Monday, January 26, 2015

Promote

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

Monday, December 29, 2014

Snapshots of 2014, Part 2

More quotes from posts this year:

*****

KC Jazz ALIVE describes itself as a jazz catalyst organization, intended to “facilitate dialogue and design methods to help the greater Kansas City jazz community connect and collaborate to meet their collective missions.” Stakeholders include performing and visual jazz artists, club and venue owners, education leaders, jazz patrons, faith based community leaders and civic leaders….

The organization has secured 501(C)3 not-for-profit status in record time. It is developing a web site at www.kcjazzalive.org. It is partnering with Jazz Near You to provide comprehensive local jazz listings (something the Plastic Sax Kansas City Jazz Calendar has done for years, here). They are establishing a speaker’s bureau to reach out into the community.

Long after the Jazz Commission dissolved, there remains a need to bring Kansas City’s disparate jazz organizations together.

*****

Museums and the Gem dominate 18th Street in the district, and the Blue Room, rightly regarded as one of the country’s premier jazz clubs. In those buildings, you can peer at history behind glass. But at the Foundation you feel the space and walk the rooms that Basie and Prez and Mary Lou Williams and Bird and so many other jazz innovators and geniuses worked and enjoyed. It’s integral to the experience of 18th and Vine. And whether you agree with its current leaders or find its direction misguided, this building demands the respect and inclusion of all of Kansas City’s jazz community.

That respect works both ways. The American Jazz Museum is celebrating 16 years on 18th Street. It is an established Kansas City jazz institution with leadership that has shown the wherewithal to raise funds, stage programs, and operate a superb jazz club in good times and in recession. They have kept alive an annual music festival through adversity…. The American Jazz Museum has earned the community’s respect.

The 18th and Vine district is big enough for the Mutual Musicians Foundation and the American Jazz Museum. The Kansas City jazz community is not big enough for the thorns I see hurled at each.

*****

Last week, the Mutual Musicians Foundation introduced, explained, demonstrated and provided rich context for Kansas City’s extraordinary jazz history to a group of writers and bloggers from around the country. Famous authors and writers for publications as prominent as The Wall Street Journal saw our history and heard, in The Blue Room and at the Foundation’s late night jam, some of the young musicians carrying it forward.

Authors Stanley Crouch and Chuck Haddix discussed their books on Charlie Parker on Thursday night at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center. Next time, someone really needs to test the microphones first. But the intimacy of the conversation forced the audience to concentrate on words being said.

*****

Kansas City’s Charlie Parker Celebration included a few original, generally educational, events. A trolley touring Kansas City sites associated with Parker sold out. The 21-Sax Salute at Parker’s gravesite, a lapsed tradition recognizing his birthday, was revived and welcome. There was a Charlie Parker puppet show at the Gem Theater for kids. But mostly the Celebration threw a unifying theme over already scheduled jazz acts in clubs, restaurants and a shopping center, and declared them two weeks of performances honoring Charlie Parker….

The Celebration was officially sponsored by a new organization, KC Jazz ALIVE. But to its credit, and to the credit of CEO Greg Carroll, the American Jazz Museum threw its full weight and staff behind the effort. Don’t underestimate the value of having paid staff available to smartly and relentlessly promote. This was public relations-style marketing through social media including Facebook, through scheduling appearances on TV and radio talk shows, through preparing schedules and posters. This kind of promotion doesn’t require a huge budget. But it requires a tremendous commitment of time, and that’s a resource few volunteer organizations can muster.

The 2014 Charlie Parker Celebration was a masterful success. In general, events promoted as part of it saw greater attendance than they normally would. The promotion raised the awareness of jazz and where to hear it in Kansas City, raising hopes for a longer term benefit to the jazz community. An article in the Business Journal online declared jazz is not dead. And the marketing built awareness not just locally, but in the online version of national jazz publications Downbeat and Jazz Times as well.

*****

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.

*****

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.

*****

Not mentioned in posts, but among those lost this year were flutist and saxophonist Horace Washington and trombonist Stephanie Bryan. They are dearly missed.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Snapshots of 2014, Part 1

Quotes from posts this year:

*****

It was a glimpse at the potential of the new Broadway Jazz Club. Its location is in a part of town that KC jazz fans have not been asked, for many years, to consider. The club’s challenge is convincing everyone to come on down and sample the inviting atmosphere, the solid staging and sound, and the good food and drinks. If word builds that nights like this are what you’re missing, that challenge becomes considerably easier to conquer.

