Monday, September 28, 2015

All the Pieces

The difference in body language caught my attention first.

I sat in a meeting early this summer, in a conference room near 18th and Vine, that included several staff members from the American Jazz Museum. I noticed the way one sat angled in his chair, the edge in a voice when one spoke, the wayward gaze of another. We’ve all sat through gatherings on a bad day. This was different. There was an overarching sense of disgruntlement and defiance, not with the topic at hand but with something else.

Two months later, I sat down to talk with the new interim CEO of the museum for a Q and A in the next issue of Jam magazine. As I walked through the jazz museum offices, I was struck by a fresh feel of excitement, animation, a spark not present before. The difference was palpable. The body language had changed.

That’s just one of the changes Ralph Reid is shepherding through the American Jazz Museum. Following 35 years at Sprint, retiring as Vice President for Corporate Responsibility and President of the Sprint Foundation, Reid brings unique experience and a new outlook. He’s focused on how the museum’s brand is perceived, a key to the success of any corporate behemoth or civic institution. And his words suggest a comprehensive vision, of recognizing the museum’s role in selling the complete 18th and Vine district.

That’s especially important following last week’s announcement at the Negro Leagues Museum. The museums’ back yard is about to change. In a joint venture between the Kansas City Royals, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, the country’s seventh MLB Urban Youth Academy will be built in Parade Park. From Mayor Sly James’s website (here):
The Academy and park improvements will be developed in two phases:
•  Phase I includes two full-size baseball fields, including one with permanent and portable bleachers for tournament play; two youth baseball-softball fields; a half-mile walking trail with views of the baseball and softball diamonds; relocated basketball courts; relocated and renovated tennis courts, and a new playground near the community center.

•  Phase II includes the indoor training facility with a turf infield, batting cages, pitching mounds, restrooms and concession facilities for the diamonds; a Great Lawn that will serve as a front yard for the Academy and as a shared event space, and additional parking.
Here’s the layout, with the museums highlighted in yellow (clicking on the image should open a larger view):

Phase 1 is scheduled to be completed in a year. Fundraising continues for phase 2 with the hopes that the training facility will be standing a year later.

This development brings with it the potential to transform the 18th and Vine district. The district never did and never will thrive on jazz alone. In the 1930s, jazz was the soundtrack to vice. It needs a new companion.

But this district faces special challenges. I’ve quoted often from a 1979 study commissioned by the Black Economic Union and funded by the Ford Foundation which said, in part, that even then people feared coming into the area. The city needs to address an image ingrained for decades and underscored just this past Sunday when, at 2:40 a.m., four people were shot at 18th and Highland, one seriously (news reports here and here). These incidents must end. This isn’t The Plaza where stories of woebegone youth surprise. This is what too many people anticipate here, so they don’t come. The five o’clock news cannot open with reports from the district of “an uptick in crime” and a resident saying, “This is a horrible street to live on” while you ask parents to send their kids to play baseball in the neighborhood park.

Because the possibilities here are incredible.

If the city can stymie the stories of violence, the coming of the beloved and Snow White-sweet Royals, with Major League Baseball, can bestow the district with equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. They can draw a new audience. Will it be a large enough crowd to entice new restaurants and shops? That’s the hope.

I suspect Mayor James has been pushing for East Crossroads development incentives in part because this revitalization is coming. That’s another element necessary to begin to dispel languishing fears: the district needs a not-so-scary-to-nonurbanites connection to the rest of the city.

I’m aware of two clubs which at least sometimes book jazz being courted to East Crossroads. Could this city, in a few years, boast of Green Lady Lounge accompanied by some new jazz cohorts jamming in an area that leads to an 18th and Vine district with The Blue Room, the Mutual Musicians Foundation broadcasting its new radio station and a Major League Baseball facility training future major leaguers? Many discussions are preliminary. Money needs to be raised. So much could yet fall elsewhere or simply fall apart. But today, all of the critical pieces are dangling for that vision to be a possibility.

The vision. I spoke with Ralph Reid just two weeks after he took over leadership of the American Jazz Museum. He was uncomfortable attaching the word vision to his ideas and plans. Yet, Reid’s Sprint experience in community outreach and his time spent on the boards of other major not-for-profit organizations brings the experience and vision needed at the jazz museum during a time of district transitions. He’s another critical piece.

A few weeks ago, on KCPT’s Kansas City Week in Review, I watched as the panelists speculated on whether Ralph Reid might consider staying on at the museum past his designated interim role. I thought, I know the answer to that. I asked him that question earlier in the week. And the answer is…

…in the next issue of Jam, available around town starting later this week.

(I can be such a tease.)

Monday, September 21, 2015

No Post, Off Jammin'

Every other month, one of my weekends is now filled with completing the next issue of Jam magazine. That weekend was this one. So after two nights that ran way too late for someone of my age (I could stay up this late easily in my twenties and thirties, and I did), I sit here too spent to write or edit or otherwise inspire on this week’s blog. Look for a new post next week.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Want to Buy a Jazz Club?

An ad has been prepared for Craigslist that begins with this:

“Kansas City bar and restaurant for sale. Great design and ambiance. Located in 100-year old historic building where jazz great Charlie Parker once played.”

Broadway Kansas City, which opened two years ago as The Broadway Jazz Club, is for sale. Owner Jim Pollock plans to keep the club operating for at least another two to three months with a reduced schedule, including the New Jazz Order Big Band on Tuesday nights, shows on Fridays and maybe a few other nights each month. The menu will shift to cold plates exclusively.

How did it come to this? Pollock prepared a timeline history of the beleaguered club. Here it is.

