Monday, April 28, 2014

Thoughts on the MMF

When I first walked into the Mutual Musicians Foundation – I think it was 1983 – many of the greats who created and developed Kansas City jazz were still there. On a Saturday afternoon, you could sit across a table from and chat with Herman Walder, or Ben Kynard, or Baby Lovett.

But you knew that 1823 Highland was their building, their former union hall. You were welcome, but you were a guest in their clubhouse.

In the latter half of the 1980s, the building was refurbished. At the time, Jane Flynn, director of the Landmarks Commission, told me that most of the joists had rotted away and the four walls were being held up by little more than the ceiling. With funds secured after the Mutual Musicians Foundation was named a National Historic Landmark, 1823 Highland was structurally stabilized.

Its management proved less stable. As the first generation of Kansas City jazz musicians passed, the Foundation evolved. Some board members passed through pursuing only the best for the historic institution. Others allegedly used the Foundation for personal gain.

And to many of us, visiting on a Saturday afternoon or taking in a late night jam session still felt like we were visiting somebody else’s clubhouse.

Somehow, the Foundation was missed when redevelopment enveloped the 18th and Vine district. Buildings were torn down and replaced with museums and offices along the north side of 18th street. The Gem Theater was rebuilt on the south side. But development dollars overlooked Vine Street – which is still a disgrace – and Highland Street.

The Mutual Musicians Foundation sat off on a side street and was pointed to from the lavish new buildings as a historic relic with a reputation for being poorly run and anyway, it’s really somebody else’s clubhouse. Surrounding homes deteriorated. Windows were boarded in the decrepit hotel next door. Visit the shiny new museum, public. But the Foundation? You don’t really want to go over there.

The stigma stuck. History dictated that the Mutual Musicians Foundation be recognized as a crucial piece of the jazz district. But it was over on a side street where it more often than not badly managed itself.


The surrounding homes today sit beautifully refurbished and occupied. The hotel next door now looks new and is full with renters. Buildings along half of Highland Street still need work. But surrounding the Mutual Musicians Foundation is a neighborhood the city can showcase as proudly as the shiny museums.

New management is running the Foundation like a business. Through a federal grant, downstairs walls were reworked to tell the Foundation’s story. I don't like what they have done with the walls and feel it was unnecessary. But a business decision was made by the board, money was identified, and it was done.

This is a business now, not somebody’s clubhouse, and I respect that.

Management has brought in Brand USA, a public-private partnership promoting international travel to the US, to help market the Foundation. In June, the Foundation sponsors a meeting of jazz writers and bloggers, including highly respected author Stanley Dance, to tour the district, see the remaining historic structures and experience the Foundation, then go write about it.

And awhile back I noted the Foundation’s pursuit of a low power radio station license. More news on that is promised soon.

There's a pugnaciousness to the Foundation’s moves. This disrespected and badly managed historic building on a side street is determined to make its mark on the jazz world. This is noise beyond all night jams. The Mutual Musicians Foundation is set on making noise the jazz world will not ignore.

But there is still a division in the Kansas City jazz community over the Foundation. It cannot shake skepticism built from decades of dubious actions.  An ill-defined set of musicians tried to organize a boycott of the Foundation last February for reasons never publicly explained. As far as I can tell, they were mostly ignored. A new organization, KC Jazz Alive, purportedly wants to bring together the Kansas City jazz community. Yet, officers of the Foundation tell me they haven't been asked to join.

Kansas City jazz is not a community that can thrive through division. It cannot survive apparently overlooked invites. It cannot survive its most historic member feeling it must doggedly make noise all alone. It cannot survive hurt feelings and silly boycotts.

I chaired The Kansas City Jazz Commission in the latter half of the 1980s, before the museums, when a multitude of jazz organizations set their own paths because nobody believed anyone else was doing it right.

Kansas City today can boast more jazz clubs than it has seen in a decade, thriving festivals (albeit festivals that are too small) at 18th and Vine and in Prairie Village, and young talent dominating the scene that just might be the best we've heard since Basie and Prez.

It’s time we get along with each other, all of us, no matter our past.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Where Did the Audience Go?

Last year, The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra (KCJO) rode a peak.

An orchestra which struggled to draw an audience of 600 fans for its fall concert at its previous home, attracted more than 1000 to their September premiere in the Kauffman Center. The Christmas concert filled 1200 seats, maybe a KCJO record. Season ticket sales approached historic highs. A first-ever gala reportedly raised $120,000.

But this season opened, I am told, with less than 260 season ticket renewals, an inauspicious base for filling 1600 seat Helzberg Hall. For the fall opener, fewer than a third of those seats were filled. The Christmas show filled less than half the hall, KCJO’s first Christmas concert in at least four years to fail to reach at least 1000 fans.

Where did the audience go?

A few years ago, when founders Jim and Mary Mair stepped aside, I managed KCJO for a few months, and I’ve maintained contacts since. So my interest is more than cursory.

Start with where the problem decidedly is not: The orchestra’s artistic quality. Losing artistic director Kerry Strayer, who succumbed to cancer last year, was a blow to KCJO and to the Kansas City jazz community. But Clint Ashlock stepped in to lead this outstanding collection jazz musicians to continued performance highs.

Next, identify the most obvious issue for one of the concerts: The Christmas show was performed not on its traditional weekend night but on a Tuesday early in December. Apparently, if you want to perform in the Kauffman Center in December and your organization’s name isn’t Kansas City Symphony or Lyric Opera, you’re relegated to trying to promote a night of the week when few people go out. That’s especially tough when the Christmas concert is traditionally your biggest show.