*****

I’d come from Jazz Winterlude at Johnson County Community College. But this night I also wanted to see singer Dionne Jeroue at The Broadway Jazz Club. I’ve heard her several times in Everette DeVan’s Tuesday jams at The Phoenix, and I’ve been taken by her exceptional voice. But those are Everette’s jams. I wanted to hear her leading her own group.

Dionne is young and gaining experience in commanding a stage. Her voice is exceptional, smooth yet bold with a punch at the right spots, on jazz standards, pop hits and Motown classics. And there’s charisma on that stage, a sexiness without trying to be sexy, a playfulness exuding joy.,,, But between her vocal talent and presence, Kansas City, this is a singer watch.

*****

I opened my car door.

Suddenly, from across 36th street, a youth, probably in his mid teens, yelled unintelligibly at me and ran towards my car.

I tried to get in and shut the door quickly. If I could just lock the door and start the car, I’d escape him. But the camera pack made sitting in the seat slow and awkward. I slumped in and yanked the car door shut, but the youth was there and pulled the handle from the outside. He was stronger and faster. He opened the door before I could lock it.

“Give me that phone!” he yelled. I didn’t. It was in the hand away from the door. Instinctively, I clasped it tighter.

“Give me the phone!”

Another youth, similar age, ran up from the back of the lot, from Central Street. He stopped at the open car door and looked at me, eyes all open and crazed. He pulled from his pocket what looked like a small gun. He pointed it at my leg, then at my groin, then at my leg.

“Get out!” he demanded.

*****

The Broadway Jazz Club responded impressively. I didn’t expect anybody to call me but I’m grateful that they did. The addition of the security guard goes a long way towards relieving perceived uncertainties over the neighborhood.

*****

Bobby Watson on alto sax, Terell Stafford on trumpet, Edward Simon on piano, Essiet Okon Essiet on bass and Victor Lewis on drums reunited on Friday, February 21st at The Blue Room to celebrate 30 years of Bobby Watson and Horizon. You will not find an ensemble where every player knows and responds to each other more instinctively, more naturally, or more imaginatively or more expressively, than this one. The musicians who make up Horizon may have evolved over the years. They may not reunite as an ensemble all that often anymore. But you will not hear five more talented jazz musicians sharing a stage in 2014. This is jazz at another level.

*****

It’s possible that nobody in the Kansas City jazz community has more friends than Everette DeVan.

Start with his command of the Hammond B3 organ, a one of a kind sound, unmatched in jazz and mastered by few. Everette’s decades of swinging Kansas City jazz and soulful blues ranks him as one of the most popular and in-demand jazz musicians in KC….

Everette suffered two small strokes recently. Tonight (Monday, February 24th), at The Broadway Jazz Club, 3601 Broadway, Dionne Jeroue and Eboni Fondren host a benefit to raise money to help one of Kansas City’s favorite musicians with his expenses. Come and you’ll see what I mean about the breadth of Everette’s friends. A list released a week ago already named over 40 musicians planning to perform. Green Lady Lounge is closing tonight to direct fans to this benefit.

*****

This was for the American Jazz Museum’s PEER Into the Future initiative. PEER is an acronym for the museum’s mission: Performance, Exhibition, Education and Research.

I don’t know if the luncheon was the culmination of a campaign or the entire initiative. But a thank you letter noted that PEER Into the Future 2014 reached its goal of raising $120,000 for general museum operations.

That is impressive. Other jazz organizations could learn from the American Jazz Museum….

The American Jazz Museum isn't ideal. When I walk through, I crave more space and more exhibits. But sixteen years after its opening, nobody else has built a monument to jazz more grand, or more smartly operated. It’s past time to recognize that.

*****

Friday and Saturday, word ricocheted through the jazz community that Dionne [Jeroue] had passed away on Thursday night.

Dionne was a beautiful person, in every sense that description can be taken. When you became her friend, you became her best friend. Between her vivacious personality and extraordinary voice, everyone who heard this sprite knew (really, there was no doubt) that here was a key to carrying jazz forward to an amazingly bright future in Kansas City.

Then Saturday morning, I heard Dionne was gone.

My eyes were moist most of the day.

Saturday, this world made no sense.

*****

It was the happiest room in town, and it was the saddest room in town.

This was a tribute to Dionne Jeroue, the young singer who passed a week and a half earlier, and who was adored by everyone in Kansas City jazz who knew her. This was a celebration of Dionne’s life. Musicians and friends swung at their best. Heads swayed, arms thrust forward in time, bodies twisted to and fro in their seats, people rose and danced.

