Monday, May 19, 2014


I hated it.

Back in the 1980s, I was part of a group of volunteers who staged an annual jazz festival each summer in Volker Park, between the south lawn of the Nelson Museum and the Midwest Research Institute. With artists like Wynton Marsalis and Stan Getz, we claimed 100,000 patrons over the two day event, and in good years probably actually drew around 35,000.

In Septembers, another group staged a street festival in the 18th and Vine district. In the days before museums, stages were erected in grassy lots at 18th and The Paseo and at 18th and Woodland, and sometimes one on Vine towards 19th Street. 18th Street was closed for the weekend between The Paseo and Woodland. Craft booths lined 18th Street while jazz and blues, and on Sunday some gospel, filled the stages.

In time, within the jazz community, the festivals grew nicknames. The Volker Park event was the white jazz festival, while 18th and Vine hosted the black jazz festival.

I hated that.

That was thirty years ago.

Two weeks ago, I was speaking with a musician on the possibility of performing in this year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival. The musician was Black. Another musician of equal stature, who was White, might precede this act. I wondered whether some might view the two as the White headliner and the Black headliner. The musician I was speaking with was incredulous and asked, “Do people still think that way?”

Kansas City’s jazz community has evolved beyond sensitivities ingrained in me, beyond cautions that attitudes of past decades taught me to mind.

Jazz ensembles in Kansas City today are built on talent and friendships with blind indifference towards race. Some were built similarly thirty years ago, but others kept an eye towards the subtleties of a not always integrated marketplace.

Decades ago, some clubs booked jazz expecting more support than really existed. They booked the music not because they cared for jazz but because they expected it to draw crowds of people who would buy food and drinks.

There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, in the 1930s, didn’t Kansas City clubs book one jazz band over another in order to differentiate themselves from the juke joint next door?

Today, we understand that jazz is a niche music. But it’s a niche with a sufficient fan base to still support several clubs. The difference today is that in Kansas City, we can boast of jazz club owners and managers who are in this business in large part because they genuinely love jazz.

Talk to any of them – John Scott at Green Lady Lounge, Neil or Pat at Broadway Jazz Club, Lori or Doug at Take Five, Gerald Dunn at The Blue Room – and you’re talking to one of this city’s greatest jazz enthusiasts.

But you’re also talking to a jazz fan with a business to run, with a need to draw customers. That means offering music those customers want to hear, which translates into accessible jazz. In 2014, more esoteric styles of the music appear to have lost a home, except perhaps for The Record Bar on a couple of Sundays each month.

Musicians who are playing in Kansas City jazz clubs in 2014 are determined by the audience a jazz-loving club manager expects an ensemble’s music to attract. You can argue that’s always been the case. But unlike this city in the 1930s, or pockets of the area even thirty years ago, today only the music matters.

Yet, some corners of the jazz community don’t share this view.

Jazz was born in the Black community. Many in the Black community rightfully claim the music as a key part of their cultural heritage. That claim demands the respect of all of the rest of us who also want a piece of the music.

But I hear some claims that amount to a right to divisiveness based on that heritage, an argument that the music is ours, not theirs. And the claim is often followed by a perception of prejudice, of jobs not going to the music’s heirs.

Kansas City jazz was born in a racially divided past. It grew in part because extraordinarily talented musicians were forced to live and work within perimeters imposed by others.

Jazz cannot deny its past. The Mutual Musicians Foundation, Vine Street, the museums and history of 18th Street, always need to remind us of the unique claim jazz lays on Kansas City. That past, and all its flaws, are integral to what is Kansas City.

But jazz can only survive by looking forward. It can only live with the help of jazz-loving clubs offering the music that people who enjoy jazz in 2014 want to hear.

Regardless of color.

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Comments are welcome. If you prefer, you can reach me directly at kcjazzlark(at)gmail(dot)com.