years of kcjazzlark

I sat in one of the big, plush chairs up front, the one that seems to swallow you up, because all other seats were filled. I’d heard a variation of this group here last year. Andy’s rugged yet sinuous tenor sax bounced off of and wove through Hermon’s always inventive trumpet. That’s when I decided this is the group I wanted to open this year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival.

This night, Peter Schlamb’s vibraphone brought a new voice to the group. Karl McComas-Reichl’s bass and Ryan Lee’s drums grounded them when not speaking through their own solos. The Andy McGhie Ensemble’s mix of originals and bebop was a smidge rougher this night than a year ago. And the lineup will vary slightly in the festival. But they reinforced my confidence that this is the right choice to open a Kansas City area jazz festival.

Four years ago, I’d patronized a coffee shop perhaps twice. My sister had dragged me into the Starbucks on The Plaza a couple times when visiting town. No live jazz could be found in Leawood (live jazz in Leawood, Kansas? Come on, really?). Kansas City area jazz fans were learning the names of Hermon Mehari and Ryan Lee through their group Diverse. But neither Peter Schlamb nor Karl McComas-Reichl lived here yet. There was no jazz festival in Prairie Village (a jazz festival in Prairie Village, Kansas? Come on, really?). In fact, Kansas City’s most prominent jazz festival took the year off and, for all any of us knew, might never return.

Four years ago, Kansas City boasted a prominent club just north of The Plaza, though its survival felt precarious. The Blue Room, back then, promoted itself atrociously, and attendance too often reflected that. But The Phoenix hadn’t yet migrated to mostly blues music, so you could find jazz there. And The Majestic was ready to re-establish itself after six closed months.

A well-read writer was gaining attention for proclaiming the audience for jazz was dead. Some things haven’t changed.

And four years ago last week I published the first kcjazzlark blog post.

I was taken by the abundance of young jazz talent starting to dominate the Kansas City scene. I felt compelled to shout about it, and the future I saw for jazz in this city.

I’m not prescient. I was just excited by what I was hearing and wanted to write about it and throw it out on the web.

There was a recession. I was unemployed. There were thousands of blogs out there by unemployed people. One of the late night comics, in his monologue, noted government figures showing an additional half million people out of work, adding, “Which means today there are 500,000 new blogs.” I didn’t think anybody was actually going to read this one.

But here we are.

Four years later, Take Five Coffee + Bar has built itself into one of this area’s premiere jazz locations, with pristine acoustics and diverse jazz bookings. I’ve booked the fourth annual Prairie Village Jazz Festival headlining Bobby Watson, Jon Faddis and Marilyn Maye. So, yes, there is live jazz in Leawood, Kansas and a jazz festival in Prairie Village, Kansas. Really.

The fourth downsized but successfully resurrected jazz festival in the 18th and Vine district will be staged in October.

That precarious jazz club just north of The Plaza is long gone. But Take Five, the Green Lady Lounge and Kill Devil Cub have filled the void. And word is a new jazz club on Broadway is coming soon. Meanwhile, Chris Burnett has filled the marketing void at The Blue Room, joining a team that now consistently fills a club recognized by DownBeat as one of the nation’s best. And The Majestic is fully re-established as the area’s sole location showcasing jazz seven nights a week.

Those young jazz musicians continue to dominate the scene, and are continually joined by new talent. Four years ago I learned the names of Hermon Mehari, Ryan Lee, Ben Leifer, Mark Lowrey, Steve Lambert, Shay Estes, Megan Birdsall, Jeff Harshbarger, Brian Steever, to name but a few. Today, add Eddie Moore, Josh Williams, Chris Hazelton, Dionne Jereau, an emerging Allie Burik. I’m just scraping the surface. And don’t overlook the greats who have long been holding down the KC jazz fort, such as Stan Kessler, Bob Bowman, Gerald Spaits, Roger Wilder, Danny Embrey.

I could fill the rest of this post a list of names. But I’ll resist that urge.

This is why I’m still writing and photographing and posting most Mondays. No, jazz does not draw as many patrons as rock concerts. We celebrate a musical niche. But in Kansas City, we celebrate this niche through more locations and with more amazing talent than when I first shouted about it four years ago.

