Monday, July 28, 2014

Don't Fear Jazz

Apparently, two types of festivals today use jazz in their name. One is a jazz festival legitimately full with  jazz acts. This year’s Chicago Jazz Festival, for instance, stars Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tootie Heath, Terrence Blanchard with Ravi Coltrane, Gary Burton, and Dave Holland with Kevin Eubanks. Each act, without question, is jazz.

Then there’s the event with jazz in its name which sports a token jazz act surrounded by other, presumably more popular, genres of music. The Capital Jazz Festival, situated between Washington D.C. and Baltimore, is an example. This year, Dianne Reeves shared the billing with Chaka Khan, Erykah Badu, John Legend, Peabo Bryson and The O’Jays.

I’m not sure why an event like that is branded a jazz festival. Perhaps it’s a legacy title, recalling a day when its schedule was dominated by jazz. Or maybe it’s because the event is located in a jazz district.

That would explain the 2014 Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival.

Let’s state upfront: Organizers at the American Jazz Museum stage a first class event. Last year cut a few corners compared to previous years, such as less and less elegant signage. But the museum still mounted an outstanding music festival, complemented with a variety of vendors, tight staging, a good flow through the grounds, and deep respect for visitors once you’re inside the festival (but not when you’re trying to find a parking space; unless you’re an organizer or a sponsor who paid oodles, parking is a problem).

But whatever you name it, this is a music festival, not any more a jazz festival than one starring Chaka Khan and the O’Jays. Look at the announced headliners.

Trumpeter Roy Hargrove is the event’s legitimate connection to jazz. But the festival’s website does everything possible to downplay that connection. It says, “Ever stretching into more challenging and colorful ways to flex his musical chops, Hargrove has left indelible imprints in a vast array of artful settings. In 2003, he introduced his own hip hop/jazz collective The RH Factor….” And it quotes Hargrove as musing, “I’ve been doing more touring with RH Factor than my quintet lately….” It doesn’t state whether he’s coming with his quintet or his don’t-worry-everybody-it-doesn’t-really-sound-like-jazz group.

Headliner Meshell Ndegeocello is described by the festival’s website “as a redeemer of soul music. Her music incorporates funk, soul, hip-hop, reggae, rock and jazz.” I listened to some of it on iTunes. The jazz influence is exceptionally well hidden.

The festival site makes no pretense at all of tying headliner Midnight Star to jazz. Good thing. I’d never heard of them. After listening to their Greatest Hits album on iTunes, I never want to hear them again. You will if you like 1980s vintage electronic dance music.

Finally, headliner Lucky Peterson fills the blues portion of the festival’s lengthy title as, frankly, the act I’m most looking forward to hearing. With a modern groove laid down on a true down-n-dirty blues sound and the occasional boogie, this music is authentic. Maybe authentic enough to scare off everyone the other acts seem aimed at attracting.

I understand the expense involved with staging an outdoor festival. I understand the need to attract more people than attend a concert at The Gem or spend a night in The Blue Room.

But I also understand the message being sent implies a fear of jazz. The American Jazz Museum is staging a music festival that tries to associate itself with jazz though its name but disassociate itself through the actual music. This appears to be a festival booked with marketing in mind, by defining an age group who organizers think will buy tickets to a music event at 18th and Vine and booking the acts they can afford with the broadest appeal to that defined group.

I work in marketing. I deal daily with research and target marketing. It’s a fine, science-based method for building campaigns designed to move merchandise to consumers or for driving business-to-business sales.

I hate art defined by marketing. Especially when I know organizers don’t need to fear jazz.

You see a comparable mentality to the Corporate Woods Jazz Festival. I haven’t decided yet whether that event’s decision this year to book Bobby Watson, Eldar and Angela Hagenbach in half hour segments was a misguided experiment or booking by someone who doesn’t have a clue.

Legitimate jazz names properly selected, correctly marketed – that’s critical – and fairly priced will draw people to an outdoor music festival. You need to sell the event. You need to sell the experience. You need to sell the idea that if you miss this, you’ll miss what everyone in the office will be discussing on Monday morning. There’s where research-based marketing benefits an arts event: In knowing how to sell it. And that’s where you set a festival apart from, say, a jazz concert at the Folly marketed with a few ads in the Sunday Star.

I remember in the early 1980s, at an 18th and Vine Jazz and Heritage Festival, hearing Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Harry “Sweets” Edison perform with Rich Hill’s trio in Eblon, a club then at the corner of 18th and Vine where Danny’s Big Easy stands today. A small stage was set up because rain had forced the outdoor tents to come down. And as “Lockjaw” blew an unforgettable solo, the noisy club quieted, every conversation stopped, and the audience listened. We were hearing musical magic.

