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.

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