Monday, November 24, 2014

A Week Off

No thoughts, profound or otherwise, on Kansas City and jazz as I take a week off. So instead, go out and hear some music. That's what I plan to do. Musings should return next week.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Tale of Two Jazz Clubs Last Saturday Night

The surrounding shopping center is still being built. And if you try to find a parking spot right out front, but none are available, you have to circle around and drive back to the street to reach the other lot – the one you see right there, in plain sight, but can’t get to – from another entrance. I expect someday this will all connect and the planning for that lot will make sense. But today, it doesn’t. It’s that new.

I walked in five, maybe ten minutes after the music started, and nearly every seat was filled. There were a few open ones in the booths by the espresso machine, the area where talking over the music isn't discouraged. I snagged one in the back. Before the end of the set, folding chairs were being set up for the crowd continuing to flow in. That's how it's been since the place opened, I’m told.

The audience was overwhelmingly young. I wasn’t the only gray-haired guest, but I sat largely surrounded by high school students. Most others in the audience looked like twenty- and thirty-somethings. And everybody was listening. The few conversations heard here and there while musicians played were short. These people came for jazz.

135th and Metcalf is as suburban as life on this earth gets. And out here in a glistening new Johnson County club, the current and next generation of jazz's audience is turning out to hear Kansas City’s extraordinary musicians. The next time someone tritely proclaims "jazz is dead," escort them to Take Five on a Friday or Saturday night. Then see if they can still honestly mouth those words.

*****

By 10:15, I assumed, the dinner crowd will have eaten and many will have left. No problem, I was certain, in finding a seat at this time. But the parking lot was still mostly filled. That was odd, I thought. And when I opened the door to The Broadway Jazz Club, I was greeted by a packed house, easily as many people as had crowded Take Five. They sat focused on the music on stage. I claimed a small table up front. A musician later told me the club had been like this all night.

Nothing is new or glistening at 36th and Broadway. As you approach from the west, on Valentine Road, or from the south, driving up Broadway, you pass Hookah Haven and a Sprint store with its front windows covered by cris-crossing metal bars. This part of town wears a rugged, gritty feel.

The parking lot around back is well lit. It’s easier to figure out how to get to than that new one at the mall. But I walked from the suburban lot to the club’s front door along a path of clean, freshly-laid bricks. Here, I trek up a concrete sidewalk, steam blowing over it through an old vent in the building, and lines spray painted on it, I assume outlining utilities. I’m aware that I’m not in Kansas anymore.

This neighborhood has been The Broadway Jazz Club’s albatross since it opened. This isn't just up the street from the Country Club Plaza location where Jardine’s ruled for years. This is midtown. This club clearly needed to capture the love of all the patrons who frequented Jardine’s. But with a glistening new bar in the suburbs, many of those people don’t need to drive to an area where they feel uncomfortable to enjoy jazz. Scream that this neighborhood really is safe all you want. A storefront with cris-crossing metal bars in the next group of shops doesn't imply safe.

The Broadway Jazz Club needed to build its own following. This night it appears to be succeeding at exactly that. The crowd is older than the crowd at Take Five. Nobody here is a high school student. This is an audience which wants to hear jazz and which is comfortable in an urban locale that isn’t The Plaza. It includes some of the old Jardine’s audience. But mostly, The Broadway Jazz Club is uncovering its niche.

*****

The owner of a Westport restaurant once told me that his venue’s success came in large part by turning the crowd three times each day. For breakfast, he draws businessmen on their way to work or stopping in for a power meeting. At lunch, he attracts a diverse midtown crowd getting out of their nearby offices for a good meal. Then in the evening, Westport twenty-somethings looking for the next fashionable bar flow through his doors.

The Take Five business model appears to count on drawing different crowds at different times of the day. In the mornings, they offer gourmet coffee and good breakfasts. At lunch, they offer all that plus a selection of salads and sandwiches. On weekend nights, add jazz and alcohol to the mix.

The Broadway Jazz Club is only open for dinner and late at night. They serve more expensive (but fairly priced) and more complete dinners. They operate within a narrower window for generating income, leaving less room for errors or off nights. The Jardine’s business model was to fill and turn the room twice on weekends. I suspect Broadway brings similar weekend goals.

