Monday, June 30, 2014

Festival Season 2014

At the Monterey Jazz Festival on September 21st through 24th, in its 57th year, you can hear Herbie Hancock, Robert Glasper, Marcus Miller, Christian McBride and Michael Feinstein. What a lineup. And this appears to be the only festival that Hancock is playing this year.

Don’t feel too jealous, Kansas City. The least expensive tickets that will get you into every show there start at $415.00. Plus another hundred bucks for a three day parking pass.

I’ve griped that Kansas City today is mired in minor jazz festivals. And we are. But when you consider Kansas City’s total scene – the series at The Folly and The Gem, special shows at The Blue Room – over the course of a year we have the opportunity to hear mostly comparable talent. And we're not paying $515 including parking to hear them.

Last year, the Kansas City 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival (still winner of the country’s longest name for a jazz festival) charged a measly $10 for an advance ticket and $25 at the gate. The Prairie Village Jazz Festival was free.

We’re in the midst of jazz festival season and, at a time area festivals have yet to announce their lineups, we can see who other festivals are booking in 2014.

Fewer are headlining names you’d be reaching to call jazz.

The Capital Jazz Fest (held June 6 - 8, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.) bills itself as the jazz festival with soul. It headlined Chaka Khan, Erykah Badu, John Legend, Peabo Bryson and The O’Jays. It also sneaked in Diane Reeves and Stanley Clarke, so there was a little legitimate jazz. But there’s no reason to think they’re going to change. An advance ticket for the entire festival cost $200, and two of the three days sold out.

Meanwhile, the Hampton Jazz Festival, in its 46th year in Hampton, Virginia (June 27 - 29; $220 for 3 days) headlines Chaka Khan, Toni Braxton and The O’Jays (who’d have guessed Chaka Khan and the O’Jays would be such popular jazz acts this year), plus Spyro Gyra and Midy Abair to sort of justify the word jazz in the festival name.

And while we’re talking jazz festivals with non-jazz headliners, we might as well mention the mother of all music festivals, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (April 25 - May 4). With headliners like Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Christina Aguilera, Phish and Santana, this event has clearly outgrown its jazz roots. But with a schedule that also included Chick Corea, Pharoah Sanders, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Branford Marsalis, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Trombone Shorty, neither has it forgotten its roots. Tickets were $110 in advance or $140 at the gate. VIP Passes with Gold Circle Seating at each stage, at $900, sold out.

However, these exceptions aside, most jazz festivals this year are featuring genuine jazz acts.

The most overwhelming list of names last year was at the Detroit Jazz Festival. This year’s event, their 34th year, covers several city blocks in downtown Detroit on August 29 - September 1, and is free. Among the headliners: Joshua Redman, Phil Woods, Cyrus Chestnut, Regina Carter, Ramsey Lewis with John Pizzarelli, Dianne Schurr, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Pharoah Sanders, Nicholas Payton, Ron Carter, Stanley Clarke, Lou Donaldson, Randy Weston and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. However, Chrysler has ended its $200,000 annual sponsorship of the festival (article here), which is likely to make a profound difference next year.

The same weekend, the free Chicago Jazz Festival this year features Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tootie Heath, Terrence Blanchard with Ravi Coltrane, Gary Burton, Dave Holland with Kevin Eubanks and the Sun Ra Arkestra.

The Newport Jazz Festival celebrates its 60th anniversary on August 1 - 3 in Newport, Rhode Island with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dave Holland, Gary Burton, Robert Glasper, Vijay Iyer, Dr. John, Ron Carter, Lee Konitz Quartet with Grace Kelly, Dick Hyman, Ravi Coltrane, Kurt Rosenwinkel, the Mingus Big Band, Trombone Shorty, David Sanborn and the Brubeck Brothers. A 3 day pass starts at $155 (plus $39 for parking).

The Playboy Jazz Festival at Los Angeles’s Hollywood Bowl (June 14 and 15) featured Kenny Barron with Ravi Coltrane, Diane Reeves, Dr. Lonnie Smith, a George Duke Tribute with Al Jarreau and Stanley Clarke, George Benson with Earl Klugh, Jon Batiste and James Cotton. Tickets started at an amazingly reasonable $39 per day.

In Indianapolis, Indiana, the Indy Jazz Fest (September 11 -20) puts acts in various venues with a separate charge for each show, ranging from free to $57. Announced acts include Alan Toussaint, Ramsey Lewis, Diane Schurr, Eddie Palmieri and Ravi Coltrane.

Some of these festivals showcase enviable lineups. But many are at decidedly unenviable prices. And while Detroit’s free festival looks awesome, I can assure you, as a festival organizer, a $200,000 sponsorship is a unique situation that will buy you awesome.