Other reasons require more guessing. But I’d look to guest artists.

When I managed KCJO, members of the board of directors as a whole were rightly excited about the quality of the orchestra. But some were dubious of the importance of guest artists. One contingent felt guests were allotted entirely too much time during some shows and that the audience would be better served by more attention to the orchestra. This contingent was mostly older and saw KCJO as the modern day equivalent of the Count Basie Orchestra, or the Duke Ellington Orchestra, or the orchestras of Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey, or any of the others they courted to in their youth. And those orchestras didn’t tour with an outsider dominating the show.

That argument assumes KCJO has built an audience that will follow it no matter who guests. It has, but the following is minimal. In its previous home at Unity on the Plaza, for many, KCJO was the highlight of an evening which included free covered parking and a stroll to a nearby restaurant. Previous attempts to move the orchestra downtown cost it a significant number of subscribers. Downtown is still a different experience.

Last season’s guest artists included Karrin Allyson and Kevin Mahogany. These jazz stars, who built their careers in Kansas City, remain exceptionally popular in their former hometown. This season’s guests – Deborah Brown, Kelley Hunt and Wycliffe Gordon – have maintained an extraordinary artistic level. But they don’t bring the commercial draw of Karrin or Kevin.

Despite how some board member prefer to view KCJO, this orchestra cannot fill Helzberg Hall like the symphony playing Mahler. This orchestra’s appeal is closer to a symphony pops concert. The guest star matters.

I’ll argue that the local popularity of Karrin and Kevin skewed last season’s ticket sales. More season ticket holders wanted to hear them in Helzberg Hall. This year, The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra is reeling from the lack of a similar commercial draw.

I’ll also argue price matters. In moving to the Kauffman Center last year, KCJO’s board raised ticket prices and ended the $25 seat. I wonder if they first looked at the preponderance of $25 seats among season ticket holders. Add $7 to use the Kauffman Center’s garage, and what was a night of convenient parking and jazz for as little as $25 nearly doubled to at least $47. For their last show, KCJO reinstated the $25 ticket, though it wasn’t well promoted.

Promotion is where KCJO can also improve. A few ads in The Star and post cards to tell people who bought tickets before that they can buy a ticket again is insufficient. Direct mail isn’t cheap, but business studies will tell you that well executed and well targeted direct mail is among the more effective ways to build an audience. The few months I managed KCJO’s office, I carried on the Mair’s efforts to trade for mailing lists and possibly purchase new ones. It’s tough for a board to approve the cost of a mailing where, by industry standards, a two to three percent response rate is considered good. And, through business contacts, during my time there I arranged for printing and mailhouse services to be donated, which made a big difference in cost.

But as tough as the marketing expense is to swallow, isn’t it tougher to swallow a season ticket base below 260?

Some will argue a jazz orchestra in 2014 is an anachronism and why should it surprise anybody they play to more seats empty than filled.

Baloney. Thousands of people loved hearing Bobby Watson’s big band with Jon Faddis at last year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival. Kansas City will turn out for an outstanding big band.

When I managed KCJO, it was hindered by a mostly older board of directors who wanted to program and market to their demographic. That may still be part of the problem. Program and market an orchestra as magnificent as The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra to a broader audience, and they will come.

Monday, April 14, 2014

In Celebration of Dionne

It was the happiest room in town, and it was the saddest room in town.

This was a tribute to Dionne Jeroue, the young singer who passed a week and a half earlier, and who was adored by everyone in Kansas City jazz who knew her. This was a celebration of Dionne’s life. Musicians and friends swung at their best. Heads swayed, arms thrust forward in time, bodies twisted to and fro in their seats, people rose and danced.

And tears streamed.

The Green Lady Lounge opened early Monday, April 7th, following a memorial service for Dionne, for family, friends and musicians to gather. The Kansas City jazz community draws close when it looses one of its own. Partly, it’s to share grief with friends. But largely, it’s knowing that the person lost is not just honored, but is somewhere smiling broadly at being remembered through a magnificent jam.

Below are photos of just a few of the musicians who celebrated Dionne Jeroue at The Green Lady Lounge. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

Ian Corbett, Lori Tucker and Matt Hopper

Everette DeVan on Hammond B3 and, just beyond, flowers in tribute to Dionne

Ian Corbett and Eboni Fondren

Left to right in The Green Lady Lounge: Chris Hazelton on Hammond B3, Ian Corbett on alto sax, Eboni Fondren, vocals, Danny Rojas on drums, Matt Hopper on guitar, Kent Means on vibes

Trumpets riff along the wall

Matt Hopper and Stephanie Moore

Stephanie Moore

Chris Hazelton

Chris Hazelton and Molly Hammer

Eboni Fondren

Shay Estes

Leaving condolences

Left to right, jamming in The Green Lady Lounge: Everette DeVan on Hammond B3, Steve Lambert on tenor sax, Phillip Wakefield on drums, Lori Tucker, vocals, Matt Hopper on guitar, Kent Means on vibes

Monday, April 7, 2014

Ran Out of Weekend

When you sit in your chair in front of your laptop computer in the evening to write a blog post, and the next thing you know you’re waking up in that chair at 4 a.m., neck sore from I-don’t-know-how-many-hours of a drooping head, it’s time to proclaim mea culpa, I’ve run out of weekend, and there will be no new blog post this week.