Both models appear to be working. These are two very different clubs. One is fresh and new and attracts a family audience. The other carries the grit of an older Kansas City neighborhood and draws an older and more diverse crowd that feels at home there.

But for all their differences, on Saturday night I noted two points in common. Both clubs were filled with people listening to jazz. And the music was spectacular.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Focus

I don’t remember the numbers now. It was probably 80,000 or 100,000. But whatever it was we claimed for attendance at the two day Kansas City Jazz Festival in Volker Park in 1987 or 1988, The Kansas City Star wouldn’t print it. Our media person went to their offices to argue our case. They showed her photos they had taken, with large gaps of space between clusters of people. That park couldn’t hold 40,000 or 50,000 bodies a day unless they were packed in far tighter than that, The Star’s editors argued. They wouldn’t budge.

Those were the days when the Spirit Festival filled Penn Valley Park around Independence Day and claimed a quarter million visitors to their event. That, too, was a gargantuan exaggeration. But The Star published their self-proclaimed crowd estimates. If the newspaper was  going to let that festival get away with those kinds of numbers, they owed us upper five figure to low six figure crowd estimates. That’s how we saw it.

Probably realizing everybody was feeding them heaping plates of crowd size bull, for a while The Star switched to publishing police estimates.

One year, after that switch, several of us helping with the 18th and Vine Festival decided among ourselves that 5000 people probably passed through the district for the weekend event. On Sunday evening, as the festival was winding down, we offered to police officers working as security some hot dogs. No, we shouldn’t, they said. Go ahead, we told them, we’ll just throw them out otherwise. As the grateful officers finished the hot dogs, one asked us, “So what do you want for your crowd estimate? 15,000?” Sure, 15,000 sounded good. And 15,000 people was the official published crowd estimate for that year’s 18th and Vine Festival.

Published crowd estimates to jazz events today today feel more credible. In part because it’s easier to count a smaller crowd at a shorter event.

Last year, The Kansas City Star published that 8000 people attended Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival. 4000 people bought tickets and 4000 were there free (sponsors, volunteers, etc.), the article reported. I attended, and those numbers feel about right. It was a year when the originally announced headliner (George Duke) died, forcing a talent and promotion reboot. That’s an incredibly tough gut kick from which to recover. But if you accept that the range of music offered truly fits a self-described jazz and blues festival, organizers staged a stellar event.

This year, the weather cooperated perfectly. Promotion was excellent, from a persistent online presence, through printed posters and handouts, to media appearances, to ads, to billboards (let’s be honest: by comparison, promotion for the Prairie Village Jazz Festival, which I help with, looks embarrassing). The festival faced unexpected competition from a Royals playoff game, but that might be competition for an October festival forevermore. For the 2014 Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival, the stars aligned.

I’ve seen no announcement of attendance numbers. But the crowd appeared smaller than last year.

Why?

I’ll argue lack of focus. I’ll argue that booking acts across a broad musical spectrum, apparently in the hopes of attracting a broader audience, leads to an insufficient focus on any music style and a blurred identity.

Lucky Peterson was the main stage blues headliner. His performance was terrific. But it was a mid-afternoon show before maybe a few hundred fans. It wasn’t enough for a blues aficionado to justify spending $25 on this festival.

Roy Hargrove was the main stage jazz headliner. His show was outstanding. But as the only main stage jazz act, in an early evening time slot, it wasn’t enough to draw a preponderance of jazz fans, no matter what the event is titled.

A few years ago, this revived festival attracted its biggest crowd for the pop group War. The audience that filled the lawn that night came to hear a live performance of The Cisco Kid and other songs still played on the radio by the last vestiges of the original group, or they came for the festival experience. But they didn’t come for jazz or blues. It’s the same reason those 1980s Spirit festivals booked groups like The Temptations.

And there’s the image this event is building. It’s an outstanding music festival. The staging, organization and promotion are as professional as any festival you’ll find. But by trying to be a music festival with a broad appeal, I see a festival that has diluted its appeal. You can argue that a $25 ticket is a bargain for this much music. But you can also argue that $25 is a push for a jazz fan when offering this little headline stage jazz.

