Monday, January 26, 2015


I may have retired The Magic Jazz Fairy prematurely.

I created The Magic Jazz Fairy a few years ago to sarcastically criticize club owners who felt promoting the music they booked wasn’t their responsibility. At the time, a new downtown restaurant was featuring a variety of jazz ensembles and asking the band leader, as he set up each night, how big an audience he was bringing in. Scrawling across their windows that they had jazz a couple nights a week was, they thought, enough promotional effort on their part.

They didn’t last long.

At the time, no online calendars or ones not updated for months were the jazz club norm. The American Jazz Museum employed a marketing person who gave The Kansas City Star the wrong dates for Blue Room shows. Jardine’s did a good job of maintaining a calendar. But finding out who you could hear at most other clubs required some dedicated research, or following the musicians on Facebook with the hope they would post a heads up.

Let’s be clear. I’ve always maintained that promotion is partly the musician’s responsibility. Names who build an audience that will follow them into clubs are, obviously, likely to find themselves in higher demand. Facebook has made it relatively easy for musicians to let their followers know when and where they can be heard. Most musicians have become adept at promoting their shows online. It’s 2015. The days of the union being a musicians’s primary booking agent ended decades ago. Any artist needs to know and use the tools of this century. Promotion is part of the business of jazz.

And it’s an even greater part of the business plan for a club. The more people who show up, the more dinners and/or drinks the club will sell. At clubs where musicians get some or all of a cover charge at the door, the performer has a financial incentive to draw a crowd. But in general, the club owner gains the most from a full house. So the club owner bears the greater incentive to draw people through his door.

Of course, the real world is a smidge more complex than that. Clubs look to build loyalty and repeat customers for their total experience. Take Five Coffee + Bar is a growing a formidable base of customers, ranging from suburban high school students engaged in the music to those of us with grey hair and oversized bellies. Sure, part of the audience turns out for that night’s ensemble, but part of it just trusts the venue to book good music. And they do.

The Broadway Jazz Club is working to build the same trusting, repeat business. On weekends, this is where you’re likely to find some of the best female vocalists, a fine complement to a fine dinner. I’ve argued that location and evolving habits are challenges to growing their base and establishing their own unique identity within Kansas City’s jazz world.

Promotion is key to that effort. Hopefully, every hotel concierge from North Kansas City to The Plaza knows to send any guests looking for dinner and jazz to 36th and Broadway (there’s where their location works as an advantage). But they can do more to entice the locals.

Most people who know me know that I write a weekly hundred word jazz preview for The Pitch, KC’s alternative newspaper (so if you want to know kcjazzlark’s real name, go see who writes about jazz in The Pitch). Does it help draw people to clubs? I haven’t a clue. But it doesn’t hurt. It’s free praise and publicity both in print and online that’s available to whichever show piques my interest, and which I believe will interest readers each week. I write these articles two weeks before the shows. A few years ago, uncovering what’s coming would have proven a mostly futile endeavor. How do I know today?

The American Jazz Museum long ago replaced the marketing person who announced wrong dates. Today, they post a perpetual calendar of Blue Room shows online, often months in advance, in addition to a web page for those needing nothing more than the current month’s offerings. PR people reach out to promote special events, such as Jammin’ at the Gem shows or the annual festival. I credit Gerald Dunn and Chris Burnett and a staff of names I don’t know for bringing a stellar and nationally recognized consistency to The Blue Room and its promotion and turning it into, I am told, a profitable operation. This is where concierges send guests who want to experience jazz and drinks without the dinner.

The Green Lady Lounge, The Majestic and The Phoenix keep their online calendars up to date. Take Five has recently been less consistent, but sends emails detailing the next month’s offerings. I know the shows each of these venues will offer when I need to write the next preview.

Broadway? Their calendar stretches to the end of this month, covering jazz fans looking to make dinner plans for next weekend. But musicians have posted to Facebook late weekend shows never noted on Broadway’s calendar. The club needs to be pointing out nights their music stretches past midnight. And unlike other clubs, their plans for next month are currently a mystery.

The Broadway Jazz Club recently reopened, following upgrades, in time to participate in Kansas City’s annual Restaurant Week. Hopefully, they’re simply maneuvering through a brief shakedown period. Hopefully, their promotion will soon meet or exceed the marketing of their local jazz club brethren.

Hopefully, there’s no need to resurrect The Magic Jazz Fairy from a short retirement.

Monday, January 19, 2015

No Post This Week

A busy weekend left no time to prepare a new post this week. So go out, listen to jazz, and check back here again next week.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The 2015 Crystal Ball

Over two weeks at the end of December, I took a look back at the year just completed. This week: A murky gaze forward.