I have no idea who will headline this year’s 18th and Vine event. I can tell you that I am genuinely excited about this year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival lineup (I’m booking it), which we hope to announce in July. However, it does not include any of the names mentioned above.

Sorry, jazz fans. Chaka Khan will not be playing Prairie Village, Kansas this year.

Monday, June 23, 2014

This 'n that 'n History Inside Out

Here’s what I didn’t expect. Because I’ve driven through most of these neighborhoods, I’ve explored them any number of times, trying to understand the context of Kansas City’s jazz history. But I’ve always approached them from my home in the suburbs. I’ve entered them from the south. Approaching these neighborhoods from the north, from the center of the district on out, they way they developed and the way they disappeared, brings a different perspective and broader understanding.

I didn’t expect that.

Last week, the Mutual Musicians Foundation introduced, explained, demonstrated and provided rich context for Kansas City’s extraordinary jazz history to a group of writers and bloggers from around the country. Famous authors and writers for publications as prominent as The Wall Street Journal saw our history and heard, in The Blue Room and at the Foundation’s late night jam, some of the young musicians carrying it forward.

Authors Stanley Crouch and Chuck Haddix discussed their books on Charlie Parker on Thursday night at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center. Next time, someone really needs to test the microphones first. But the intimacy of the conversation forced the audience to concentrate on words being said. Crouch’s responses consistently returned to understanding the music. He elegantly described how in jazz the musicians on stage hear each other and respond, and how that sets a live performance apart from any studio recording. Within that context, we understood the intelligence that elevated Charlie Parker’s music to another level. Haddix concentrated on the history, such as the multiple Kansas City homes Bird lived in, facts unrecognized until researched for his book. Both discussed the influence on Parker of growing up in Kansas City at a time when he could stand in the alley behind the Reno Club and hear Lester Young and Buster Smith blow the magnificent evolution of a music that grew from the streets.

But the true highlight of the conference was a bus tour.

Limited funds changed the transportation from an intended fine tour bus to a church van with a cracked windshield and seating for fourteen. Didn’t matter. This was a fascinating look at the three square miles that Kansas City’s Black population was confined to during the days that musicians in this city invented one of the pillars of jazz. It started at the Black downtown, 18th and Vine, and covered the streets outwards from there.

I’ve visited Troost Lake, off The Paseo. But I’ve always approached it from the south. Driving to it from the north illustrates how it was part of a community, the lake where the Black population was allowed to go. I’ve seen the nearby street that angles sharply towards the east. But I never knew that street was angled to define a dividing line between the portion of Vine Street where Black Kansas Citians could live and the portion where they were not allowed.

It took little imagination to envision the endless grassy fields, extending south to 27th Street and east to Prospect, as neighborhoods once packed with homes and businesses. Driving into them not as an outsider would but from the community’s downtown, brought a fresh perspective. I could understand this as a once-vibrant community welcoming musicians moving here from the southwest and elsewhere in the 1930s to find work.

This land has been cleared for over fifty years. New homes are sprinkled throughout the area. A few of the buildings and homes that have survived the years are gorgeously refurbished, while others look ripe for demolition. It’s an urban area that, with the proper explanation, adds important context to the Kansas City where jazz thrived.


A Friday panel that was part of the gathering looked at the musician union’s place in Kansas City jazz historically and today, and offered unionism as a solution for low wages for musicians. The historical perspective fit this conference. But calls for a revitalized union felt more like grasping at hopes.

A more nuanced program discussing solutions for jazz musicians supporting themselves today is being co-sponsored this Friday, June 27th, in the Folly Theater’s Stakeholder Room by KC Jazz A.L.I.V.E. and the Elder Statesmen of KC Jazz. Admission is free.

The stated goal:

“These organizations have teamed to address the unemployment issues area musicians presently face. Realizing that all musicians will not secure musical work on a consistent basis, many can explore other employment opportunities/options to achieve the same goals. The objective of Musicians Assisting Musicians is for unemployed musicians to work whether it's musical or non-musical employment.”

A press release continues:

“….From 11:00 am until 1:30 pm, a panel of musicians, business owners, union representatives and corporate America, will explain how they've been successful at securing musical employment; bidding on contracts; developing relationships with the Convention and Visitors Association and American Federation of Musicians 34-627, etc.

“Other music organizations, employment services, medical insurance and accounting services, will be on hand for an informative panel of presenters….”