The 2014 equivalent of an act like that should be playing a music festival at 18th and Vine. Properly marketed, it will draw a crowd. It will just be a different crowd than comes to hear 1980s vintage electronic dance music.

Monday, July 21, 2014

This 'n That 'n Celebrating August

Two festivals bookended the month back then, the 18th and Vine Jazz and Heritage Festival early in August and the Kansas City Jazz Festival late in the month. Conveniently, both Count Basie’s and Charlie Parker’s birthdays fell during the month. Saks Fifth Avenue, then on The Plaza, hosted a classy jazz awards celebration on a Friday night. Other special events popped up from year to year.

So, in the latter half of the 1980s, the Kansas City Jazz Commission obtained proclamations from the Mayor’s office and from the Missouri Secretary of State – they were easy to get if you submitted the parts about your event written in their style – naming August as Jazz and Heritage Month in Kansas City and Missouri.

The Kansas City Jazz Festival eventually merged with the blues festival and moved to July. The 18th and Vine event moved into September. Saks ended the awards celebrations. And the Jazz Commission stopped asking for August proclamations.

This August may be time for somebody to ask again.

KC Jazz ALIVE, with its freshly-acquired not-for-profit status, has branded a compilation of events as an 18-day Kansas City Charlie Parker Celebration. It mostly promotes already-scheduled-with-no-idea-they’d-wind-up-being-connected-to-Charlie-Parker club dates. But give credit where it’s due. This is an inaugural effort to recognize one of the greatest icons in jazz history, in the city where he was born and raised, a city which until now couldn’t even see the benefit in saving his home or put the right saxophone on his tombstone.

From August 14th through the end of the month, over 18 days, KC Jazz ALIVE will promote the collection of concerts and events as recognition of one of this city’s most culturally important sons, even reviving the Twenty One Sax Salute at Parker’s gravesite at noon on August 30th. Boulevard Brewing has designed an impressive poster.

The 1983 revival of the Kansas City Jazz Festival was a two week collection of events under a single banner. So was the 1984 festival. This format has worked before in Kansas City. It has the potential to bring welcome attention to Kansas City jazz while honoring a legend who should have been honored decades ago.

Unassociated with the Parker celebration but falling within its 18 days is an August 23rd unveiling of a new American Jazz Walk of Fame along 18th Street, between Vine and Highland. Six bronze medallions will be embedded in the sidewalk honoring Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, Jay McShann, Bobby Watson, Pat Metheny and, of course, Charlie Parker. Sounds much like the bronze stars that once faced a hotel on 12th Street. A concert by the Count Basie Orchestra in the Gem Theater will cap the event. It’s all organized by the Jazz District Renaissance Corporation (though word on the street largely places the office of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver behind the effort).

Last year saw the renovation of homes and the Rochester Hotel along Highland Street, finally surrounding the Mutual Musicians Foundation with the inviting environment it needed and deserved. These medallions will bring renewed focus to 18th Street. It’s good to see architectural enhancements spread throughout the district.

Next year, another event or compilation celebration highlighting dates early in the month could again warrant a proclamation honoring the month both Charlie Parker and Count Basie were born.

(Then the Prairie Village Jazz Festival explodes with jazz just a week into the next month.)

*****

KC Jazz ALIVE is on a roll. Their program at the Folly Theater to introduce musicians to opportunities to earn a living resulted in some musicians taking jobs that will allow them to make money and perform.

Some argue that artists should be able to earn their living as artists. And some artists do. But even Jay McShann drove a garbage truck to support his family. Whether we’re talking jazz saxophonists or poets or portrait painters, the reality today is that only the best of the best artists find full time employment in their art, and even then only those who understand how to successfully sell and market themselves.

KC Jazz Alive’s next step will be to help jazz musicians do just that, setting up a chance for promotional photos.

*****

The American Jazz Museum is also on a roll. They’re one of the key organizations behind the Charlie Parker Celebration. On Wednesday they will officially unveil the lineup for October 11th’s Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival (will someone slice and dice that name into something manageable?), even though if you follow the right orgs on Facebook, you’ve already seen all of the headliners’ names.

And on top of a successful PEER fundraising effort (noted here), they have won a $133,050 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to add staff to improve collections accessibility. Think easier access to the John Baker jazz film collection in the near future.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Building the 2014 Prairie Village Jazz Festival

I understood the parameters.

