Monday, January 25, 2016

New Thoughts Next Week

Last week I offered nary a post as the next issue of Jam magazine came together. It should start hitting the streets later this week, featuring stories that look both back and ahead at jazz in Kansas City. This week, another writing assignment monopolized the weekend, so we’re postless again.

But recently I’ve been struck by both the continuity and change embracing jazz in Kansas City today. Let’s look at that next week.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Hootie is a Hundred

Last week was big for Kansas City jazz. A resolution directed directed the City Manager to find funding sources for $18 million in improvements – curiously up from the $7 million announced just a week and a half earlier – to the 18th and Vine District. This could include improvements to the Jazz Museum, the Mutual Musicians Foundation, the Paseo YMCA, a new district home for Friends of Alvin Ailey, a parking garage, and some suspiciously not-yet-publicly-defined demolition along Vine (an incredibly historic street as long as you don’t destroy the remaining history there).

But more on that another time, because this week is bigger. This Tuesday, January 12th, would have been Jay “Hootie” McShann’s hundredth birthday.

Another resolution passed by the City Council this past Thursday, January 7th read:


Declaring January 12th – 16th as Jay “Hootie” McShann Week in recognition of his 100th Birthday and his life, artistry, contributions to Jazz and lengthy career.

WHEREAS, Pianist, Composer, Bandleader, Recording Artist and Singer, James Columbus “Jay” “Hootie” McShann was born January 12, 1916, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and died on December 7, 2006 in Kansas City at the age of 90; and

WHEREAS; McShann received several national and international awards and recognitions to include the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, Blues Hall of Fame, Rhythm and Blues Foundation, Paris All-Star Tribute to Charlie Parker, The Rolling Stones recording of "Confessin' the Blues", character in 1940’s crime-fiction novel, The Hot Kid, written by Elmore Leonard in 2005, 1991 Grammy Award Nominee for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance, and in 2003 for Goin' to Kansas City - Best Traditional Blues Album; and

WHEREAS; from the 1960’s until his passing, James Columbus McShann remained a prominent pianist, bandleader and vocalist often teaming with violinist Claude “Fiddler” Williams and vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon; and

WHEREAS; the City of Kansas City will join with the Jay McShann family (Jayne McShann-Lewis, Linda McShann-Gerber and Pamela McShann), American Jazz Museum, Historic Jazz Foundation, GEM Theater, UMKC Marr Sound Library and Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz in celebrating his 100th Birthday; NOW THEREFORE;


That the Mayor and Council hereby declare the week of January 12th – 16th as Jay “Hootie” McShann Week in Kansas City; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this Resolution be spread upon the Minutes of the Council in testimony thereof and that a copy hereof be presented to the family of Jay McShann in token of the Mayor, Council and citizens of Kansas City’s highest esteem with which Jay McShann is held in their hearts and minds.

(You can find a link to the resolution, pictured at the left, on the city’s website here.)

I’m not going to presume to lecture anyone who holds even a passing interest in this blog on the importance of a legend like Jay McShann. Until his death nine years ago, Jay McShann defined Kansas City jazz. Out in the world today, names like Count Basie and Charlie Parker may be more widely recognized. But nobody meant more to Kansas City jazz than Jay McShann.

This coming Saturday, his daughter invite the city to celebrate Hootie’s hundredth birthday at the Gem Theater. The evening opens with a presentation by Chuck Haddix on McShann’s history and importance to jazz. Then Joe Cartwright sets the tone for the night leading an ensemble with Gerald Spaits and Todd Strait – McShann’s regular accompanists in his later years – and a trio of vocalists performing Jay’s standards. The wonderful pianist Benny Green takes the stage in a special performance. And Bobby Watson assembles a collection of Kansas City All-Stars to salute Hootie. A new collection of McShann memorabilia will be on display in the Gem.

A reception starts about 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 16th. The music starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25.

Resolve to be there.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra Rhapsodizes

The personality of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra (KCJO) has evolved under each of its three artistic directors.

Listen to its first CD from a decade ago without anyone telling you who it is, and you could be excused if you guessed this was some of the best of the 1980s-vintage Basie band. Under artistic director and co-founder Jim Mair, the breezy swing, with classy brass and sterling solos barreling over hard-driving rhythm, showed us what the music born in Kansas City had grown up to be. And, heck, I’ll take Lisa Henry’s vocals on that CD over the Basie band’s Carmen Bradford any day.

Kerry Strayer’s time leading the band was, tragically, far too brief. While under Jim the orchestra would venture beyond classic swing, with Kerry it stretched a bit further while never ignoring its roots. I briefly served as KCJO’s business manager when Kerry took over. His plans to perform Bobby Watson’s Gates BBQ Suite in concert concerned some of the orchestra’s board members. That, they felt (without ever actually hearing the suite, but that’s another story), was not the kind of big band music this orchestra performed. Kerry and I reassured them it would be an amazing show. Of course, it was.

The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra’s new CD, Rhapsody, under the direction of artistic director Clint Ashlock, captures an orchestra continuing to grow. Here’s a band of extraordinary talent, many of whom have played together now for a dozen years, emphasizing fresh arrangements performed with crisp precision and a modern elegance.

A somber yet playful Prelude #2 (Blue Lullabye) opens Rhapsody. You hear an exact performance in this music. This isn’t the devil-may-care whimsy of KCJO’s first Basie-induced CD. This isn’t what the Orchestra would have recorded a decade ago.

Next is the album’s centerpiece, Clint Ashlock’s arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue. Joe Cartwright takes over the keyboards, and his piano is our guide through this 27-minute Gershwin classic. There’s an exactly-played joyousness to the ensemble sections, which contrasts with the glib looseness of Clint’s trumpet and David Chael’s alto solos. Then contrast that further with the wicked sultriness of Brad Gregory’s tenor turn. This composition is a journey of wonderful twists performed with refined, never trite, vigor by Kansas City jazz masters.

The CD is filled out with fresh arrangements of big band standards. David Aaberg’s voicing on Swinging on a Star and Brad Gregory’s take on Emily – featuring Jeff Hamer’s loose and light trombone – return the orchestra to its beginnings. We have a selection from each of the band’s two most-often heard vocalists, Kathleen Holeman on Embraceable You and Ron Guiterrez on Alfie. Two of Clint’s arrangements close the CD: Every Time We Say Goodbye, starring Mark Cohick on baritone sax, and the controlled raucousness of I Got Rhythm.

This band takes a category that was new more than eighty years ago – big band jazz – and performs it so a listener in 2015 is intrigued. They grow the music with refinement. You hear it in their Kauffman Center performances – which now regularly draw over 1000 fans to each show – and it’s documented here.

That’s how a jazz orchestra approaching its teen years can thrive.

Rhapsody is available on The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra website, here.