Monday, April 27, 2015

Evolutions and Descendants

Volume 2, Number 1 of K.C. Jazz Ambassador, A Guide to Jazz in Kansas City, dated February, 1987, lists 18 clubs and hotel lounges where you could find jazz.

The April/May, 2015 issue of Jam, Jazz Ambassador Magazine, lists 38 locations. I question some of them – does The Kill Devil Club still have jazz? – but the comparison is impressive.

As I prepare to take over editing Jam, I’ve examined my own archives for old issues, and I’m amazed at how little has changed.

The October, 1987 issue includes a page of five jazz organizations in Kansas City: The Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation, Friends of Jazz, Kansas City Jazz Festival Committee, Mutual Musicians Foundation and International Association of Jazz Record Collectors. Not listed are Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors, which published the magazine, and the Kansas City Jazz Commission, with which at that time the Ambassadors were closely aligned.

Today I count The American Jazz Museum (largely carrying on the ambitions of the Charlie Parker Foundation), The Folly jazz series (which is what the Friends of Jazz series evolved into), the Mutual Musicians Foundation (unchanged), The Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors (still publishes the magazine), KC Jazz ALIVE (with the same unifying ambitions that the Jazz Commission was formed to foster), and the Prairie Village Jazz Festival (significantly smaller event, but sub it for the KC Jazz Fest).

Further evidence of today echoing the 1980s was spied in a press kit in my files for 1988’s Jazz and Heritage Month. The press release in it announces: “By official proclamation of the City of Kansas City, Missouri, August has been declared Jazz and Heritage Month. The proclamation recognizes an umbrella program established by the Kansas City Jazz Commission, under which more than 30 jazz related events will be held throughout the metropolitan area in the month of August….”

Sound a smidge like a certain 18 day Charlie Parker celebration organized by KC Jazz ALIVE this past August, perhaps?

Today’s organizations and activities are to a remarkable extent evolutions and descendants of what Kansas City was doing to promote its incredible jazz heritage 28 years ago.

Yet, two key differences stand out. Today we have the American Jazz Museum anchoring the 18th and Vine district. And the abundance of outstanding young jazz talent dominating this city offers a genuine reason to believe this isn’t ending any time soon.


That October, 1987 Jam includes an interview with Claude “Fiddler” Williams. Among the exchanges is this one:
Ambassador: Do you have a message for Kansas City about jazz?

Williams: I think it’s a wonderful thing they’re doing in Kansas City to get jazz going again… the festivals, the concerts in the park, and companies matching funds to have these things because, otherwise, it would be too expensive to have them. But they, the Festival Committee and Parks and Recreation, will bring musicians from out of town, pay four or five hundred more… while not wanting to pay the local musician hardly anything. They don’t want to do the hometown musician right! Like at the jazz festival… they didn’t do the public right. I played a jam session. Now, I have two or three groups of musicians I work with regularly – ssSlick, Frank Smith and a few individual musicians. We could have arranged some things where we all would know what we were going to do. But, I just told the piano player to call something out.

Ambassador: That was a jam session. You don’t think that was right for a jazz festival?

Williams: No, especially when they’re going to bring in somebody like Wynton Marsalis – he only had four pieces, but they all knew what they were going to do.

Ambassador: They were tight.

Williams: Right! Do the hometown musicians right and pay ’em a little taste. If you want me to head a group, let me know in time – we’ll rehearse and people will really have something to listen to.
On the jam groups, we heard the complaints and discontinued that experiment (it seemed like a good idea when we tried it). On the discrepancy in pay, well, I’m still booking festivals and I still hear grumbles.


There will be an increasing number of weeks when I don’t offer a fresh blog post. Alas, I only have the weekends to write and, with three decades behind it, I'm giving Jam the attention it has earned.

But while this blog may become a wee bit less frequent, it is not ending. Jam brings a different attitude to the Kansas City jazz scene, and I respect that. Jam will not see my snarky side. This blog will remain the forum where I speak my feeble mind, mixing photos and praise with occasionally pissing people off.

Retiring Jam editor Roger Atkinson and I will co-edit the June/July issue, the last of Roger’s decade at the helm. August/September will be the first on which I swim or sink alone.