The organizers of The Prairie Village Jazz Festival require each act to have a connection to Kansas City (you smooth jazz acts who want to return here can stop emailing me. Having played the Corporate Woods Jazz Festival is not a connection to Kansas City).

The music needs to be dynamic to play well to a large space. Intimate jazz has its place, but an outdoor hill seating thousands of people isn’t it. That doesn’t mean only music that’s brassy and bold need apply (though it can). It means jazz that’s accessible and makes an emotional connection with the families who fill that hill. This isn’t about giving an audience what some snide know-it-all decides is good for them. This is about giving a husband and wife in tee-shirts and shorts and laying on a blanket, jazz they’ll enjoy.

Last year’s festival lost money, and the talent budget was the place to cut. I decided we would not pursue a big band. Last year’s festival showed me we really need a bigger stage to properly accommodate a big band. Between the number of musicians to be paid and increased production costs associated with a larger stage, this wasn’t to be a big band year.

With the abundance of extraordinary jazz talent in Kansas City, and slots for just six acts during the festival day, I wanted to largely consider musicians who were not in last year’s event. That goal influenced decisions on the groups to invite.

And I wanted a link to the jazz district. I’m still stung by memories of The Kansas City Jazz Festival, which I helped organize through much of the 1980s, being contrasted with the 18th and Vine Jazz and Heritage Festival staged those same years. Some back then decided this city had a white jazz festival and a black jazz festival. With a significant festival in the 18th and Vine district five weeks after the Prairie Village event, we need a connection, not a perception of indifference and division.

Those were the parameters. This is what we’ll hear on September 6th at Harmon Park, 7700 Mission Road in Prairie Village, Kansas, next to City Hall and Shawnee Mission East High School, with a $5 admission (children free):
2:00 – 2:10 p.m.    Welcome by the Mayor

2:10 – 2:40 p.m.    Shawnee Mission East Blue Knights
Kim Harrison, director

3:00 – 3:50 p.m.    Project H                           
Ryan Heinlein, trombone, Brett Jackson, saxophones, Nate Nall, trumpet, Jeff Stocks, guitar, Andrew Ouellette, piano, Dominique Sanders, bass, Matt Leifer, drums

4:10 – 5:00 p.m.    Shay Estes with Rod Fleeman and Matt Otto           
Shay Estes, vocals, Matt Otto, tenor sax, Rod Fleeman, guitar, Mark Lowrey, piano, Karl McComas-Reichl, bass, John Kizilarmut, drums

5:20 – 6:10 p.m.    The Jazz Disciples with Jason Goudeau and Stephanie Moore         
Gerald Dunn, alto sax, Everett Freeman, piano, James Ward, bass, Michael Warren, drums, Jason Goudeau, trombone, Stephanie Moore, vocals

6:30 – 7:20 p.m.    Bram Wijnands Swingtet                     
Bram Wijnands, piano and vocals, David Chael, clarinet, Carl Bender, tenor and baritone sax, Mike Herrera, alto sax, Phillip Wakefield, drums

7:40 – 8:40 p.m.    Kevin Mahogany with the Joe Cartwright Trio                  
Kevin Mahogany, vocals, Joe Cartwright, piano, Tyrone Clark, bass, Michael Warren, drums

9:00 – 10:30 p.m.  Deborah Brown with Joe Lovano and Terell Stafford   
Deborah Brown, vocals, Joe Lovano, tenor sax, Terell Stafford, trumpet, Richard Johnson, piano, Tyrone Clark, bass, Leon Anderson, drums

Scheduling begins with the headliners, and I knew where I wanted to start. Anyone who has heard Deborah Brown knows her voice is one of the most magnificent in jazz today. But she rarely plays Kansas City, her hometown. Her extraordinary talent is better known in Europe, Asia and Russia, where she performs much of the year.

Deborah should be recognized here. My goal: At the conclusion of this year’s festival, thousands of fans ask why they had never heard of Deborah Brown before and where can they hear her again.

Maybe we’ll meet that goal, maybe not. But I decided we’d try. I asked Deborah to put together a headline group. She did.

Joe Lovano was Downbeat’s Tenor Saxophonist of the Year last year, and their Jazz Musician of the Year in 2010. And he and Deborah have known each other for decades. She added Terell Stafford, whose trumpet dominated The Blue Room when he played there with Bobby Watson and Horizon a few months back. This will be pianist Richard Johnson’s second trip to the festival. He played with Bobby Watson’s quartet a couple years ago.

