Monday, October 28, 2013

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Bettye LaVette at the 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival

The weather was ideal. An email last week thanked the 5000-plus fans who were there, so attendance was apparently down from a couple years back. But considering all the snakebites Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival endured leading up to this year’s event, the day proved to be a wonderful celebration, a fun and successful foundation on which to build.

Sure, I heard quibbles. Considering a majority of the acts on the main stage to be jazz or blues may require a forgiving definition of the genres. But my own big quibble was in scheduling the best act of the day at 3 p.m., when just a couple hundred fans stretched out on the lawn before the main stage.

Bettye LaVette channels the lessons of a half century in entertainment. On Saturday, October 12th, she sang and danced like a teenager with everything to sell. Call her music blues, call it soul, I don’t care. I heard a magic, sensuous voice that entranced the audience. I saw a stage scorched with the energy of sixty-something sex appeal (and how she moved like that in those heels is beyond my understanding).

I can’t recreate Bettye LaVette’s performance in a blog. I can only describe it with inadequate words. And I can share some photos. The shots below merely hint at the heat that burned from the festival stage. Some are of Bettye LaVette by herself, some are with her band, some with her drummer, some with her guitarist and bassist, and one with her pianist/conductor. Clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

Next week, I’ll share photos of a couple of the festival’s other main stage acts.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Week Off

In my fourth anniversary post, I wrote that I expected to start taking more weeks off from this blog. And I haven’t taken a week off since. Until now. A busy weekend precluded editing photos taken last week at Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival. But next week, look for the first of two posts full of festival shots.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Goat

“The tourist is backpacking through the highlands of Scotland, and he stops in a pub to get a drink. The only people in there are a bartender and an old man nursing a beer. He orders a pint and they sit in silence for awhile.

“Suddenly, the old man turns to him and says, ‘Y’See this bar? I built this bar with my bare hands. I found the finest wood in the county, gave it more love and care than my own child. But do they call me MacGregor the bar builder? No, no….’

“He points out the window. ‘Y’See that stone wall out there? I built that stone wall with my bare hands. I found every stone, placed them just so for the rain and the cold. But do they call me MacGregor the stone wall builder? No, no….’

“He points out the other window. ‘Y’See the pier on the lake out there? I built that pier with my bare hands. I drove the pilings against the tide and the sand, plank by plank. But do they call me MacGregor the pier builder? No, no…

“‘But you [bleep] one goat….’”

– Transcribed from a TED Talk by Andrew Stanton, available at


“To attract people, the leaders of a jazz effort in the Armory must face the issue of the safety reputation of the 18th and Vine area. Half of the white population and nearly three-quarters of the black, are nervous about the assumed dangers of the neighborhood; our researchers noted that white patrons interviewed at Gates’ and Bryant’s, who had come into the neighborhood mid-day, were nervous about coming back at night....”

— From a study on reuses of the Armory Building at 18th and Highland (more popularly known as the Boone Theater), conducted for the Black Economic Union in 1979.


Today, just up Highland Street from the Armory building, sit beautiful houses. They line the road across from the Mutual Musicians Foundation, the last of the homes that were once integral to the 18th and Vine District. They have been refurbished for rent, as has the Rochester Hotel next door to the Foundation.

For too long, decrepit surroundings reinforced too many visitors’ fears of this inner city district. Appearances supported perceptions dating back decades. I would tell my suburban Johnson County neighbors I was headed down to the district to enjoy a show at The Blue Room, or at The Gem, or the late night jam at the Foundation. They openly wondered if I would be safe. And if I coaxed a suburban friend to join me, they would nervously survey the surroundings before stepping into the Foundation. Only then would the magic take over.

But not anymore. Now, these lovely homes and rentals are the surroundings a National Historic Landmark deserves.

Meanwhile, along 18th Street, everything has changed on the north side of the block since that 1979 report. Museums and modern offices and apartments have replaced old buildings and ruins that even locals described as the ghetto. Crowds fill The Blue Room, at the corner of 18th and Vine, nearly every weekend night. I estimate over 7000 people packed the grounds behind the museums for the Rhythm and Ribs festival two years ago.

Fans filling the Foundation for an overnight jam tell their friends about the welcome feel of the neighborhood. People visiting The Blue Room one evening, or a concert at The Gem, or the festival, tell coworkers and family about a wonderful night and how glad they are that they went.

That’s how it’s done. That’s how, over time, to change perceptions ingrained for decades. Perceptions can evolve, slowly, through good experiences and good news.


From on Saturday, September 28, 2013:

“Four people are in the hospital after an early morning shooting.

“The shooting took place about 4:20 a.m. at 19th Street and Highland Avenue outside of the Mutual Musicians Foundation....

“Four people were shot and all were injured. Police said at least two of the four people suffered serious injuries.”

From The Kansas City Star on October 9:

“[A] victim told police that he was standing outside when a fight broke out. He said someone walked up, stuck a gun in his back and demanded ‘his stuff.’ When he said no, the gunman shot him in the chest and leg, the victim said.”

From The Kansas City Star on October 1:

“Besides wounding four people, two of them critically, the gunfire has city and jazz district officials rattled....

“Rickie Ward...lives across from the foundation in one of those restored houses, the one struck by the stray bullet....

“‘I’ve lived in the Jazz District 15 years,’ he said, ‘but I don’t know if I want to stay here anymore.’”


“Were you down there?” a neighbor asked. “Are you okay?”

I wasn’t there.

“I knew it wasn’t safe. You’re not going back, are you?”


Original perceptions are vividly reinforced.

People only know the goat.

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.