Honestly, I’ve so far been less than overwhelmed by some other initiatives of KC Jazz A.L.I.V.E. But with this panel, the not-for-profit group is carving out a valuable niche for itself in the Kansas City jazz community.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Crouch and Haddix and History and the Foundation, and All Free

Here’s what I want to find out this week, from the other bloggers: Is this what it’s like in other cities? Do the jazz communities in other towns suffer from the same bitterness and backbiting? Do leaders of one organization dislike the leaders of others in ways that hold back both, and ultimately limit the jazz scene as a whole? Because the Kansas City jazz community has suffered such divisions for as long as I’ve known it, over thirty years, and we could have accomplished so much more without continually squeezing thorns.

To everyone tossing daggers dipped in hurt feelings with every glance towards the Mutual Musicians Foundation: Get over it. This is the Foundation’s week to shine. Thursday and Friday this week, the Foundation hosts a summit of jazz writers and bloggers, brought together from throughout the country, and including internationally acclaimed jazz writer Stanley Crouch. They’re here to see and understand Kansas City’s unique hold on a critical piece of jazz history.

And everyone can be a part of this. All activities are open to the public and are free.

Events start this Thursday, June 19th, at 10 a.m. at the Foundation (1823 Highland) with the Three Square Mile Tour. a walk through the history that encompassed 12th Street and 18th Street and Vine.

(I don’t know which locations this tour will and will not include. But if it overlooks the Eblon Theater / Cherry Blossom Club, Paseo Hall, Wheatly-Providence Hospital, The Paseo YMCA, or the sites of Charlie Parker’s home or the Reno Club or the Sunset Club, and you want to see them, I’ll take you afterwards.)

At 5:30 Thursday evening, Stanley Crouch and Chuck Haddix, authors of last year’s landmark biographies on Charlie “Bird” Parker, meet at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center (3700 Blue Parkway) to discuss their books and to jointly discuss Bird.

Friday at 11:30 a.m. at the Foundation, a panel will discuss the history and significance of Black musicians unions.

Friday afternoon the bloggers rest so that Friday night they can enjoy the Foundation’s all night jam.

This is the start of the Mutual Musicians Foundation’s plans to stage 100 events leading up to a celebration in 2017 of 100 years since the founding of Black musicians union 627.

The building at 1823 Highland, once that union’s headquarters, stands as the most historic structure in Kansas City, and one of the most historic in jazz.

The Eblon Theater / Cherry Blossom Club might have rivaled the Foundation for the distinction had it not burned thirty years ago. That’s where Lester Young, Herschel Evans and Ben Webster put down Coleman Hawkins in a legendary jam session, establishing jazz’s new saxophone masters, in 1933. But the Eblon / Cherry Blossom did burn. leaving only its facade.

For years, the Mutual Musicians Foundation stood among increasingly scarred and dilapidated homes, and the boarded ruins of a hotel, leaving the impression of a frightening old street. You needed to know the neighborhood to feel welcome. But that has changed. The homes and the hotel are brightly rebuilt rentals, and this neighborhood now vividly stands out as an 18th and Vine district highlight.

Museums and the Gem dominate 18th Street in the district, and the Blue Room, rightly regarded as one of the country’s premier jazz clubs. In those buildings, you can peer at history behind glass. But at the Foundation you feel the space and walk the rooms that Basie and Prez and Mary Lou Williams and Bird and so many other jazz innovators and geniuses worked and enjoyed. It’s integral to the experience of 18th and Vine. And whether you agree with its current leaders or find its direction misguided, this building demands the respect and inclusion of all of Kansas City’s jazz community.

That respect works both ways. The American Jazz Museum is celebrating 16 years on 18th Street. It is an established Kansas City jazz institution with leadership that has shown the wherewithal to raise funds, stage programs, and operate a superb jazz club in good times and in recession. They have kept alive an annual music festival through adversity. Stories last year in The Kansas City Star detailed embarrassments which should never have occurred. But the museum’s contributions to Kansas City and to jazz outweigh those errors. The American Jazz Museum has earned the community’s respect.

The 18th and Vine district is big enough for the Mutual Musicians Foundation and the American Jazz Museum. The Kansas City jazz community is not big enough for the thorns I see hurled at each.

This week is the Foundation’s turn to claim a little bigger chunk of the spotlight, as it showcases Kansas City’s special history to writers who can tell the world.

I’m not sure how successful these events will be. We’ll know that by the end of the week. But I know the Foundation deserves its week in the Kansas City jazz spotlight.

(Last week I said I’d next expound on festivals. That missive has been delayed.)

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Week Away

Seven days of business travel, ending on Sunday, did not allow time for composing a new blog post. So this week I take a week off from the blog.