Any jazz fan recognizes the potential of that group. But we also needed a name the public at large might better know. Kevin Mahogany, who is always delighted to return to his hometown and to sing with Joe Cartwright’s trio, was available.

For the second year running, a show seen at Take Five influenced a selection. Last year, it was opener Andy McGhie. Earlier this year, when I heard Shay Estes’s quartet with Matt Otto and Rod Fleeman added, I heard a new dimension in her music. They were in.

For the third consecutive year, we open with an ensemble of this city’s younger jazz generation. Ryan Heinlein’s Project H has just recorded a new CD.

Last year, the Mutual Musicians Foundation All-Stars was a fortunate last minute addition. I recognized the importance of connecting with 18th and Vine. This year, the Jazz Disciples, a Blue Room regular, connects.

Last year, Everette DeVan and Chris Hazelton roused the crowd just before the headliners. This year, Bram Wijnands Swingtet will play the crowd rouser.

A formula has evolved over the last few years, of a certain flow of jazz groups that works playing to that hill. And if each of this year’s groups has one thing in common – besides the fact they play jazz – it’s this: These are ensembles whose music and personalities will make an emotional connection with the crowd.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Venues

From the award-winning Blue Room to the living room intimacy of Take Five to the funky eclecticism of the Green Lady Lounge, Kansas City today hosts a variety of jazz clubs, each wearing a unique identity.

Any KC jazz fan knows this. But it became even more obvious while scrolling through a few years of photos, looking for ones that showcase each location's feel, for possible use on a new website.

Typically, photos in this blog feature the musicians. Today, we admire the venues. Not every locale is represented. I’ve yet to carry the camera into The Ship, for instance, which recently opened to everyone in the West Bottoms and is a one-of-a-kind experience. But below is a sampling of the environments where you’ll find jazz in Kansas City in 2014.

Upstairs at the Green Lady Lounge. I’ve yet to photograph the recently renovated downstairs Orion Room.

Red walls, apparently, are in with Kansas City jazz clubs today. So are paintings of KC jazz icons at the Broadway Jazz club.

Ernie Andrews in The Blue Room

You’d never have convinced me that jazz would work in Johnson County until Take Five proved it. Actually, they have more than proved it. Soon Take Five will be moving into double the space.

Don’t overlook the late night weekend jam sessions at the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

We have festivals. Such as when Bettye Lavette took over the stage at last year's Kansas City 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival.

Or when crowds started to fill the park for the Prairie Village Jazz Festival.

January’s Jazz Winterlude at Johnson County Community College will take next year off. But here’s proof it has filled Yardley Hall.

A closer look at the stage at the Broadway Jazz Club.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Festival Season 2014

At the Monterey Jazz Festival on September 21st through 24th, in its 57th year, you can hear Herbie Hancock, Robert Glasper, Marcus Miller, Christian McBride and Michael Feinstein. What a lineup. And this appears to be the only festival that Hancock is playing this year.

Don’t feel too jealous, Kansas City. The least expensive tickets that will get you into every show there start at $415.00. Plus another hundred bucks for a three day parking pass.

I’ve griped that Kansas City today is mired in minor jazz festivals. And we are. But when you consider Kansas City’s total scene – the series at The Folly and The Gem, special shows at The Blue Room – over the course of a year we have the opportunity to hear mostly comparable talent. And we're not paying $515 including parking to hear them.

Last year, the Kansas City 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival (still winner of the country’s longest name for a jazz festival) charged a measly $10 for an advance ticket and $25 at the gate. The Prairie Village Jazz Festival was free.

We’re in the midst of jazz festival season and, at a time area festivals have yet to announce their lineups, we can see who other festivals are booking in 2014.

Fewer are headlining names you’d be reaching to call jazz.

The Capital Jazz Fest (held June 6 - 8, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.) bills itself as the jazz festival with soul. It headlined Chaka Khan, Erykah Badu, John Legend, Peabo Bryson and The O’Jays. It also sneaked in Diane Reeves and Stanley Clarke, so there was a little legitimate jazz. But there’s no reason to think they’re going to change. An advance ticket for the entire festival cost $200, and two of the three days sold out.

Meanwhile, the Hampton Jazz Festival, in its 46th year in Hampton, Virginia (June 27 - 29; $220 for 3 days) headlines Chaka Khan, Toni Braxton and The O’Jays (who’d have guessed Chaka Khan and the O’Jays would be such popular jazz acts this year), plus Spyro Gyra and Midy Abair to sort of justify the word jazz in the festival name.