The current format appears to have reached its potential in audience appeal. If this event wants to be recognized as a jazz and blues festival, focus on jazz and blues. Give those listeners more reason to come and they will. If the Prairie Village Jazz Festival can draw thousands of fans to a suburban park on a Saturday night to hear jazz, this festival can surely draw a bigger crowd to one of the music’s key birthplaces.

There is a place in Kansas City for a major jazz festival. No event will again presume to claim 100,000 fans. But the tickets sold at Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival and The Prairie Village Jazz Festival combined wouldn’t fill Starlight Theater for a night. They’re both relatively minor events in Kansas City’s music equation. Done right, with the proper focus and at the right location, this city will support a more significant celebration of jazz and blues. We did before. We would again.

After all, it was Count Basie who walked our streets, not the Cisco Kid.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The People's Liberation Big Band at the New Take Five

Let’s say you’re one of the community’s most beloved jazz spots, but you’ve outgrown your space. Let’s say you move to a new location more than double the size. Let’s say you pick a night as your official grand re-opening. So what group do you choose to baptize the new space?

Wait, before you answer, two more caveats. Let’s say you’re located in Johnson County. And let’s say putting a 26 foot long stage in a coffee shop establishes you as unconventional.

Now who do you pick?

The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City. Of course.

Last Saturday night I sat in the new location of Take Five Coffee + Bar with over a hundred other jazz fans, some of whom had heard People’s Lib before and some of whom came to hear a big band thinking that’s what Count Basie ran, right? At my table sat a couple of ladies who fit the latter group. It took a set for them to understand just what this not-your-grandpa’s big band was all about. But by the second set, these ladies were thoroughly enjoying the night.

If you missed the evening, below is a sampling of what a packed coffee house/bar/jazz club at as-suburban-as-this-world-gets 135th and Metcalf in Johnson County, Kansas looks like on its official Saturday night premiere. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City at the new Take Five Coffee + Bar

Leader Brad Cox directs the band

Shay Estes with James Isaac and Jeff Harshbarger

Matt Otto plays a really big saxophone

Pat Conway joined the band on the second set. After all, how can you baptize a coffee shop/bar/jazz club without a bassoon?

Shay and Jeff sing

James Isaac and, behind him, Sam Wisman

Brad Cox directing The People’s Liberation Big Band

A full house, listening

Brad subtly announces who wrote the next number (he wrote it)

Shay Estes sings

Apparently, Brad Cox zaps Sam Wisman’s drumstick

Monday, October 27, 2014

Two Trumpets and a Trombone

The younger generation of musicians continues to stake a major claim to the future of jazz in Kansas City. Their often exceptional talent dominates gigs around town. The best have learned how to thrive, how to cultivate an audience. They’ve learned when and where to play standards and when and where the audience will embrace their own compositions. And the Kansas City jazz audience, these last few years, has embraced the extraordinary opportunity to watch these musicians grow professionally, to hear ever more intriguing compositions and more finesse in their performances.

Thriving venues like The Blue Room and like Take Five – which just more than doubled its space and designed a coffee shop around the acoustics of jazz – add to a sense of excitement. A what’s next anticipation pervades the Kansas City jazz community. There’s an unspoken optimism not felt here in at least fifteen years.

Not everything is ideal. None of this city’s jazz festivals have been embraced by the city as a whole and, based on attendance, remain relatively trivial events. At least one mis-located club is fighting to thrive. And while the community is displaying unprecedented cohesiveness, not every institution is on board.

Peg me as an old-timer who marvels at the new generation’s talent and energy and how Kansas City’s jazz community has wrapped itself around them. A few of the younger groups have released CDs in the last several months. In some cases, these serve as snapshots of growing maturity.

Let’s take a look.

Diverse, Our Journey

From the opening title track, Our Journey, you’re struck by the subtle sophistication of the compositions and the performances. This music isn’t meant to show off anyone’s prowess. Rather, it plays like an instrumental conversation between musicians. Each instrument has the opportunity to build its case, to speak its part, and to respond to what the other instruments musically express. This isn’t just a rhythm section supporting a horn or two. There’s emotion in the music, but it’s emotion sealed in thought.

