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.