And while we’re talking jazz festivals with non-jazz headliners, we might as well mention the mother of all music festivals, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (April 25 - May 4). With headliners like Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Christina Aguilera, Phish and Santana, this event has clearly outgrown its jazz roots. But with a schedule that also included Chick Corea, Pharoah Sanders, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Branford Marsalis, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Trombone Shorty, neither has it forgotten its roots. Tickets were $110 in advance or $140 at the gate. VIP Passes with Gold Circle Seating at each stage, at $900, sold out.

However, these exceptions aside, most jazz festivals this year are featuring genuine jazz acts.

The most overwhelming list of names last year was at the Detroit Jazz Festival. This year’s event, their 34th year, covers several city blocks in downtown Detroit on August 29 - September 1, and is free. Among the headliners: Joshua Redman, Phil Woods, Cyrus Chestnut, Regina Carter, Ramsey Lewis with John Pizzarelli, Dianne Schurr, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Pharoah Sanders, Nicholas Payton, Ron Carter, Stanley Clarke, Lou Donaldson, Randy Weston and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. However, Chrysler has ended its $200,000 annual sponsorship of the festival (article here), which is likely to make a profound difference next year.

The same weekend, the free Chicago Jazz Festival this year features Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tootie Heath, Terrence Blanchard with Ravi Coltrane, Gary Burton, Dave Holland with Kevin Eubanks and the Sun Ra Arkestra.

The Newport Jazz Festival celebrates its 60th anniversary on August 1 - 3 in Newport, Rhode Island with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dave Holland, Gary Burton, Robert Glasper, Vijay Iyer, Dr. John, Ron Carter, Lee Konitz Quartet with Grace Kelly, Dick Hyman, Ravi Coltrane, Kurt Rosenwinkel, the Mingus Big Band, Trombone Shorty, David Sanborn and the Brubeck Brothers. A 3 day pass starts at $155 (plus $39 for parking).

The Playboy Jazz Festival at Los Angeles’s Hollywood Bowl (June 14 and 15) featured Kenny Barron with Ravi Coltrane, Diane Reeves, Dr. Lonnie Smith, a George Duke Tribute with Al Jarreau and Stanley Clarke, George Benson with Earl Klugh, Jon Batiste and James Cotton. Tickets started at an amazingly reasonable $39 per day.

In Indianapolis, Indiana, the Indy Jazz Fest (September 11 -20) puts acts in various venues with a separate charge for each show, ranging from free to $57. Announced acts include Alan Toussaint, Ramsey Lewis, Diane Schurr, Eddie Palmieri and Ravi Coltrane.

Some of these festivals showcase enviable lineups. But many are at decidedly unenviable prices. And while Detroit’s free festival looks awesome, I can assure you, as a festival organizer, a $200,000 sponsorship is a unique situation that will buy you awesome.

I have no idea who will headline this year’s 18th and Vine event. I can tell you that I am genuinely excited about this year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival lineup (I’m booking it), which we hope to announce in July. However, it does not include any of the names mentioned above.

Sorry, jazz fans. Chaka Khan will not be playing Prairie Village, Kansas this year.

Monday, June 23, 2014

This 'n that 'n History Inside Out

Here’s what I didn’t expect. Because I’ve driven through most of these neighborhoods, I’ve explored them any number of times, trying to understand the context of Kansas City’s jazz history. But I’ve always approached them from my home in the suburbs. I’ve entered them from the south. Approaching these neighborhoods from the north, from the center of the district on out, they way they developed and the way they disappeared, brings a different perspective and broader understanding.

I didn’t expect that.

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. Crouch’s responses consistently returned to understanding the music. He elegantly described how in jazz the musicians on stage hear each other and respond, and how that sets a live performance apart from any studio recording. Within that context, we understood the intelligence that elevated Charlie Parker’s music to another level. Haddix concentrated on the history, such as the multiple Kansas City homes Bird lived in, facts unrecognized until researched for his book. Both discussed the influence on Parker of growing up in Kansas City at a time when he could stand in the alley behind the Reno Club and hear Lester Young and Buster Smith blow the magnificent evolution of a music that grew from the streets.

But the true highlight of the conference was a bus tour.

Limited funds changed the transportation from an intended fine tour bus to a church van with a cracked windshield and seating for fourteen. Didn’t matter. This was a fascinating look at the three square miles that Kansas City’s Black population was confined to during the days that musicians in this city invented one of the pillars of jazz. It started at the Black downtown, 18th and Vine, and covered the streets outwards from there.