This is the second CD from Diverse. While some members of the group have come and gone, the core remains and plays often in Kansas City. Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Ben Leifer on bass and Ryan Lee on drums know each other like brothers in a close-knit family. That chemistry, evident in musical anticipation and response, invites the listener into the music and into sometimes complex compositions.

They’re joined on five of the fourteen tracks by Logan Richardson, also a Kansas City native, whose alto saxophone expertly slips in and intrigues as if he was always a part of this club. Parisian pianist Tony Tixier joins all but three of the tracks. The anticipation he builds in his solo on the opening track immediately establishes him as a welcome part of the conversation.

Our Journey doesn’t necessarily break new ground as much as it captures refinement and growth among a core group of Kansas City’s young jazz musicians.

Our Journey is available on CD Baby here and on iTunes here.

The Project H, We Live Among the Lines

You’ll walk away from the Project H CD, We Live Among the Lines recognizing at least this: Ryan Heinlein understands how to pair and harmonize multiple instruments into a single magnificent voice. And he knows how to write musical phrases that stick in your head.

The third number on the album, Devolver, is a perfect example: a bass line repeats to open. It captures your attention and pulls you in. Other Instruments join, building into a single exciting voice before the saxophone breaks through for a solo running over and under and around that initial phrase. The music plays with you – it’s fun, you let it – and it sticks.

Of course, it helps when you’re writing for the seven of Kansas City’s best young jazz musicians who comprise Project H Heinlein on trombone, Clint Ashlock on trumpet, Brett Jackson on tenor sax, Jeff Stocks on guitar, Andrew Ouellette on keyboards, Dominique Sanders on bass and Matt Leifer on drums.

Traditionalists may question whether this music counts as jazz. It’s not Count Basie swing. But it is jazz for the twenty first century done right. Some other contemporary groups find new voices that squeal and repel and offend, that don’t invite a listener in but dare you to comprehend. Not The Project H. This is entirely accessible jazz filtered through contemporary ears and influences, a melded voice in compositions and sound that reaches its own generation. The experience of hearing We Live Among the Lines is more visceral than listening to Our Journey, but no less thought went into getting there.

We Live Among the Lines is available on Amazon here and on iTunes here.

Shades of Jade, Fingerprinted Memories

This one is all about the trumpet. Josh Williams’s tone remains even and inviting, whether the playing is melancholy or soaring or anywhere in between. But while piano, bass and drums all claim their moments, this is a trumpet showcase.

The music lacks the emotional intimacy between instruments that pushes Our Journey to another level. The jazz is enjoyable, but without the engagement and emotional Wow of We Live Among the Lines. Everyone here is a solid musician, and each musician properly supports the other, but there’s little sense of conversation, of interaction, of more than here’s the trumpet, now here’s the bass, now here’s the piano.

Heard from a download, I could not find credits for the musicians besides bandleader and trumpeter Josh Williams. The Shades of Jade web site (here) lists band members as Eddie Moore on keyboards, Dominique Sanders on bass and Julian Goff on drums. But I have seen the group in various configurations around town, and I don’t know whether those are the musicians performing here.

Fingerprinted Memories is available on iTunes here.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Kansas City's 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival 2014

The event’s name, Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival, at nine words, is semi-officially the longest title of any jazz festival anywhere. On Wikipedia’s page of jazz festivals around the world (here) – a listing of hundreds of jazz events – only two others are as long as eight words: the United Kingdom’s Glenn Miller Festival of Swing, Jazz and Jive and Northern Ireland’s City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival. Two are seven words long. The rest run three to six words. Organizers, there’s nothing wrong with a succinct title.

Especially when organizers at the American Jazz Museum present such a stellar music event. Staging and sound at the festival’s three venues clustered around 18th and Vine (the outdoor Main Stage and the indoor Blue Room and Gem Theater) were excellent. The flow through the grounds is well planned and executed. The friendliness and helpfulness of volunteers makes you feel like the event’s most important guest. The assortment of food and other vendors adds a welcome variety that other festivals lack. The one element out of organizers’ control, beautiful fall weather, capped the day.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the photos below of local acts from each of the venues and the jazz and blues headliners on the main stage. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

The main stage with Hearts of Darkness

Hearts of Darkness commands the main stage early in the afternoon

The Groove Axis with Houston Smith on sax in The Blue Room

Book of Gaia. Left to right: Michael Warren on drums, Eddie Moore on piano, D'Andre Manning on bass, Nedra Dixon, vocals, Pam Watson, vocals, Angels Hagenbach, vocals, Karita Carter on trombone.