Well, maybe it’ll see a little snark.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Orchestra's On Top

The band was founded in large part to present jazz with unaccustomed professionalism.

This music was born in buildings housing bars and brothels. It grew up to be recognized – by many of us – as America’s classical music. But it never quite shook the image of grungy bars.

Many of us hold nothing against grungy bars. Their ambiance can be enticing. But in Kansas City, jazz has been performed by some of the finest musicians you’ll hear anywhere for ninety years. And the best of the music deserves the same respect as is bestowed on non-American classical music.

A dozen years back, Jim Mair and Gene Hall assembled a big band to play concert halls, modeled after similar efforts in a few other cities. Its members dressed in black suits with matching blue neckties. They performed the jazz compositions of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin and countless others with the same professional presentation that the Kansas City Symphony brings to the works of Bach and Brahms.

The biggest difference between this band and the Symphony is that this band swings.

In November, 2003, The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra (KCJO) played its first concert, with guest Marilyn Maye, at Unity on the Plaza.


Over the past five years, KCJO has seen transitions. Jim Mair stepped aside as Artistic Director and Kerry Strayer took over. Tragically, Kerry succumbed to cancer. With Kerry’s encouragement, Clint Ashlock stepped in. The orchestra office has been run by four different business managers over that period (including me for a few months).

More significantly, performances moved from Unity to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The orchestra had struggled to attract 600 people to its fall concerts before the move. Yet they had the audacity to claim 1600 seat Helzberg Hall. An attempt to shift its concerts downtown once before, to The Folly Theater, cost KCJO aging fans who cherished the Country Club Plaza convenience of parking once for dinner and a show. And they raised the ticket price so that, with a service charge and garage parking, the cost of the cheapest seat nearly doubled (except for same day student sales).

But when you strive to position yourself as the jazz equivalent of the Symphony, this is the league you need to play in.


Friday night, The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra concluded its third season in the Kauffman Center with a concert of music from the book of bandleader Stan Kenton.

The center section of Helzberg Hall was almost entirely filled. Yes, empty seats were scattered about the side sections. But, especially with no big name guest artist to attract attention, the size of this crowd was impressive. The audience, clearly, has grown since the orchestra’s Unity days.

The age of the crowd was equally impressive. KCJO, and traditional big band music in general, has generally attracted older fans. But this night, plenty of twenty-, thirty- and forty-somethings spiced the hall. Thanks to a donation from the Tony DiPardo Music Foundation, a large contingent of students also filled seats. The orchestra is no longer attracting an audience that looks like it’s going to mostly disappear over the next ten years.

One pre-teen patron near me bent over in his seat and covered his ears from the night’s abundance of musical brass. He may not be back soon, but plenty of others in Helzberg Hall last Friday night are going to return.

The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra is crisp. Here’s some of KC’s best musicians who have rehearsed and performed together for, in many cases, a dozen years. They know each other. Kansas City enjoys an abundance of big bands today, most playing ensemble parts smoothly. But KCJO hits a different level. Their instruments speak as one tight and sophisticated voice, riding the rhythm of Charles Williams’s piano, James Albright’s bass, Rod Fleeman’s guitar and Tim Cambron’s drums.

Solos stood out. Brad Gregory on tenor sax, David Chael on alto sax and Mark Cohick on some really weird instruments have long been among my personal favorites in any number of ensembles. Bob Long on alto, Doug Talley on tenor and Jay Sollenberger on trumpet shined.

Credit the excellence of these musicians first. But also credit the cohesiveness of Clint Ashlock’s musical direction. What he’s done with the New Jazz Order Big Band each Tuesday in uber-grungy Harling’s is wildly enjoyable. But in Kansas City’s still sparkling fresh palace to the arts, The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra has gelled with uncompromised quality and presentation.

The goals set at KCJO’s founding continue to be met. The orchestra continues to prove that Kenton – and Ellington and Basie and Gershwin and others – deserve to be heard on the same stage as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. And with an audience growing and growing younger, they’re likely to to be heard there for a long time to come.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Kane, OJT and Sanders: A Trio of CDs

Here’s the proof.