And tears streamed.

*****

More next week.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Take Five, Take Two

I’m not a journalist, I’m a blogger. As much as some bloggers on the national scene try to blur the distinction, I hold too much respect for Kansas City’s journalists to pretend to be something I’m not. Nonetheless, I contribute an occasional article to The Pitch, KC’s alternative weekly. A couple months back I wrote an introduction to the new location of Take Five. The editors wisely adjusted the focus of the article from the space and acoustics, as I wrote it, to the people. And they were right. The editors at The Pitch are among the professionals I respect.

The story is a bit dated now. Many of Kansas City’s jazz aficionados have experienced the wonderful new space, and all of the references to upcoming shows are shows which have passed. However, some may yet find this alternative take interesting. And since I have this blog where I can share it, below it is shared.

*****

Walk into the new Take Five Coffee + Bar and immediately you notice the stage.

Customers knew Take Five by its lantern lights dangling from the ceiling and slanted wood beams. But at 26 feet across, defined by stacked stone, surrounding a house piano and drum kit, and visible from any seat in the room, the stage is the new Take Five’s visual signature.

“We never have been, at least after the first six months, your average coffee shop,” says owner Lori Chandler.

Six months into its original location at 151st and Nall, in July, 2010, Take Five held a fundraiser for local jazz ensemble Diverse. Four years later, Take Five had built a reputation as a suburban mecca for jazz. With superb acoustics and a living room ambiance, weekends might find wall-to-wall fans delighting in Kansas City's renaissance of young and veteran jazz talent. People were going out to listen to jazz in Johnson County.

“We’re either a coffee shop with a night job or a jazz club with a day job,” explains Chandler. “I don't know which. But they all work together and they have to work together. The music business is hard. The coffee shop business is hard. Putting them together has made it not so hard.”

Then last November, developers of Corbin Park called. The once-stalled shopping development at 135th and Metcalf, anchored by Von Maur, envisioned a strip of shops along a curving drive behind the department store as a mini entertainment district. From the initial discussion, developers understood the unique coffee shop-bar-jazz club that Chandler and her husband Doug had built. Lori remembers, “They were like, we know what you’ve been doing. We know how hard it is to have done that in the shopping center where you are. We know you have a great customer base. We know you do live music.” Corbin Park offered more than double the space.

Musicians and fans were delighted over Take Five’s success, but also felt trepidation. The jazz community had something special here. The acoustics were delightful happenstance. Nobody, not even Lori or Doug, expected jazz in that little shop to sound so perfect. And the cozy atmosphere was integral to the experience. Downtown’s Green Lady Lounge is another jazz club where the audience becomes a part of the stage, nearly sitting in musicians’ laps. But Green Lady isn’t a listening room. Take Five is. Could Take Five really be replicated in a larger space?

“I think we did it,” says Lori. “It was 100 percent by design. This orange is the exact same color as we had at the shop over there. We knew we needed the stacked stone. The only thing we’re missing is the wood beams.” Lori continues. “We wanted the low rise, so we still had that intimacy. It’s not a three foot or four foot stage. You’re still right there with the musicians, but they have a more defined space to work in. And we put in wood floors instead of tiles, which helps acoustically, but also all of the woodwork here brings the element of the beams that we had before, just in a different place. That was the goal.” The wood floor can also be used for dancing.

The front door opens to a bar at your right, to order drinks and food. Stools line one counter. Booths are tucked in by the windows, an area where people can talk. Then, to the left, is the living room, with plush chairs in front of the stage and tables and seats spread about. This area faces the stage. Over here, when musicians perform, don’t talk.

The entire shop is designed for acoustics. “The room is set on a whole bunch of different angles,” Lori explains. “The stage is angled. The acoustic tiles are slanted six inches back to front. This here” – she points to a slanted beam descending from the ceiling, over the ordering counter on the right – “breaks up the room. All of those things serve to trap sound.” She points towards another beam, facing the windows, designed to suppress sound from the espresso machine. “That was one of the problems we had in the old space. If you’re trying to make drinks, especially run a blender in the middle of a bass solo, we would have to take the blender back into the kitchen. The goal is we could be making drinks and the sound from the espresso machine goes up into the acoustic tiles and gets caught by that beam.”

More than double the space brings advantages. The old location had 32 seats before folding chairs were brought out. The new location seats 80. Lori adds, “We’ll have stacking chairs available. If we fill this place up and need to bring those out, that will be a wonderful problem.”

