Monday, May 11, 2015

A Week of Good News, and an Outlier

Two signs of a healthy Kansas City jazz scene stood out last week: A general manager with a track record of success coming to The Broadway Jazz Club and unprecedented donor support for the American Jazz Museum.

Since it opened nearly a year and a half ago, the jazz community has desperately wanted to see The Broadway Jazz Club thrive. Not just for the additional opportunities to hear jazz, but because it embraced the concept of a dinner jazz club, a niche unfilled in Kansas City since the demise of Jardine’s.

But The Broadway Jazz Club wasn’t located just a little north of the Country Club Plaza, Jardine’s onetime neighborhood. It was in Midtown. You didn’t see Nichols Fountain as you approached Broadway. You saw a Sprint store with bars on its windows. Plus, the success of Take Five Coffee + Bar meant Johnson County jazz fans no longer needed to drive into town for dinner and jazz. Some of the best music is now in their back yard.

The club closed for the first couple weeks of January for upgrades. It reopened with a clearly diminished music budget, mostly duos and trios, largely comparable to the jazz that not-a-jazz-club The American Restaurant booked. You could hear complete bands at the Green Lady Lounge, at The Blue Room, at Take Five. There were exceptions, but too often The Broadway Jazz Club felt like listening to a pianist with a brass or woodwind player on a stage and in a room intended for much more than that.

Recently, Green Lady Lounge proprietor John Scott has quietly consulted with the owners of The Broadway Jazz Club. Scott knows the area. Before Green Lady, he owned a gym – still operating, with a different owner – in the rear of the faded strip mall across the street. And he grasps how to run a neighborhood club spotlighting jazz. In the last year and a half he has opened a second stage in Green Lady’s basement level while tripling the club’s revenues.

Starting June 1st, John Scott takes over as general manager of The Broadway Jazz Club. After a couple of weeks closed for adjustments, Broadway will reopen as Broadway Kansas City. Initially, the club will operate just Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and Wednesdays when the 12th Street Jump radio program records there. Broadway will be less the-second-coming-of-Jardine’s and more a club which embraces the neighborhood Scott understands, but with the live jazz he adores. He envisions a bigger sound to fill the room, tighter shows, and the same professional presentation that is a hallmark of Green Lady. It’s wrapping Kansas City’s heritage in a more appealing light and comprehensively branding it with a different feel than you’ll find in Johnson County. Not better, not worse, but unique. And if you want to sample this style of unique, you’ll need to come into Midtown.

The jazz community hasn’t felt this excited about the future of Broadway since it opened.

We can feel equally excited about the future of the American Jazz Museum. With proposed cuts to its city funding half restored – museum supporters have always done an exceptional job of raising a ruckus at City Hall – last week the museum announced record private donations.

Its fifth annual PEER Into the Future fundraising lunch on April 20th attracted nearly 240 guests and raised more than $112,000 in private donations. Add over $128,000 in donations prior to the luncheon and the museum has so far raised over $240,500 for general operations.

That’s extraordinary. Don’t kid yourself. There’s an elephant in the Kansas City jazz room, and it’s the American Jazz Museum.

You can criticize elements of the museum. It should be larger. The permanent exhibits need to evolve to entice repeat visits. But recognize that they do a superlative job of fundraising, better than any other Kansas City jazz organization in the thirty-plus years I’ve known the scene.

(PEER, by they way, stands for Performance, Exhibition, Education and Research, which are the museum’s key missions.)

The museum is a central player in KC Jazz ALIVE, an organization working to bring together a too often divided jazz scene, with too many organizations and every group out for itself. Separately, club owners are talking with each other. The owners don’t see themselves as competitors, but as crucial to maintaining a thriving audience for jazz.

Yet, there’s an outlier which appears intent on moving its own direction and not working with others in the jazz community. The Mutual Musicians Foundation is unquestionably the most historic building and institution in Kansas City jazz. They are educating school age music students at no charge each Saturday morning. They are sponsoring an educational jazz festival centering on KC swing next month. If they can raise the money to erect a tower and begin broadcasting by June of next year, they will be home to this city’s only jazz radio station.

The Foundation is no relic. It is sponsoring vital programs.

But the Foundation declines to participate in the unity enveloping the rest of the jazz community. The organization chooses to estrange itself despite other groups repeatedly reaching out to its members.

The rest of the jazz community is not competing with the Mutual Musicians Foundation. On the contrary, I repeatedly hear how this community wants to embrace the Foundation’s history and help celebrate its successes. More than that, I suspect some of the same donors who have supported the American Jazz Museum will also wrap their financial arms around the Foundation when it moves beyond presenting itself an an aggrieved institution.

Because supporters of Kansas City jazz are recognizing that the scene flourishes most when we work together.

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