Monday, October 26, 2015

Another One Bites the Dust

Broadway Kansas City, until earlier this year The Broadway Jazz Club, has been sold. The space will become a Scandinavian restaurant (their website is here). The new owners tell The Pitch (here) that they see their concept as a destination. Presumably, it will be a destination without live music. The sale does not include the sound system or piano.

Tentative plans are for Clint Ashlock’s wonderful New Jazz Order Big Band, which had established itself as a Tuesday Broadway favorite, to relocate to the Green Lady Lounge’s downstairs Orion Room early in November on Wednesdays from 7 to 9 p.m., leading into Ken Lovern’s weekly OJT gig upstairs at 9:00. Recordings scheduled yet for this year of the good music/bad comedy radio program 12th Street Jump will supplant New Jazz Order in the Orion Room on two upcoming Wednesdays, including November 18th for a show featuring Kevin Mahogany.

It’s been six years since I tried – and failed – to open a jazz club in Kansas City (the recession interfered). In researching a plan at the time, I found two successful business models employed by other jazz clubs: Turn the audience twice a night or also open during the day. Either can generate a revenue stream sufficient to pay rent and investors.

The two-shows-a-night model is used by clubs in larger cities, such as the Village Vanguard or Blue Note in New York, or Jazz Alley in Seattle. Jardine’s practiced it on weekends. But Kansas City’s jazz audience clearly isn’t large enough for that model to succeed here nightly.

A friend was among the group that bought Milton’s from Milton Morris’ niece decades ago. He told me that the iconic Kansas City jazz bar was essentially a break-even business. But it wouldn’t have been even that without the lushes who wandered in off a then-grittier Main Street throughout the day.

More than once, as I sat among a crowded but quite settled in weekend audience, I wondered how The Broadway Jazz Club was surviving. Listeners were enjoying outstanding jazz. But they weren’t leaving. The room wasn’t turning over. How could Broadway afford to pay performers what Jardine’s paid yet sell half as many dinners? How were they making financial ends meet?

Turns out, as initial investor and eventual owner Jim Pollock revealed in a timeline six weeks ago (here), they weren’t. They never did. This club wanted, initially anyway, to be the next Jardine’s. But there was never an apparent effort to turn the room on weekend nights as Jardine’s did. It’s not a new notion. Milton Morris boasted of a 1930s New Year’s Eve when he paid police to “raid” his  jazz club and clear it for a fresh crowd (though that’s probably going a bit further than The Broadway Jazz Club needed).

More, this was the wrong neighborhood for the next Jardine’s. My blog post about being attacked by youths with a gun on my fifth visit certainly didn’t help. But approaching 3600 Broadway from the south after dark, visitors drive past a Sprint store with steel bars covering its windows. There’s a rougher, uneasy midtown quality to this neighborhood, unlike Jardine’s just-north-of-the-Plaza, look-you-can-see-Nichols-Fountain-from-here location. This part of town, in 2015, works for eclectic restaurants, like the nearby Hamburger Mary’s. Kansas City will support a dinner jazz club. But not here.

Broadway's demise follows the closing of Take Five Coffee + Bar. Take Five embraced the revenue-throughout-the-day business model, but in a pricey Johnson County development that never developed except, at the end, for another coffee shop in a nearby sporting goods store.

Yet, there is a jazz club success story in our midst: The Green Lady Lounge. With a bar hugging the length of one wall designed to serve a large number of customers quickly, a 3 a.m. license (a rarity in the Crossroads district), an inviting and classic environment, and a simple and direct marketing message of jazz and drinks seven nights a week, owner John Scott has tripled revenues since opening his second stage downstairs.

Green Lady Lounge is a variation of the turn-the-crowd model, with the later license, no cover charge and that long bar facilitating volume business. It’s proof that a smartly conceived and operated jazz business can indeed succeed in Kansas City.

It’s probably best that I didn’t start a jazz club six years ago. While I was working with experienced consultants and remain convinced that I’d targeted a solid location, my lack of service industry experience, in the end, would have likely doomed the venture. Small businesses die every day. But had I tried and failed, the business would have ended because of me, because of my lack of club smarts and acumen, because I wasn’t sufficiently savvy.

It would not have died because it featured jazz. In Kansas City, run right, a jazz business will succeed.

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Comments are welcome. If you prefer, you can reach me directly at kcjazzlark(at)gmail(dot)com.