I’ve visited Troost Lake, off The Paseo. But I’ve always approached it from the south. Driving to it from the north illustrates how it was part of a community, the lake where the Black population was allowed to go. I’ve seen the nearby street that angles sharply towards the east. But I never knew that street was angled to define a dividing line between the portion of Vine Street where Black Kansas Citians could live and the portion where they were not allowed.

It took little imagination to envision the endless grassy fields, extending south to 27th Street and east to Prospect, as neighborhoods once packed with homes and businesses. Driving into them not as an outsider would but from the community’s downtown, brought a fresh perspective. I could understand this as a once-vibrant community welcoming musicians moving here from the southwest and elsewhere in the 1930s to find work.

This land has been cleared for over fifty years. New homes are sprinkled throughout the area. A few of the buildings and homes that have survived the years are gorgeously refurbished, while others look ripe for demolition. It’s an urban area that, with the proper explanation, adds important context to the Kansas City where jazz thrived.

*****

A Friday panel that was part of the gathering looked at the musician union’s place in Kansas City jazz historically and today, and offered unionism as a solution for low wages for musicians. The historical perspective fit this conference. But calls for a revitalized union felt more like grasping at hopes.

A more nuanced program discussing solutions for jazz musicians supporting themselves today is being co-sponsored this Friday, June 27th, in the Folly Theater’s Stakeholder Room by KC Jazz A.L.I.V.E. and the Elder Statesmen of KC Jazz. Admission is free.

The stated goal:

“These organizations have teamed to address the unemployment issues area musicians presently face. Realizing that all musicians will not secure musical work on a consistent basis, many can explore other employment opportunities/options to achieve the same goals. The objective of Musicians Assisting Musicians is for unemployed musicians to work whether it's musical or non-musical employment.”

A press release continues:

“….From 11:00 am until 1:30 pm, a panel of musicians, business owners, union representatives and corporate America, will explain how they've been successful at securing musical employment; bidding on contracts; developing relationships with the Convention and Visitors Association and American Federation of Musicians 34-627, etc.

“Other music organizations, employment services, medical insurance and accounting services, will be on hand for an informative panel of presenters….”

Honestly, I’ve so far been less than overwhelmed by some other initiatives of KC Jazz A.L.I.V.E. But with this panel, the not-for-profit group is carving out a valuable niche for itself in the Kansas City jazz community.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Crouch and Haddix and History and the Foundation, and All Free

Here’s what I want to find out this week, from the other bloggers: Is this what it’s like in other cities? Do the jazz communities in other towns suffer from the same bitterness and backbiting? Do leaders of one organization dislike the leaders of others in ways that hold back both, and ultimately limit the jazz scene as a whole? Because the Kansas City jazz community has suffered such divisions for as long as I’ve known it, over thirty years, and we could have accomplished so much more without continually squeezing thorns.

To everyone tossing daggers dipped in hurt feelings with every glance towards the Mutual Musicians Foundation: Get over it. This is the Foundation’s week to shine. Thursday and Friday this week, the Foundation hosts a summit of jazz writers and bloggers, brought together from throughout the country, and including internationally acclaimed jazz writer Stanley Crouch. They’re here to see and understand Kansas City’s unique hold on a critical piece of jazz history.

And everyone can be a part of this. All activities are open to the public and are free.

Events start this Thursday, June 19th, at 10 a.m. at the Foundation (1823 Highland) with the Three Square Mile Tour. a walk through the history that encompassed 12th Street and 18th Street and Vine.

(I don’t know which locations this tour will and will not include. But if it overlooks the Eblon Theater / Cherry Blossom Club, Paseo Hall, Wheatly-Providence Hospital, The Paseo YMCA, or the sites of Charlie Parker’s home or the Reno Club or the Sunset Club, and you want to see them, I’ll take you afterwards.)

At 5:30 Thursday evening, Stanley Crouch and Chuck Haddix, authors of last year’s landmark biographies on Charlie “Bird” Parker, meet at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center (3700 Blue Parkway) to discuss their books and to jointly discuss Bird.

Friday at 11:30 a.m. at the Foundation, a panel will discuss the history and significance of Black musicians unions.

Friday afternoon the bloggers rest so that Friday night they can enjoy the Foundation’s all night jam.

This is the start of the Mutual Musicians Foundation’s plans to stage 100 events leading up to a celebration in 2017 of 100 years since the founding of Black musicians union 627.

