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.

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