Many Little Festivals

The tickets sold for the jazz festivals at 18th and Vine and in Prairie Village combined wouldn’t have filled Starlight Theater for a night. These festivals may be significant to their respective neighborhoods but, let’s be honest. they are relatively minor civic events.

And both saw audiences decline this year. In Prairie Village, moving from free admission to a $5 charge took a small but noticeable bite. At 18th and Vine, going head-to-head with the Royals in the playoffs was an unexpected snag.

But more importantly, both festivals last year were financial successes. Both turned a profit, so we should expect them to return this year. The Prairie Village event will remain the first Saturday after Labor Day. It will be interesting to see how the 18th and Vine festival, which has comfortably settled into the second Saturday of October over the last few years, contends with their date possibly falling into perennial competition with a Royals playoff run.

Meanwhile, the Mutual Musicians Foundation is establishing what they’re calling an educational festival, showcasing KC swing where it began. It’s June 18 through 20. Their web site is here. The schedule is mostly made up of workshops and breakout sessions, with swing bands promised throughout the jazz district in the evening and a Saturday band competition.They're asking $175 for a full festival pass (or $75 per day, or $25 per workshop, or $20 per breakout).

The area’s annual January jazz showcase, Johnson County Community College’s Jazz Winterlude, takes this year off as organizers work to adjust its financial formula.

New Patterns for the Clubs

When this blog started, hearing jazz in Kansas City happened like this: You went to Jardine’s or you went to The Blue Room. Enjoying a small group at The Majestic or on some nights at The Phoenix were also possibilities. And if you were up late on weekends, you could stop by the Mutual Musician Foundation.

To listen to jazz, you went into the city.

The old location of Take Five Coffee + Bar started to change that. Unexpectedly, there was this little place out in the suburbs where you could hear all of the good combos on weekends.

The new location of Take Five throws the old patterns into turmoil. Now Johnson County boasts a genuine jazz club, one with a 26 foot long stage, superb sound, a welcoming and intimate atmosphere, and a schedule that spans nearly the full spectrum of jazz offerings in Kansas City.

Take Five is drawing in new audiences, including a surprising number of Blue Valley High School students. But more importantly, Johnson County residents craving this city’s best jazz no longer need to trek into the city.

This disruption of decades-old habits hits The Broadway Jazz Club hardest. Broadway needs to draw the audience that spent money on dinner at Jardine’s. A significant portion of that audience once regularly drove down Shawnee Mission Parkway into The Plaza. No more. Today, dinner and jazz is in their back yard.

The Broadway Jazz Club is closed during the first couple weeks of January, reportedly making upgrades. They say they will reopen by January 16th to participate in Restaurant Week. They need to reopen with a splash and grab some attention.

There’s still plenty of jazz audience in Kansas City to share between The Broadway Jazz Club, The Blue Room (which has successfully positioned itself as a jazz destination), Green Lady Lounge (a neighborhood bar with wonderful atmosphere and jazz), The Majestic (jazz with elegance), the Mutual Musicians Foundation (history and tradition) and on some nights The Phoenix (energetic jams) and the Westport Coffeehouse. You can also find jazz most weekends at Louie’s Wine Dive at the north end of Waldo and at The Hotel Phillips downtown. And don't forget Chaz in the Raphael Hotel on The Plaza or the American Restaurant in Crown Center, where small ensembles entertain people with oodles of money to spend.

Today, there’s choices. The Broadway Jazz Club needs to refine its identity among those choices. Their challenge: Recognize that many suburbanites who supported Jardine’s don't see a need to go into midtown, then provide an irresistible reason to go.

Growing Forces

Do not underestimate the influence of KC Jazz ALIVE or the American Jazz Museum on Kansas City’s jazz community in 2014. Both promise to grow more dominant in 2015.

KC Jazz ALIVE shed its organizational training wheels last year. Armed with a 501(C)3 not-for-profit status, this group pulled together most of this city’s jazz groups with a level of harmony and cooperation unseen in decades. They presented seminars educating musicians on how to survive in this field in this century. And they organized an exceptionally well promoted celebration of Kansas City’s most famous jazz son, Charlie Parker. Jazz groups which chose not to participate in the Parker event were marginalized for half of August.

A key force within KC Jazz ALIVE is the American Jazz Museum. The contributions of their paid staff were essential to the success of the Parker celebration. More importantly, here is an institution operating a profitable jazz club, a profitable festival, and one that appears to have hit its stride in mobilizing financial contributions from the community. The Museum is succeeding in the business of jazz.

