Monday, October 7, 2013


I’m glad now I never wrote it. Now I recognize these are two different events.

Two years ago I planned to type a blog post comparing the Prairie Village Jazz Festival to the Rhythm and Ribs Festival (this year renamed Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival). But the Prairie Village event was rained out. I then planned to write it last year, until Rhythm and Ribs was hit by rain.

Yes, they’re both Kansas City area music festivals centering on jazz. But the Prairie Village event books straight ahead jazz with a Kansas City focus, charges nothing for entry, and (if it doesn’t rain) draws a crowd. The 18th and Vine event pursues national names with cross-over appeal, charges $10 to $25 for entry and (if it doesn’t rain) draws a crowd.

I understand the need to attract a base of support beyond jazz fans when charging for entry. The 500 or so people who turn out for a Jammin’ at the Gem or Folly jazz concert do not fill a festival’s grounds. When organizing the Kansas City Jazz Festival in the 1980s – which was a free event but promised sponsors crowds in the tens of thousands – we recognized we needed to reach beyond a jazz base. We understood jazz fans alone in Kansas City do not number in the tens of thousands.

George Duke was an ideal choice to headline this year’s 18th and Vine event, bringing both solid jazz credentials and wide appeal. He was proudly announced at a press conference. His name was spread largest over the festival poster. Promotion was built around the draw of George Duke.

Then George Duke died.

I’m not an organizer of this festival. But I’ve helped stage jazz events off and on since the 1980s. And never in that time have I had to deal with the death of a headliner. There’s no guidebook to tell an organizer what to do. No manual says, “If the headliner of your jazz festival dies after he or she is announced but before the day of the festival, do the following and everything will be fine.”

Everything is not fine.

Because organizers need to work within a long-established budget and quickly find a popular replacement for a specific open date. And popular musicians aren’t standing in a queue like taxis, waiting for the next hand to wave. They have long since been booked or may require an extra financial inducement to be coaxed onto your stage on short notice.

I’ve considered what I would have done. Start, of course, by searching for a suitable replacement. If one isn’t identified, I suspect I’d recommend investing much of the freed headliner money on advertising and promotion to build the image of a major event that nobody will want to miss.

Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival chose to fill the hole with a couple of groups of solid talent and credentials but limited renown. The festival was rebranded as a tribute to George Duke.

While Duke himself had the potential to draw a broad cross-section of music fans to 18th and Vine, he held no special connection to the district. The appeal of a tribute to him strikes me as limited. Yet, there is no right or wrong response. There is no handbook. You scramble for the best solution.

Then, a week ago Saturday, four people were shot, two critically, just a block from the event’s grounds.

This is a festival reaching beyond its inner-city district, looking to attract an audience from throughout the metropolitan area. But with news of the shooting fresh, some people enticed to test the area next weekend are now making other plans. And the loss of a broad-appeal headliner likely already limited the number of those people.

It’s a genuine shame. Because the fact is that since its revival several years ago, organizers of this festival have staged an extraordinarily well-produced event. Flow through the grounds is excellent. The staging, sound and lights, on all three stages throughout the area, are solidly professional. The audience is friendly. Vendors are diverse and those with whom I’ve spoken are pleased by both their treatment and sales. Details, right down to the signage, are handled with care.

It all matters. It all builds a positive image of the district. It all leaves a spirited audience with a joyful story to tell.

Even last year, when rain forced closing the main stage and vendor booths, staff insured that those of us who turned out anyway left with an enjoyable experience and few complaints.

Only parking cried out for improvement. Maybe this year that has been addressed.

Because despite the loss of George Duke, next Saturday, a collection of exceptional talent will be commanding this year’s festival stages. I’m looking forward to soul star Bettye LaVette and the Messenger Legacy Band (a tribute to Art Blakey, with saxophonist Donald Harrison and bassist Reggie Workman).

This isn’t what those of us organizing a jazz festival in Prairie Village are attempting. The Prairie Village event is more parochial. The two festivals are not competitive. They’re complementary.

But unfortunately, this year’s 18th and Vine event appears snakebitten. I wish the festival organizers the terrific weather and outstanding crowds they deserve. That’s what it’s going to take to overcome what must feel like bites from an entire pit of snakes.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog! I'm following it here in Mexico City after growing up in the Kansas City Metro Area and it reminds me of home.

    I completely agree with your point. It's terrible that the 18th & Vine area continues to suffer despite building the Kansas City jazz scene. Whenever back in town, the Blue Room and the Gem are where I go. I hope the best for the continued survival of the festival, for fond memories, the history of Kansas City, and continued support for jazz musicians both in and out of the city. It's time to show some respect for the best musical artform created in the United States. I'm proud of Kansas City for this and I don't want it to go.

    Thanks again for the posts and commentary on jazz in Kansas City!



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