The Life and Times of The Broadway Jazz Club

Honoring Charlie
May 2013 – My nephew, Neil Pollock, calls from Kansas City to see if my wife and I would be interested in becoming minor partners in a jazz club which would feature Cajun food and Kansas City jazz, both favorites of my deceased brother, Charlie. We encourage the idea.

The Pitch
June 2013 – Neil arrives in Washington, DC and presents a prospectus and business plan for a club named Jardine’s.  Other partners in the venture include a former manager of Jardine’s and friend of Neil’s with food service background.  Our CPA reviews the figures and deems them reasonable. We agree to become 30% investors.

Opening Pains
July - November 2013 – The Jardine’s name is under proprietary ownership, so we must register a new name, The Broadway Jazz Club.  Design modifications and decor at 3601 Broadway suffer delays and false starts as one contractor or another botch the job. Instead of opening in August, renovations continue until the end of November and require more money than initially forecast.

The Dew is Off the Rose
December 2013 – The club’s opening week is quite successful – as it should be given the thousands spent on a publicist – but staff bickering seems to set in immediately and New Year’s Eve unmasks the fact that the kitchen and wait staff have not had an appropriate shake-down period. Things have not improved by Valentine’s Day.

Uncle, Can You Spare a Dollar
From the beginning, it was obvious that estimates of operating costs had been low. A myriad of state and local assessments, taxes, utilities and fees had either not been foreseen because of lack of due diligence, the fact that no records existed from the previous tenant, or just plain oversight. The minority partners soon became the only source of additional funds. Our ownership percentage began to grow monthly.

Inventory Uncontrol
In addition to spiraling infrastructure and overhead costs, inventory costs for food and alcohol were out of control. The bar followed no regimen, internal controls did not exist, there was no manual of operation for staff members or management. But two or three groups of very capable musicians were paid each night, the music was good, and there was a party going on.

Shareholders Report
May 2014 – My wife and I came out to Kansas City to assess the situation. Even without prior business experience, we could identify glaring faults in operations, highlighted by the fact that a daily accounts ledger had never been kept. If it had been, the confusion that marked management level considerations between what were club funds and what were personal expenses, at least, would have been recorded.

Baptism by Fire
June 2014 – The club’s general manager refusal to respond to a lengthy report and set of recommendations generated by our May visit led to his release. Margaret and I came to Kansas City to support our nephew in running the club. Little did we know it would be a four month stay, resulting in our learning more about supper club management than we ever wanted to know, becoming majority owners of The Broadway Jazz Club, falling in love with the music and its performers, uncovering an embezzlement scheme perpetrated by our payroll company, trying to enforce internal controls and bring inventory and revenue in line, and taking remedial steps to train and realign staff in an effort to shore up a dwindling clientele base.

Better to Sell
October 2014 – Believing we had righted the ship, we returned to Washington, DC.  Things at the club deteriorated rapidly and by November we were back, this time for six months. The idea was to sell the club and transition to new owners as 2015 opened. Consultants convinced us, however, that one cannot sell a club that is closed. So we invested yet more money to keep it open, turn over the staff, do new training and present a fresh, vibrant look to the Kansas City jazz audience in 2015. Despite these efforts, and the accommodating cooperation of our landlord, the catch-22 problems of the supper club model lingered on: Restaurants and bars make their money on customer turnover while jazz club patrons come to sip, nibble and listen for the entire evening. Without generating income, the club cannot adequately compensate its talent, so it begins to cut corners, hiring trios instead of quintets. In a city where good jazz musicians play at several venues nightly, a particular musician’s draw is affected by the number of nights he or she performs each week.

Let’s Try a New Model
June 2015 – From the beginning our business plan and liquor license were predicated on supporting our entertainment costs either through the sale of food or by charging a cover (or by a combination of the two). After a year and a half of tweaking the model, we decided to try a new model, seeking to cover entertainment costs through bar sales, re-branding the club accordingly and appealing to a different demographic as a result.

And the Conclusion Is?
August 2015 – The Broadway is still for sale, and several entities continue to consider purchase. In some cases, those interested will remodel the premises and begin a different business. Other interests will keep the location identified with the Kansas City music scene. From our perspective, we would like to see the locale continue to be associated with the marvelous musical traditions and local performers we have come to know in Kansas City. There are other permutations and combinations that might even keep us associated with the club, of which we are now the sole owners.

Pianist Max Groove is among those interested in the venue. His vision: An urban club open from 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. with a refreshed menu.

You will not meet a nicer or more generous couple than Jim and Margaret Pollock. Jim says he is striving to keep the club “a supporter of Kansas City music” and to see the location contribute to “the development of midtown as an arts and entertainment district.” But he concedes that “the club has never made money. It will be a bargain basement sale.”

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Week Off From Blogging...But There's a Jazz Festival

I’m taking a break from the blog this week.

But before I do, a reminder: Saturday is the 2015 Prairie Village Jazz Festival at Harmon Park, 7700 Mission Road (next to Shawnee Mission East High School and Prairie Village City Hall). It opens at 2:30 p.m. (not 2:00 like all of the signs I’ve seen mistakenly state) with the SM East Blue Knights followed by the Peter Schlamb Quartet at 3:20. Tyrone Clark and True Dig with Lisa Henry at 4:30, Horacescope at 5:40, Matt Kane and the Kansas City Generations Sextet at 6:50, and Angela Hagenbach at 8:00. The evening concludes by pairing the McFadden Brothers with The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra at 9:15 in a show that promises oodles of fun. Actually, the entire day ought to be oodling fun. The forecast looks ideal. Just five bucks gets you in. See you there.