We don’t boast about it. Maybe we should.
In 1990, two board members of the Kansas City Jazz Festival, then staged in Volker Park, south of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, decided to start a new jazz festival. They didn’t like the direction the Kansas City festival was headed that year. So the woman who handled the festival’s marketing the previous year and a man who helped organize concessions left and found a sponsor in the Corporate Woods office park in Overland Park.
The Kansas City Jazz Festival in 1990 wound up sponsored by radio stations, which provided good promotion but raised little money. The festival ended earlier in the evening that year so they wouldn’t need to pay for lights. It would go on to merge with the blues festival and build an event larger than the sum of its parts. It would grow into a celebration with multiple stages and large crowds in Penn Valley Park. But it would start to build debt and eventually it succumbed to money owed.
Meanwhile, the festival in Corporate Woods continued. It survived some shaky years. But the pair who founded it turned its operation over to a civic group (the female co-founder went on to become a rabbi, one of the more unlikely careers to follow starting a jazz festival), which in turn developed it into a premiere charitable endeavor.
Last year, Jazz in the Woods, as the Corporate Woods Jazz Festival was rechristened somewhere along the way, celebrated its quarter century mark by attracting 25,000 fans and raising over $90,000 for area children’s charities. It boasts of raising over a million dollars for charities over the years. The 26th annual event will be staged the weekend after next, on June 19th and 20th. Admission is free (the festival raises money through sponsorships and by keeping a portion of concession sales). If the weather cooperates, they’ll attract over 10,000 people each evening. No other area jazz festival approaches those numbers or that record of success.
Jazz in the Woods has been dismissed by jazz fans for its emphasis in recent years on smooth jazz, the stuff of radio stations that border on easy listening and elevators. And last year’s parade of half hour slots for Bobby Watson, Eldar and Angela Hagenbach suggests an indifference by organizers to Kansas City’s jazz scene (if you book names of that stature, give them the full set they deserve). Then there was the year they turned a day over to country music. Smooth jazz, contemporary jazz, fusion, blues, reggae and ragtime I understand. A bit of soul, R and B or funk, okay. But country music is a different festival.
With those kinds of missteps, respect among jazz fans starts to dart down a rabbit hole. But look at this year’s lineup. Najee and Julian Vaughn are as smooth as jazz gets. Yet Najee opened last year’s Jammin’ at the Gem series – and sold the house out – and Julian Vaughn opens next year’s series. This is jazz you’ll find at 18th and Vine in the 21st century. Molly Hammer, on Saturday night, is the real thing. So is local blues superstar Samantha Fish, also on Saturday.
This is not jazz intended to soothe fans of Count Basie. The same weekend, the Mutual Musicians Foundation is hosting an educational festival on swing, if that’s what you want. This is jazz intended to fit a broad definition of the music and draw 25,000 people to hear it in Johnson County.
And this is a festival organized by people whose day jobs are as business professionals and who operate this event as tightly and as expertly as they do their paid work. The longest page on jazzinthewoods.com is the one of legal gobbledygook. There’s insight into who’s running this show. But who’s running this show is why the festival is entering its 26th consecutive year and has raised over a million dollars.
Jazz in the Woods has stubbed its programming toes over the years and has earned its reputation for psuedo-jazz. Some years it can be one of those jazz festivals that I’ve criticized as keeping jazz in its title only because that’s what they used to book.
Now look at this year’s Jazz in the Woods lineup another way. Just as The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City (hey, Jazz in the Woods people, you should feature them) expands what your granddaddy knew as big band jazz, and just as Dominque Sanders’s latest CD incorporates all of the influences absorbed by a young musician in 2015, and just as Mark Lowrey has played hip-hop and Shay Estes has sung the music of Radiohead, Jazz in the Woods is embracing a modern sense of what is jazz.
And weekend after next, they’re ready to turn Kansas City’s oldest, most successful and least respected jazz festival into another year of triumph.