Monday, November 24, 2014

A Week Off

No thoughts, profound or otherwise, on Kansas City and jazz as I take a week off. So instead, go out and hear some music. That's what I plan to do. Musings should return next week.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Tale of Two Jazz Clubs Last Saturday Night

The surrounding shopping center is still being built. And if you try to find a parking spot right out front, but none are available, you have to circle around and drive back to the street to reach the other lot – the one you see right there, in plain sight, but can’t get to – from another entrance. I expect someday this will all connect and the planning for that lot will make sense. But today, it doesn’t. It’s that new.

I walked in five, maybe ten minutes after the music started, and nearly every seat was filled. There were a few open ones in the booths by the espresso machine, the area where talking over the music isn't discouraged. I snagged one in the back. Before the end of the set, folding chairs were being set up for the crowd continuing to flow in. That's how it's been since the place opened, I’m told.

The audience was overwhelmingly young. I wasn’t the only gray-haired guest, but I sat largely surrounded by high school students. Most others in the audience looked like twenty- and thirty-somethings. And everybody was listening. The few conversations heard here and there while musicians played were short. These people came for jazz.

135th and Metcalf is as suburban as life on this earth gets. And out here in a glistening new Johnson County club, the current and next generation of jazz's audience is turning out to hear Kansas City’s extraordinary musicians. The next time someone tritely proclaims "jazz is dead," escort them to Take Five on a Friday or Saturday night. Then see if they can still honestly mouth those words.


By 10:15, I assumed, the dinner crowd will have eaten and many will have left. No problem, I was certain, in finding a seat at this time. But the parking lot was still mostly filled. That was odd, I thought. And when I opened the door to The Broadway Jazz Club, I was greeted by a packed house, easily as many people as had crowded Take Five. They sat focused on the music on stage. I claimed a small table up front. A musician later told me the club had been like this all night.

Nothing is new or glistening at 36th and Broadway. As you approach from the west, on Valentine Road, or from the south, driving up Broadway, you pass Hookah Haven and a Sprint store with its front windows covered by cris-crossing metal bars. This part of town wears a rugged, gritty feel.

The parking lot around back is well lit. It’s easier to figure out how to get to than that new one at the mall. But I walked from the suburban lot to the club’s front door along a path of clean, freshly-laid bricks. Here, I trek up a concrete sidewalk, steam blowing over it through an old vent in the building, and lines spray painted on it, I assume outlining utilities. I’m aware that I’m not in Kansas anymore.

This neighborhood has been The Broadway Jazz Club’s albatross since it opened. This isn't just up the street from the Country Club Plaza location where Jardine’s ruled for years. This is midtown. This club clearly needed to capture the love of all the patrons who frequented Jardine’s. But with a glistening new bar in the suburbs, many of those people don’t need to drive to an area where they feel uncomfortable to enjoy jazz. Scream that this neighborhood really is safe all you want. A storefront with cris-crossing metal bars in the next group of shops doesn't imply safe.

The Broadway Jazz Club needed to build its own following. This night it appears to be succeeding at exactly that. The crowd is older than the crowd at Take Five. Nobody here is a high school student. This is an audience which wants to hear jazz and which is comfortable in an urban locale that isn’t The Plaza. It includes some of the old Jardine’s audience. But mostly, The Broadway Jazz Club is uncovering its niche.


The owner of a Westport restaurant once told me that his venue’s success came in large part by turning the crowd three times each day. For breakfast, he draws businessmen on their way to work or stopping in for a power meeting. At lunch, he attracts a diverse midtown crowd getting out of their nearby offices for a good meal. Then in the evening, Westport twenty-somethings looking for the next fashionable bar flow through his doors.

The Take Five business model appears to count on drawing different crowds at different times of the day. In the mornings, they offer gourmet coffee and good breakfasts. At lunch, they offer all that plus a selection of salads and sandwiches. On weekend nights, add jazz and alcohol to the mix.

The Broadway Jazz Club is only open for dinner and late at night. They serve more expensive (but fairly priced) and more complete dinners. They operate within a narrower window for generating income, leaving less room for errors or off nights. The Jardine’s business model was to fill and turn the room twice on weekends. I suspect Broadway brings similar weekend goals.

Both models appear to be working. These are two very different clubs. One is fresh and new and attracts a family audience. The other carries the grit of an older Kansas City neighborhood and draws an older and more diverse crowd that feels at home there.

But for all their differences, on Saturday night I noted two points in common. Both clubs were filled with people listening to jazz. And the music was spectacular.

Monday, November 10, 2014


I don’t remember the numbers now. It was probably 80,000 or 100,000. But whatever it was we claimed for attendance at the two day Kansas City Jazz Festival in Volker Park in 1987 or 1988, The Kansas City Star wouldn’t print it. Our media person went to their offices to argue our case. They showed her photos they had taken, with large gaps of space between clusters of people. That park couldn’t hold 40,000 or 50,000 bodies a day unless they were packed in far tighter than that, The Star’s editors argued. They wouldn’t budge.

Those were the days when the Spirit Festival filled Penn Valley Park around Independence Day and claimed a quarter million visitors to their event. That, too, was a gargantuan exaggeration. But The Star published their self-proclaimed crowd estimates. If the newspaper was  going to let that festival get away with those kinds of numbers, they owed us upper five figure to low six figure crowd estimates. That’s how we saw it.

