Monday, March 23, 2015

This 'n That 'n Thriving Ambassadors

My earliest memories of the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors are of fighting with them.

The year was 1988. I had taken over as chairman of an embattled Kansas City Jazz Commission, on the front page of the newspaper because a previous treasurer was accused by the county prosecutor of stealing over $6000 of city funds from the commission. The chairman of the City Council’s budget committee wanted to end funding for the Jazz Commission.

I’ve recounted the story more than once in this blog. The ugly details aren’t particularly relevant to this tale.

These are the facts that are relevant: Members of the Kansas City Jazz Commission were appointed by the mayor. It wasn’t an organization you could pay a fee to join. The membership rolls were filled with appointees who the mayor owed a favor and were appointed to the Kansas City Jazz Commission as a harmless thank you. We never saw those individuals at meetings. Others sincerely wanted to use the forum to benefit the jazz community. Some of them remain active today in other Kansas City jazz organizations.

But some commission members viewed appointment as a mark of distinction, a badge of being better than people who weren’t appointed. Their attitude did not make chairing that troubled commission any easier.

The Jazz Ambassadors was a group started to support the Jazz Commission, and a way for jazz supporters who were not appointed to be involved with the organization. Ambassadors were a good resource for volunteers for the Jazz Lovers’ Pub Crawls, which the Jazz Commission staged.

But there were some Jazz Commission members who looked down on the Jazz Ambassadors because they weren’t appointees to a city commission.

Between that attitude and the Jazz Commission’s public troubles, the Ambassadors wanted out from under the commission’s mangled thumb. The Ambassadors boasted some effective leadership who had, among other things, started a little digest sized jazz publication.

But at the time, the Jazz Commission fought the Ambassadors. The disagreement escalated to a professional arbitrator. A young attorney who had testified before the City Council’s budget committee in favor of ending the Jazz Commission’s funding joined the Ambassadors in arbitration. In the end, the arbitrator mostly sided with the Jazz Commission. The Jazz Ambassadors remained tied to the commission.

Actually, that’s not where the story ends. Sometime after my two years as chairman, the Kansas City Jazz Commission disbanded. The commission turned over the Pub Crawl and Mini Pub Crawls (aimed at tourist groups) to the Jazz Ambassadors.

Decades after the Kansas City Jazz Commission’s end, the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors survive. And that little digest sized publication, JAM (for Jazz Ambassadors Magazine) grew into a full size glossy magazine which still prints over 10,000 copies (estimated readership: 40,000) every other month. It’s been publishing now for over thirty years.

I don’t remember who edited JAM when the Jazz Commission battled the Ambassadors. But not long afterward, Kathy Feist took over and grew it. Next, Mike Metheny served as editor, with some of the largest page counts in JAM’s history. And for the last decade, Roger Atkinson has shown a steady hand with profiles and reviews that have consistently presented Kansas City jazz at its best, even through years when the music’s survival seemed questionable.

This summer, Roger is retiring as editor of JAM.

The new editor will be me.

(Technically, I’ve been hired to edit one issue. But I’m optimistic that this gig is going to work out fine.)

JAM will remain a publication that supports the Kansas City jazz scene. The criticisms and snarky comments found in this blog have no place in the magazine. But I suspect some of my personality will sneak in. Some of my photos will, too.

New leadership and a board spiked with younger members are reinvigorating the Jazz Ambassadors at a time when younger musicians are reinvigorating Kansas City’s jazz scene. It’s an exciting opportunity to assume the reins of this city’s premiere jazz forum.

And I’m especially pleased that my days of fighting with the Jazz Ambassadors ended decades ago. There’s no lingering bad feelings on my end, guys.


Michael Shults is one of those stellar young musicians referenced above (who has also written some excellent articles for JAM). He skipped town last summer to take a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire. But apparently he skipped town without completing his doctorate, because this week he returns to make amends. Saturday night at 7 p.m. at Take Five Coffee + Bar, he will present a lecture recital for that doctorate on the compositions of Bobby Watson. That’s followed, from 8 to 10 p.m., by Michael with Clint Ashlock’s Messengers Sextet, for a tribute to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, where Bobby’s career took off.

Bobby Watson’s compositions have not received the attention in the jazz world that they deserve. Bobby plans to be there Saturday night. This is an opportunity to give back a little to the man who has done more than anyone else over the last decade to prepare the musicians who are perpetuating and growing jazz in Kansas City.

See you there.

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