The building at 1823 Highland, once that union’s headquarters, stands as the most historic structure in Kansas City, and one of the most historic in jazz.

The Eblon Theater / Cherry Blossom Club might have rivaled the Foundation for the distinction had it not burned thirty years ago. That’s where Lester Young, Herschel Evans and Ben Webster put down Coleman Hawkins in a legendary jam session, establishing jazz’s new saxophone masters, in 1933. But the Eblon / Cherry Blossom did burn. leaving only its facade.

For years, the Mutual Musicians Foundation stood among increasingly scarred and dilapidated homes, and the boarded ruins of a hotel, leaving the impression of a frightening old street. You needed to know the neighborhood to feel welcome. But that has changed. The homes and the hotel are brightly rebuilt rentals, and this neighborhood now vividly stands out as an 18th and Vine district highlight.

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. Stories last year in The Kansas City Star detailed embarrassments which should never have occurred. But the museum’s contributions to Kansas City and to jazz outweigh those errors. 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.

This week is the Foundation’s turn to claim a little bigger chunk of the spotlight, as it showcases Kansas City’s special history to writers who can tell the world.

I’m not sure how successful these events will be. We’ll know that by the end of the week. But I know the Foundation deserves its week in the Kansas City jazz spotlight.

(Last week I said I’d next expound on festivals. That missive has been delayed.)

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Week Away

Seven days of business travel, ending on Sunday, did not allow time for composing a new blog post. So this week I take a week off from the blog.

But we are entering jazz festival season, and next week I'll offer what has become my annual overview of who is coming to festivals elsewhere.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Experience and Wounds

There were more organizations back then, and more division. Some groups, understandably, were interested only in their core mission. Others came to meetings with an agenda. There were members who took their appointment to a city commission as designating superiority over others in the jazz community. That sure didn’t help. Other members sincerely wanted to draw people together.

In the 1980s, Kansas City created the nation’s first city commission on jazz. The Kansas City Jazz Commission was founded, ostensibly, to unite a multitude of Kansas City jazz organizations, each running its own unique direction.

Over here was a group staging a big jazz festival in Volker Park. Over there was an organization staging a small one at 18th and Vine. Here was a group educating youth. There’s another. UMKC staged a festival for high school jazz bands. One group organized a jazz music series, eventually placing it at the Folly Theater. Here’s an organization wanting to build an International Jazz Hall of Fame, but not at 18th and Vine. There’s one wanting it only at 18th and Vine. Neither has any money. The Mutual Musicians Foundation owned the Armory building at 18th and Highland. A foundation funded a study which declared people were afraid to go there after dark. Oh, and there’s another group interested in developing a Jazz Hall of Fame. They say it belongs in Union Station.

A city commission, the theory went, would carry the authority to drive cohesiveness and consensus, and a more unified direction which would benefit everybody.

The reality was that leaders of other organizations found little time to devote to a new organization, and had little desire to sublimate their goals to another group.

I was appointed chairman in 1987, in the midst of a front page scandal. A former treasurer stole over $6000 in city funds. With the help of a wonderful board of directors, we turned the Jazz Commission around. But we effectively redefined it as another jazz organization producing its own programs.

Twenty five years later.

KC Jazz A.L.I.V.E 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. A.L.I.V.E. represents the five pillars of the organization’s mission:

A for building awareness of the needs of the jazz community; L for serving as a listening body; I for providing a platform for the integration of ideas; V for functioning as a voice for the jazz community; E for providing exposure to applicable resources for the Kansas City jazz community.

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.

The slogan repeated at KC Jazz A.L.I.V.E. meetings: A rising tide raises all boats.

But only if all boats are included.

KC Jazz A.L.I.V.E. is organizing a Kansas City Charlie Parker Celebration / Festival. Mostly, this collects existing performances under one umbrella, adding a few presentations and reviving the Sax Salute at Parker’s gravesite. A jointly marketed collection of jazz events is essentially what the Kansas City Jazz Festival was in 1983 and 1984. This is a concept which has succeeded here before.

(However, completely ignoring that the birthday of an equally important Kansas City jazz icon – Count Basie – also falls during these two weeks feels odd.)

A list of performances has been compiled. And what stands out most on it is the venue it doesn’t include.

Legend says that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie first met on the top floor of the union building at 1823 Highland. In the historic heart of the 18th and Vine district, the Mutual Musicians Foundation today hosts jam sessions every weekend night.

There is discussion of holding a “chicken feed” at the Foundation following the Sax Salute. Good. But how can two weeks celebrating Bird include Zona Rosa twice but not include even one already-scheduled jam in the room where Bird and Diz met?