Probably realizing everybody was feeding them heaping plates of crowd size bull, for a while The Star switched to publishing police estimates.

One year, after that switch, several of us helping with the 18th and Vine Festival decided among ourselves that 5000 people probably passed through the district for the weekend event. On Sunday evening, as the festival was winding down, we offered to police officers working as security some hot dogs. No, we shouldn’t, they said. Go ahead, we told them, we’ll just throw them out otherwise. As the grateful officers finished the hot dogs, one asked us, “So what do you want for your crowd estimate? 15,000?” Sure, 15,000 sounded good. And 15,000 people was the official published crowd estimate for that year’s 18th and Vine Festival.

Published crowd estimates to jazz events today today feel more credible. In part because it’s easier to count a smaller crowd at a shorter event.

Last year, The Kansas City Star published that 8000 people attended Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival. 4000 people bought tickets and 4000 were there free (sponsors, volunteers, etc.), the article reported. I attended, and those numbers feel about right. It was a year when the originally announced headliner (George Duke) died, forcing a talent and promotion reboot. That’s an incredibly tough gut kick from which to recover. But if you accept that the range of music offered truly fits a self-described jazz and blues festival, organizers staged a stellar event.

This year, the weather cooperated perfectly. Promotion was excellent, from a persistent online presence, through printed posters and handouts, to media appearances, to ads, to billboards (let’s be honest: by comparison, promotion for the Prairie Village Jazz Festival, which I help with, looks embarrassing). The festival faced unexpected competition from a Royals playoff game, but that might be competition for an October festival forevermore. For the 2014 Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival, the stars aligned.

I’ve seen no announcement of attendance numbers. But the crowd appeared smaller than last year.


I’ll argue lack of focus. I’ll argue that booking acts across a broad musical spectrum, apparently in the hopes of attracting a broader audience, leads to an insufficient focus on any music style and a blurred identity.

Lucky Peterson was the main stage blues headliner. His performance was terrific. But it was a mid-afternoon show before maybe a few hundred fans. It wasn’t enough for a blues aficionado to justify spending $25 on this festival.

Roy Hargrove was the main stage jazz headliner. His show was outstanding. But as the only main stage jazz act, in an early evening time slot, it wasn’t enough to draw a preponderance of jazz fans, no matter what the event is titled.

A few years ago, this revived festival attracted its biggest crowd for the pop group War. The audience that filled the lawn that night came to hear a live performance of The Cisco Kid and other songs still played on the radio by the last vestiges of the original group, or they came for the festival experience. But they didn’t come for jazz or blues. It’s the same reason those 1980s Spirit festivals booked groups like The Temptations.

And there’s the image this event is building. It’s an outstanding music festival. The staging, organization and promotion are as professional as any festival you’ll find. But by trying to be a music festival with a broad appeal, I see a festival that has diluted its appeal. You can argue that a $25 ticket is a bargain for this much music. But you can also argue that $25 is a push for a jazz fan when offering this little headline stage jazz.

The current format appears to have reached its potential in audience appeal. If this event wants to be recognized as a jazz and blues festival, focus on jazz and blues. Give those listeners more reason to come and they will. If the Prairie Village Jazz Festival can draw thousands of fans to a suburban park on a Saturday night to hear jazz, this festival can surely draw a bigger crowd to one of the music’s key birthplaces.

There is a place in Kansas City for a major jazz festival. No event will again presume to claim 100,000 fans. But the tickets sold at Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival and The Prairie Village Jazz Festival combined wouldn’t fill Starlight Theater for a night. They’re both relatively minor events in Kansas City’s music equation. Done right, with the proper focus and at the right location, this city will support a more significant celebration of jazz and blues. We did before. We would again.

After all, it was Count Basie who walked our streets, not the Cisco Kid.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The People's Liberation Big Band at the New Take Five

Let’s say you’re one of the community’s most beloved jazz spots, but you’ve outgrown your space. Let’s say you move to a new location more than double the size. Let’s say you pick a night as your official grand re-opening. So what group do you choose to baptize the new space?

Wait, before you answer, two more caveats. Let’s say you’re located in Johnson County. And let’s say putting a 26 foot long stage in a coffee shop establishes you as unconventional.

Now who do you pick?

The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City. Of course.

Last Saturday night I sat in the new location of Take Five Coffee + Bar with over a hundred other jazz fans, some of whom had heard People’s Lib before and some of whom came to hear a big band thinking that’s what Count Basie ran, right? At my table sat a couple of ladies who fit the latter group. It took a set for them to understand just what this not-your-grandpa’s big band was all about. But by the second set, these ladies were thoroughly enjoying the night.

If you missed the evening, below is a sampling of what a packed coffee house/bar/jazz club at as-suburban-as-this-world-gets 135th and Metcalf in Johnson County, Kansas looks like on its official Saturday night premiere. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City at the new Take Five Coffee + Bar

Leader Brad Cox directs the band

Shay Estes with James Isaac and Jeff Harshbarger

Matt Otto plays a really big saxophone

Pat Conway joined the band on the second set. After all, how can you baptize a coffee shop/bar/jazz club without a bassoon?

Shay and Jeff sing

James Isaac and, behind him, Sam Wisman

Brad Cox directing The People’s Liberation Big Band

A full house, listening

Brad subtly announces who wrote the next number (he wrote it)

Shay Estes sings

Apparently, Brad Cox zaps Sam Wisman’s drumstick