More space also means a complete kitchen. “We’re going to have an expanded appetizer menu,” Lori says. “We’re going to have expanded sandwich menus as well. We’re going to do Cubans, we’re going to do pulled pork. We’re going to have daily specials. We’re going to have expanded salads. We’re going to have options so you can get breakfast for dinner if you want to.”

Take Five will add a Sunday brunch from 10:00 to 2:00 starting November 2nd with Mark Lowrey. “It will always be a piano ensemble. No vocals. Brunch is an opportunity for families to gather together and talk. It will be the one music event where we don’t ask people to be quiet.”

Weekend jazz begins Friday, September 24th when saxophonist Rob Scheps returns with Steely Dan saxophonist Roger Rosenberg. Stan Kessler's double drummer group Parallax performs on Halloween night, in costume. And Sunday, November 2nd is the official reopening (they’re calling it a housewarming) with the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City.

And while you’re there. just try to think of another coffee shop designed to hear bass solos.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Two Bassists, Two CDs

At first I thought it was mournful, perhaps becuase of its deliberate pace, but that's wrong. The opening tune of Bob Bowman’s new CD, Songs for Sandra is a statement of respect. The Very Thought of You, a musical conversation between Bowman on bass and Laura Caviani on piano, like friends in a living room tossing stories back and forth, evokes a feeling of delicately smiling at a memory.

Bowman lost his wife Sandra last year. This album remembers her through music of grace and joy.

Take guitarist Danny Embrey's composition, Another Time. Solos by Embrey, pianist Roger Wilder and Bowman build from a quiet playfulness to shaking your head with delight, and with respect. There’s an abundance of delight here. Bowman’s composition, Sandra’s Gait, conjures an image of someone who doesn't walk but jauntily skips through her day. Wilder’s song, Street Cartwheels, musically paints a picture of friskiness and mirth. The final number, Caviani’s Sandra in the Flinthills, brings the CD to a close with a tender gracefulness.

Bowman is joined by some of Kansas City’s best musicians. Besides Wilder and Embrey, numbers include guitarist Rod Fleeman and drummer Todd Strait. Singer Karrin Allyson and drummer Eliot Zigmund are among the contributing guests.

This is not a somber CD. It sketches a portrait with deference but, more than that, with an abundance of glee. I saw Sandra at many of Bowman’s performances. I can’t say that I knew her. But after smiling through this CD, I wish I did.

Songs for Sandra is available on CD Baby here.

*****

I praise Kansas City’s jazz musicians regularly for their performance, but don't recognize often enough their stellar compositions. I heard it Saturday night, as Rich Wheeler’s group performed music by T.J. Martley and Bill McKemy. You hear it on the new releases from Diverse and The Project H. You hear it on numbers on Bob Bowman's new CD, as mentioned above.

And throughout Tyrone Clark's new CD, Music in the Grain, you delight in intriguing, sometimes complex but always captivating original compositions, performed by some of the finest musicians playing jazz in Kansas City today.

The opening track, Hello Alaadeen, pays tribute to Clark’s mentor, Ahmad Alaadeen, starting with guest Bobby Watson’s saxophone then smartly building with Charles Gatschet’s guitar, Joe Cartwirght’s piano, Michael Warren's drums and Clark's bass. It swings in a slightly perverse yet highly inviting way. Fay Fay swings like Basie, opening with Clark’s playful bass and Warren’s driving drums, before Gatschet’s guitar and Cartwright’s piano join the party. The celebration jumps into Temptations-style funky soul on Midwest Girl with Everett Freeman’s keyboards and Watson’s sax peppering the mix. Nutty Peach turns the funk up a notch. Guitar blithely soars over vibrant rhythm on Traveling and Brazilian Dance, with a sway of funk returning to the attitude on Drive Thru. The pace is reigned in a bit on the last two numbers, a contemporary ballad and a gospel with an attitude.

Mostly, this is music inviting you to party and dance with joy. To some the styles may seem to stray from a strict definition of jazz. But maybe they don’t. Because, after all, while the beats here may mirror 2014 sensibilities, isn’t music inviting you to dance with delight where jazz in Kansas City began?

Music in the Grain is available on CD Baby here and on iTunes here. The official CD release party is this Thursday, December 11th, at The Blue Room.


Monday, December 1, 2014

The Magic Jazz Fairy Calls It a Career

It chuckled. There was the bar on Locust, about 13th Street, it recalled. Didn’t last long. When the musicians walked in for their gig, the manager asked how big a crowd he should prepare for. He hadn’t promoted anything. He just expected bands to arrive with an entourage. That place was probably the worst.