But we are entering jazz festival season, and next week I'll offer what has become my annual overview of who is coming to festivals elsewhere.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Experience and Wounds

There were more organizations back then, and more division. Some groups, understandably, were interested only in their core mission. Others came to meetings with an agenda. There were members who took their appointment to a city commission as designating superiority over others in the jazz community. That sure didn’t help. Other members sincerely wanted to draw people together.

In the 1980s, Kansas City created the nation’s first city commission on jazz. The Kansas City Jazz Commission was founded, ostensibly, to unite a multitude of Kansas City jazz organizations, each running its own unique direction.

Over here was a group staging a big jazz festival in Volker Park. Over there was an organization staging a small one at 18th and Vine. Here was a group educating youth. There’s another. UMKC staged a festival for high school jazz bands. One group organized a jazz music series, eventually placing it at the Folly Theater. Here’s an organization wanting to build an International Jazz Hall of Fame, but not at 18th and Vine. There’s one wanting it only at 18th and Vine. Neither has any money. The Mutual Musicians Foundation owned the Armory building at 18th and Highland. A foundation funded a study which declared people were afraid to go there after dark. Oh, and there’s another group interested in developing a Jazz Hall of Fame. They say it belongs in Union Station.

A city commission, the theory went, would carry the authority to drive cohesiveness and consensus, and a more unified direction which would benefit everybody.

The reality was that leaders of other organizations found little time to devote to a new organization, and had little desire to sublimate their goals to another group.

I was appointed chairman in 1987, in the midst of a front page scandal. A former treasurer stole over $6000 in city funds. With the help of a wonderful board of directors, we turned the Jazz Commission around. But we effectively redefined it as another jazz organization producing its own programs.

Twenty five years later.

KC Jazz A.L.I.V.E describes itself as a jazz catalyst organization, intended to “facilitate dialogue and design methods to help the greater Kansas City jazz community connect and collaborate to meet their collective missions.” Stakeholders include performing and visual jazz artists, club and venue owners, education leaders, jazz patrons, faith based community leaders and civic leaders. A.L.I.V.E. represents the five pillars of the organization’s mission:

A for building awareness of the needs of the jazz community; L for serving as a listening body; I for providing a platform for the integration of ideas; V for functioning as a voice for the jazz community; E for providing exposure to applicable resources for the Kansas City jazz community.

The organization has secured 501(C)3 not-for-profit status in record time. It is developing a web site at It is partnering with Jazz Near You to provide comprehensive local jazz listings (something the Plastic Sax Kansas City Jazz Calendar has done for years, here). They are establishing a speaker’s bureau to reach out into the community.

Long after the Jazz Commission dissolved, there remains a need to bring Kansas City’s disparate jazz organizations together.

The slogan repeated at KC Jazz A.L.I.V.E. meetings: A rising tide raises all boats.

But only if all boats are included.

KC Jazz A.L.I.V.E. is organizing a Kansas City Charlie Parker Celebration / Festival. Mostly, this collects existing performances under one umbrella, adding a few presentations and reviving the Sax Salute at Parker’s gravesite. A jointly marketed collection of jazz events is essentially what the Kansas City Jazz Festival was in 1983 and 1984. This is a concept which has succeeded here before.

(However, completely ignoring that the birthday of an equally important Kansas City jazz icon – Count Basie – also falls during these two weeks feels odd.)

A list of performances has been compiled. And what stands out most on it is the venue it doesn’t include.

Legend says that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie first met on the top floor of the union building at 1823 Highland. In the historic heart of the 18th and Vine district, the Mutual Musicians Foundation today hosts jam sessions every weekend night.

There is discussion of holding a “chicken feed” at the Foundation following the Sax Salute. Good. But how can two weeks celebrating Bird include Zona Rosa twice but not include even one already-scheduled jam in the room where Bird and Diz met?

One more recollection:

Towards the end of my time as chairman of the Jazz Commission, we prepared a fundraising proposal encompassing the entire jazz community. Donors at the time told us they were tired of being peppered with requests from over a dozen jazz organizations. They also told us that the request would be considered more favorably if it excluded the festival at 18th and Vine, which they saw as a small and problematic event.

I prepared a fundraising proposal which excluded the 18th and Vine Jazz and Heritage festival.

I sat down with an organizer of the event, who was also on the Jazz Commission’s board, to explain what was being written and why. I never, until that time or since, have seen a friend more deeply hurt.

What the foundations told me was immaterial. Excluding the 18th and Vine event was wrong. It was part of the jazz community and needed to be part of the request.

There will always be pain in bringing the entire Kansas City jazz community together. Experiences and wounds leave me certain of that.

It doesn’t matter.

Coming together can only work when it prominently showcases all of the boats.