Other organizations will have their moments and their successes. But KC Jazz ALIVE and the American Jazz Museum appear positioned as key drivers in Kansas City jazz this year. Their biggest challenge will be to maintain the harmony among other jazz groups which has never before lasted long in Kansas City.

Faces to Watch

Pay attention to trumpeter Nate Nall, who may be the next graduate of Bobby Watson’s UMKC program ready to make a name for himself in Kansas City’s growing community of extraordinary young jazz talent.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Tommy Ruskin

This is what I remember first:  Saturday afternoon at The Phoenix, with Milt Abel on bass and Tommy Ruskin on drums. I can still see Milt mesmerizing the audience with his take on Big Wind Blew in From Winnetka. And then Tommy drumming on everything in sight for Caravan. What amazing fun.

2015 opened with a harsh jolt. The morning of January 1st, the Kansas City jazz community lost an anchor when drummer Tommy Ruskin passed away.

Others worked with Tommy and learned from him and knew him better than I did, and their memories can better pay proper homage. Following is a collection of accolades, mostly posted to Facebook, in honor of Tommy Ruskin. Mixed in are a few photos of Tommy that I’ve been fortunate enough to capture over the last few years.

“Just heard that drummer Tommy Ruskin died. When I first got to Kansas City, everyone told me if I really wanted to find out what KC swing was all about, go see Tommy. Every time I saw him play, I had a better understanding of why. Every time he saw me play, he made sure to throw some encouraging words my way, even if it was weeks later. As hard as KC has always and will always swing, it’ll swing just a little less without him.”

— Drummer Zack Albetta

Tommy at The Blue Room

“The news of Tommy Ruskin's passing has stopped me in my tracks. He was the quintessential Kansas City jazz drummer, a huge influence to several generations of great KC jazz musicians in spite of his eternally youthful appearance and demeanor. The times I played with him I was in way over my head, but he never even remotely let on about that. Tommy leaves behind a family of truly great Kansas City artists. All I can do is wish miz Julie and Brian peace, as soon as they can have it. We love you, like we love Tommy.”

— Pianist Larry van Loon

“Tommy was one of the first KC guys I got to play with and know — what a positive mentor he was to so many, just by setting such a good example of being a great musician and a nice human. I always thought one of his greatest skills was to make everyone he played with sound better. Honored to have made music with this man, and wishing his family peace.”

— Pianist Jo Ann Daugherty

Rod Fleeman and Tommy

“Hearing of the passing of Tommy Ruskin saddens many of us very deeply. Obviously he was a marvelous musician, as someone called him the Dean of KC drummers. But by far the greatest thing about Tommy was how kind hearted he was. Always a smiling face and an engaging personality, Tommy was a one of a kind guy and we will miss him greatly!”

— Saxophonist Brad Gregory

“Man.... We truly lost one of the nicest, most sincere people I’ve ever met not only in Kansas City, but anywhere! I was blessed to play with Tommy many times and hang out with him and get to know him beyond music! I strive to be half the man he was when it came to the true outright love of music, and professionalism! Thank you, Tommy, for all the knowledge and wisdom you graciously shared with a hard-headed 20 year old (myself). It will never be forgotten!”

— Bassist Dominique Sanders

“I always looked forward to playing with him. He was humble, but he had tremendous pride, and it showed in everything he did. It’s hard to speak his name without using the word ‘great’.”

— Pianist Wayne Hawkins

Left to right: Pat Metheny, Tommy Ruskin, Mike Metheny, Bob Bowman, Paul Smith

“So very sad for Kansas City and the world. So fortunate to have been touched by this true jazz legend.”

— Bassist Steve Rigazzi

“I'm hurting. Tommy Ruskin died this morning. He was a constant and true friend, always supporting and encouraging. Tommy was the swingingest drummer I ever played with. He was a mentor to so many musicians, not just drummers. Countless were his minions and admirers, including some of the top drummers in the world. For decades, Tommy set the example for all players as to what laying down a groove was all about. He was so easy to play with! Many times on gigs I would see drummers kneeling at the foot of the master, learning by example. He was the template by which all other local jazz drummers were compared. He always had time to give advice to those who asked for it. With Tommy, you always knew where you stood, musically and personally. I loved that about him. He was smart, generous, witty and charismatic. Oh, and did I say handsome? We all lost a true icon of the jazz world today. My heart goes out to Julie Turner, who has loved him so dearly for 52 years. They always seemed like the perfect couple. Life goes on, but for me it will never be the same. See ya later, Tommy.”

— Trumpeter Stan Kessler

Tommy Ruskin