So many years and so many clubs. The Magic Jazz Fairy leaned forward in its chair, wings folded neatly behind its back, smiling at the memories. It was about to leave on one last flight. Tonight Kansas City’s Magic Jazz Fairy would make a final visit to all of the area’s sleeping jazz fans and whisper in their ears. Then it would retire.

Five years ago the Magic Jazz Fairy couldn’t imagine retiring in peace. Five years ago, Kansas City’s jazz scene was mired in turmoil, and the Fairy only made the situation worse.

*****

But first, the basics. Historically, some bar and restaurant owners have booked jazz but failed to promote it. You can’t blame them. Just running that establishment fills their day. You also want them to market the music they book to draw guests? For pity’s sake, if these owners wanted to be music promoters they would have gone out and discovered the Beatles.

No, they expect word to get out despite their not helping. They expect jazz fans to know where jazz can be heard and to show up. And if we don’t, they proclaim that jazz is dead.

Because they know word will be spread by the Magic Jazz Fairy.

In every city, the Magic Jazz Fairy ferrets out where and when jazz is happening. Then late at night, while jazz fans sleep, it flies quickly and quietly into every fan’s home and whispers into their ear where to find the music, so we wake up knowing, just knowing, where to go.

That must be how it happens. No other explanation makes sense.

*****

Five years ago in Kansas City, jazz struggled, trapped in a deadly spiral. Few jazz clubs promoted their schedules. Sure, one or two would post them online. But most found maintaining public calendars a mundane, even evil, burden. One club would give the wrong day and time for special performances to The Kansas City Star’s columnist. Fans, confused, didn’t know where to go. Clubs closed or abandoned jazz in a fit to survive. You wanted to hear jazz in Kansas City? Right. Now quit being a troublemaker and go find yourself a nice country bar.

Our Magic Jazz Fairy looked out over the Kafkaesque landscape and murmured, yeah, like I can make a difference. In fear and despair, it started to drink. Soon it was spending its days and nights in dark urban bars, shirking responsibilities, flying nowhere and whispering nothing.

Few dared to promote jazz. Few dared to face the community’s scorn. From all appearances, jazz in Kansas City was doomed.

*****

From the wilderness, in one of the city’s few remaining jazz clubs, a stunning young voice sang standards. Another mixed jazz with pop, swinging late at night with a vibrant, contemporary lilt.

Another musician reached out with his saxophone, another with his trumpet, a couple more with a bass, a few on piano, and on drums. Their talent was extraordinary. What was wrong with these young musicians? Didn’t they understand that nobody played jazz anymore?

These young musicians didn’t just want to play jazz. They approached jazz with a 21st century sensibility. Sure, a club owner stands to reap the greatest benefit from drawing a crowd and has the greatest incentive to promote. But these young sprites understood that they they could promote, too, by establishing a following and telling that following where they could be heard. Selling yourself is part of building any career. They recognized that today, for a musician offstage, that’s largely accomplished online. They recognized it’s not 1930 anymore.

Kansas City’s jazz scene started to capture attention, to nudge those who would listen, with the energy of youth. A new club featuring jazz opened. Then another. Then one more. And these new owners, these jazz entrepreneurs, were equally 21st century savvy. Their online presence prominently featured calendars and schedules. Finally, people could go online and find out when and where to hear jazz at a variety of locations. And fans turned out for it. The remaining established clubs reworked their web sites and started updating their calendars, too.

The Magic Jazz Fairy looked around, amazed at the activity swirling around it. Quickly, it sobered up.

*****

The night air was a bit chilly for this final flight, so the Magic Jazz Fairy pulled on a jacket.

Put the jazz resurgence in perspective, it thought. No bars are giving up country for big band music. But the growth is real. Real enough that an aging mystical being can again look out on a self-perpetuating scene. Young talent continues to populate it. At some venues, younger faces are filling the audiences, too. Weeknights can be iffy, but clubs are drawing crowds on weekends. Calendars are easy to find online, and mostly maintained. The smarter owners and musicians are finding just enough time to tease performances with social media. This isn’t the 1930s, or even he 1980s. But jazz in Kansas City is, modestly, starting to thrive.

Kansas City jazz had outgrown a need for the Fairy’s services. The public was finding the music without its help. Now was the right time to relax and retire.

Then a thought hit it. The mystical being’s eyes narrowed. “If anyone starts screwing up,” thought the Magic Jazz Fairy, “I’ll be back.”

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.