Agreed, the story is not “jazz is dead.” But in Kansas City, it’s a little bit wounded.
When talking with Jim Pollock, owner of the Broadway Jazz Club, one of his greatest concerns was that the story surrounding the club’s closing not devolve into “jazz is dead.” He knew his club’s sale would fall on the heels of the loss of Johnson County’s beloved Take Five. And he knew how easy it would be to twist the narrative of two area jazz clubs closing in relatively quick succession into the inevitable end of this music as we know it.
That’s one reason why he contributed his tale on the life and death of the Broadway Jazz Club, published in this blog in September, here. He wanted it known that the club was not well managed and did not keep a business-like rein on expenses until it was too late. Any restaurant / club, regardless of music offered, would fail under such circumstances, and many do every week.
Similarly, Take Five, ensconced in a posh suburban mall, needed more than jazz to meet posh suburban mall rents. Its concept was to thrive as a busy coffee shop by day and jazz club by weekend night. Jazz fans did their part, avidly seeking out the venue. But sufficient daylight business on the barren butt-side of Corbin Park never materialized, and only half a business plan succeeding is not a business plan succeeding.
Despite these closings, the Art Factory at 135th and Nall is dipping its toes into Friday night jazz. Louie’s Wine Dive, at 71st and Wornall, features the music in a downstairs alcove most Saturdays (but good luck finding out who’s there if you don’t follow the musician on Facebook). You can find jazz in upscale surroundings at the American Restaurant in Crown Center and at Chaz in the Raphael Hotel on The Plaza. We have the Green Lady Lounge and The Blue Room and The Majestic and on some nights The Phoenix and the Westport Coffee House. The area hosts a couple of relatively small festivals, a Charlie Parker celebration, winter series at both The Folly and The Gem, and The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra in the Kauffman Center. Jazz education programs at UMKC and Kansas City, Kansas Community College continue to thrive. The Mutual Musicians Foundation remains open overnight every Friday and Saturday for its historic jam sessions.
So The Broadway Jazz Club and Take Five were both unique circumstances and jazz in Kansas City is decidedly not dead.
But let’s not stick our heads in the jazz sand, either. We’ve lost two clubs and that (along with turnover at the top of the American Jazz Museum) ranks as one of Kansas City’s major jazz stories of 2015.
In Broadway, we lost a stage that showcased singers. Take Five featured the full gamut of Kansas City jazz. And while The Blue Room and Green Lady Lounge have attempted to plug a few of the holes, they have their own formats and their own regular performers who have made them successful. Plenty of gaps remain. For instance, I love hearing Rich Wheeler’s ensemble. As far as I know, that group hasn’t played a public gig since Take Five’s doors were sealed.
We’ve been here before. Today’s contraction doesn’t feel nearly as dire as when Jardine’s shut down. Then we lost one of the area’s jazz anchors. But soon Green Lady opened, for a while Kill Devil Club featured jazz, Take Five expanded, and Broadway tried to imitate Jardine’s.
As John Scott, owner of Green Lady Lounge and the last manager of The Broadway Jazz Club lamented as Broadway was heading towards its demise, small businesses come and small businesses go all the time. Every jazz club is a small business.
Today, Kansas City jazz is a little bit wounded. We face a void. But a void is an opportunity for a new small business to fill.
UMKC will continue to funnel sterling talent into our jazz scene. By this time next year, phase one of a new KC Royals-sponsored baseball academy should be transforming Parade Park and, assuming the city can control news of crime in the area, fresh crowds could be flowing into the 18th and Vine district. The Mutual Musicians Foundation’s new jazz radio station should be broadcasting. The Record Bar, which features jazz a couple times a month, will be settled into a fresh home.
And just maybe a new small business or two will have opened, recognizing the opportunity to fill a void.