Drummer Matt Kane hails from Hannibal, Missouri, studied at UMKC’s Conservatory of Music, was mentored by Ahmad Alaadeen, then moved to New York. But like so many others, he has seen today’s Kansas City jazz renaissance dominated by young talent. He has pulled together five of those musicians. Michael Shults on alto sax, Steve Lambert on tenor sax, Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Andrew Ouellette on piano, Ben Leifer on bass and Kane on drums make up the group, Matt Kane and The Kansas City Generations Sextet.

They have recorded a CD, Acknowledgement, performing the compositions of other current and recent KC jazz masters, Bobby Watson, Pat Metheny and Alaadeen. The CD is officially released this week at the Green Lady Lounge with shows on Friday and Saturday nights.

Here’s proof that some of the best young talent playing jazz today is playing the music in Kansas City. These are musicians exploring new ideas and directions with confidence. Shults’s alto intuitively weaves fresh thoughts and grasps new ideas, as on the rambunctious opener, In Case You Missed It. Lambert’s tenor can push aggressively into intriguing spaces, always with a pleasing inquisitiveness, or glide over rhythm with a rich tone as on And the Beauty Of It All. Mehari’s trumpet shows a refinement and maturity that can gently draw you in, unafraid of open spaces – you hear that on ASR – or he can solo fast and hard. Ouellette’s piano is played with enticingly supple finesse. The piano and sax conversation, Jewel, is marvelous. Leifer bass solos tell a story, expecially on Midwestern Nights Dream, riding Kane’s driving drums.

The rhythm section is tight. Credit all of the musicians, but especially Kane, whose accents support and propel, at times with exuberance, at times with subtlety, always with sophistication.

Acknowledgement is a 2015 snapshot of some of the best young musicians playing jazz in Kansas City. It’s a snapshot of music alive and growing.

Acknowledgement by Matt Kane and The Kansas City Generations Sextet can be found on CD Baby here.


Eleanore Rigby may have never swung harder than this.

From Ken Lovern’s rollicking Hammond B-3 organ, to Brian Baggett’s blues-drenched guitar, to Kevin Frazee’s nimble drums, this is an Eleanore Rigby that makes you want to get up and dance. This is decidedly not for all the lonely people.

It’s one of the New Standards For the Green Lady, a new CD from OJT (that’s for organ jazz trio). OJT regularly plays the Green Lady Lounge.

These standards may be mostly new to jazz, but many titles will sound familiar to listeners familiar with the best of pop in the last century. Besides Eleanore Rigby, among the tunes getting an OJT treatment are Layla, I Kissed a Girl, Everybody Wants to Rule the World and The Way You Make Me Feel. That treatment involves a heavy dose of swing doused in blues. It‘s music that’s going to have you swaying your shoulders to and fro. Don‘t try to resist.

If Acknowledgement is a snapshot of outstanding musicians in KC today, New Standards For the Green Lady captures more terrific musicians in KC having a helluva lotta fun.

New Standards For the Green Lady by OJT is available on CD Baby here and on iTunes here.


Bassist Dominique Sanders is a young musician absorbing the full range of modern musical influences. Some may call his new CD, A True Story Based On…, electronic music. Some will hear modern music beyond accessibility. Traditional jazz fans will declare that music laced with sound effects and sampling isn’t jazz.

A True Story Based On… is jazz looking forward. This is experimental jazz embracing every tool available to a musician in 2015. There is sampling. There are sound effects. There is the influence of hip-hop. But you can also hear the influence of R and B and funk and Pat Metheny.

And you can hear KC musicians like Steve Lambert, Hermon Mehari, Andrew Ouellette, Harold O’Neal, Matt Hopper, Ryan Lee, Andy McGhie, Josh Williams, Mark Lowrey, Jordan Shipley, Danny Embrey, and Brad Williams. Nobody is going to question their bonafides.

There’s a certain amount of over-the-top extravagance here. The same audience is unlikely to embrace both A True Story Based On… and New Standards For the Green Lady. But the fact that you can hear both groups – and The Kansas City Generations Sextet – in KC in 2015 speaks volumes about the variety of jazz this city offers and is supporting.

A True Story Based On… can be downloaded from iTunes here.

Monday, April 6, 2015

No Post This Week

A busy weekend equals a week away from the blog and no new post.