This past year, I’ve taken more weeks off from this blog. That has prevented burn-out, and will continue in the coming year.

But I’ve read that once something is put out on the internet, it’s there forever. I’m counting on that. I’m counting on people forever discovering the magnificent musical niche a devoted group of extraordinarily talented musicians and club owners keep alive in Kansas City.

After all, I’m just a jazz fan in the right place at the right time who occasionally shouts.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Kerry Strayer

From the moment Kerry suggested it, I thought the idea was brilliant.


Kerry Strayer was the obvious choice.  He had led his own successful big band for years. He was so personable; I didn’t know anyone who didn’t like him. He was a master of the baritone sax. He didn't just enjoy writing arrangements for big bands, he was terrific at it. And he had been a member of the orchestra since its start.

So when the founders of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra decided it was time to move on to new challenges, Kerry was selected as the new Musical Director and Conductor.

I was not an obvious choice. Sure, I’d helped organize jazz festivals years ago, and I loved the music and wrote this blog, but I had most recently worked in advertising. However, I was available, a mutual friend the Board of Directors trusted recommended me, and at the time they couldn’t find anyone better. So I was hired as the new manager of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra.

As far as I was concerned, this was Kerry's orchestra. The musicians knew him and trusted him. His programs, the arrangements he wrote or commissioned and the guest artists he selected would establish the orchestra’s presence on stage. I was just there to make sure the lighting and sound guys knew the concert dates, negotiate ad rates and pay the bills.

As far as Kerry was concerned, he and I were a team.

He wanted my input on guest artists, and to know my thoughts on his ideas. And when some members of the Board of Directors decided a performance of Bobby Watson’s Gates Barbecue Suite would be too modern for this orchestra (some Board members apparently felt music peaked around 1938), Kerry and I jointly developed the arguments to convince them otherwise.

This was Kerry’s orchestra. I was on his team.


I also wrote grant requests for the orchestra. After attending a seminar, I decided we should shoot for the top. We should pursue a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

I would write a grant request to underwrite the first performance of the Gates Barbecue Suite by a professional orchestra.

Then I discovered all of the steps involved, all of the online forms required, and all of the government departments which need to recognize and approve of your organization before you actually have the chance to request a grant from the NEA.

I got The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra recognized and approved by all of them. But I completed that process two days before the grant application was due. It was too late to properly prepare the request.

The National Endowment for the Arts accepts grant applications twice a year. We would just need to pursue the next opportunity. The request, though, needed to cover a performance occurring during a defined time period. The Gates Barbecue Suite show would be over by then. What else could The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra perform that might be worthy of a National Endowment for the Arts grant?

I phoned Kerry. He had an idea.

All of the sheet music of legendary trumpeter, composer and arranger Buck Clayton reside in the Marr Sound Archives, on the UMKC campus. However, Clayton’s compositions were written for (if I now recall correctly) nine and ten piece bands. Jazz is rarely performed by that size of group today. So most of the music hasn’t been heard, except on recordings, for decades.

Kerry wanted to write arrangements, with the help of others, of Buck Clayton’s music to fit a modern big band. He knew of music publishers he could contact to make these new arrangements available to the public. Then, Buck Clayton’s magnificent music could be performed by high schools and colleges and by other big bands everywhere. The music could be enjoyed by new generations. And a performance of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra during the next season would be dedicated to the newly arranged music.

The idea was brilliant.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra had recently performed a show of newly arranged Duke Ellington music, partly underwritten by the NEA. I told Kerry I could see how to write a grant application for this project which stood a good chance of grabbing the NEA’s attention.

Kerry and I would flesh out the process and present it to the Board of Directors at the next month’s meeting.

A few weeks later, I accepted a position back in my old field of advertising. Managing The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra was a part time position with no benefits. The new job offer was full time with benefits. I needed the money.

I don’t know what discussions occurred over Kerry’s idea after I left. I only know the orchestra never applied for an NEA grant, and new arrangements were not written for Buck Clayton’s music.

But someday, if somebody again chooses to tackle that project, you should know: Kerry Strayer thought of it first.


Kerry Strayer, a friend to everyone in the Kansas City jazz community, passed away on Thursday, August 1st, two years after being diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer. Kerry was 56 years old.