Book of Gaia in the Gem Theater

The vocalists: Nedra Dixon, Pam Watson and Angela Hagenbach

Blues headliner Lucky Peterson

Lucky Peterson mugging on the main stage

Lucky Peterson, with guitar, leaving the main stage...

...and joining the audience.

Lucky Peterson surrounded by hundreds of fans

Lucky Peterson

Jazz headliner Roy Hargrove. Dig those shoes.

Roy Hargrove enjoys his quintet, with Larry Willis on piano, Justin Robinson on sax, Ameen Saleem on bass and (not seen) Willie Jones III on drums.

Justin Robinson and Roy Hargrove

Unexpectedly, Roy Hargrove sings

Pianist Larry Willis

Roy Hargrove on the main stage


Monday, October 13, 2014

A Week Away

A death in the family precludes me from offering a new post this week. I hope to be back next week with photos from this weekend's festival at 18th and Vine.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Take Five, Version 1.0

Four years ago, Lori Chandler offered up her six month old Leawood coffee shop to host a fundraiser for a jazz band trying to go to Paris. Up until then, she had made a seat available for a guitarist, just as coffee shops are supposed to do, I suppose like Phoebe on Friends. But a jazz band? Lori didn’t really know what to expect.

She was blown away by the music of Diverse – Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Ben Leifer on bass and Ryan Lee on drums – and by the acoustics in her little coffee shop. Soon, Take Five was hosting bi-weekly Sunday night jam sessions. Musicians asked if their groups could perform there, too. And Take Five Coffee + Bar developed into a quaint coffee shop by day and a serious jazz club on weekend nights. Many nights, bodies squeezed into every corner of the room, to the delight of musicians and the crowd.

At 151st and Nall, in Leawood, Kansas, audiences turned out for jazz.

Jazz fans weren’t the only people to notice. So did developers of nearby shopping centers. Later this month, Take five moves into more than double the space in the Corbin Park shopping center at 135th and Metcalf, behind the Von Maur department store.

On Sunday, August 28th, Taske Five closed its original space with its first jazz band, Diverse. Below are photos of how it looked. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

Take Five Coffee + Bar on its last night in its original location with the band that started it all, Diverse.

Diverse. Left to right: Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Ben Leifer on bass and Ryan Lee on drums.

Trumpeter Hermon Mehari

Bassist Ben Leifer

Early in the evening on the original Take Five’s last night.

Diverse

Drummer Ryan Lee

Hermon and Ben

Diverse on the last night in the original Take Five

The last night in Take Five, Version 1.0

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Foundation 627 Big Band at the Green Lady Lounge

Sunday nights are as much about the club as the big band.

The Foundation 627 Big Band, the newest in a long line of big bands born since the 1930s at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, performs every Sunday night from 8:30 to 12:30 at the Green Lady Lounge. I don’t know the names of all of the musicians in this group. But this is a solid collection of KC talent. Consider a front line of saxophonists Steve Lambert, Mike Hererra, David Chael and Brett Jackson; a rhythm section with Chris Clark on keyboards, Dominique Sanders on bass and John Kizilarmut on drums; and players like trumpeters Stan Kessler and Ryan Thielman, and trombonist Jason Goudeau.

Now place this big band in a room where stepping through the front door feels like stepping seven decades back in time. Red walls and drapes, faux classic paintings adorning the walls, a long narrow space with a classic bar lining one wall and leather lined booths the other. This feels exactly like the kind of place where you ought to hear jazz.

Place the big band in the front of that space, get yourself a drink and, well, you can DVR all those Sunday night TV programs you wanted to see. Watch them later. The Foundation 627 Big Band in the Green Lady Lounge isn’t going to show up on your DVR.

They’re going to show up as you see in the photos below, this time presented without captions. These were taken the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, on August 31st. As always, clicking on a shot should open a larger version of it.