One more recollection:

Towards the end of my time as chairman of the Jazz Commission, we prepared a fundraising proposal encompassing the entire jazz community. Donors at the time told us they were tired of being peppered with requests from over a dozen jazz organizations. They also told us that the request would be considered more favorably if it excluded the festival at 18th and Vine, which they saw as a small and problematic event.

I prepared a fundraising proposal which excluded the 18th and Vine Jazz and Heritage festival.

I sat down with an organizer of the event, who was also on the Jazz Commission’s board, to explain what was being written and why. I never, until that time or since, have seen a friend more deeply hurt.

What the foundations told me was immaterial. Excluding the 18th and Vine event was wrong. It was part of the jazz community and needed to be part of the request.

There will always be pain in bringing the entire Kansas City jazz community together. Experiences and wounds leave me certain of that.

It doesn’t matter.

Coming together can only work when it prominently showcases all of the boats.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Smart Museum

Tables and people filled every nook and cranny of the lobby. I’m sure if one more person had said they would come, space for them would have been found, but I don’t know where.

Normally, the American Jazz Museum is closed on Mondays. However, on this Monday, early in April, board members and friends of the museum had invited friends and associates to a free lunch, to hear presentations on how the museum and its programs are reaching out into and benefiting the community, and to ask for financial support.

We knew why we were invited. I walked in determined that I would not give a donation, it was just not in my budget at this time.

But when you’re sitting at a large table, and you’ve just eaten a good lunch that your hosts didn’t have to feed you, and donation cards are handed out, and pens are handed out, and you’re asked to make a donation, and you look around the table, and you see everyone else at the table, including the friend who invited you, filling out the cards and making donations, and you’re the only one at your table not using the pen you’ve been handed, and everyone else is using theirs, not just at your table but everywhere you look in that packed room, including people you know, some of whom might be looking at you not using your pen, and the lunch was good, and, well….

Don’t underestimate the peer pressure. I caved and made a donation.

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.

*****

Part of its battle, from the start, is that this was never the museum that advocates of a jazz museum envisioned. In 1989, a complex was announced by the city with two grand halls and a theater embracing historical study, education and performance. In 1997, a smaller building opened, sharing space with the Negro Leagues Museum. Its collection was limited by funds, showcased relatively few musicians, and was derided in The New York Times by the Executive Director of The Count Basie Orchestra. To many who had pursued a dream since the 1960s, this was not the American Jazz Museum. This was the American Jazz Museum Compromise.

*****

A feature in the 913 and 816 sections of last Wednesday’s Kansas City Star highlighted jazz education opportunities for the young. The article opened with the American Jazz Museum’s monthly Jazz Storytelling program, aimed at introducing children to jazz. The program has been entertaining and educating children for a dozen years.

Just last month, the museum co-hosted, with Penn Valley Community College, the 18th and Vine Jazz Festival, giving middle school, high school and college music students the opportunity to learn from professional musicians and perform in the Gem Theater.

Educational outreach is critical to the survival of jazz. The American Jazz Museum’s efforts are under-recognized and under-appreciated.

The museum also reaches out to the community with its annual Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival. Never mind that the event desperately needs a more succinct name. And overlook for the moment that this is a self-proclaimed jazz and blues festival that seems afraid to book much jazz or blues. The last two years the event was stung by misfortune beyond its control (rain and the death of a headliner). But for the two years prior, museum officials showed the wisdom and foresight of taking an event that had covered Parade Park, then couldn’t sustain its weight through the recession, and downsizing it to where it turned a profit. If both the weather and headliners’ health hold out this year, the festival should again turn a profit.

*****

Part of it is animosity from the remaining dreamers. Part of it could be jealousy in seeing a professional staff while other jazz organizations run on the hopes of a few. I suspect some of it is simply leaders with conflicting ambitions who don’t like each other. But there are still pockets of the jazz community that look derisively on the American Jazz Museum. In doing so, they hurt themselves. This is an institution accepted by the community as a whole – I saw that in the packed lobby – which benefits Kansas City.

*****

Last Saturday night, I drove through sparse traffic in the Crossroads district. It was a holiday weekend. Kansas City goes out of town for holidays. I probably wouldn’t have any trouble finding a table at The Blue Room.

The Blue Room, a part of the museum, was packed. Students from Omaha lined the seats along the edge of the upper level. Other guests hailed from other cities and towns. I shared a table with a couple who spoke Russian (I don’t think they they were visiting from overseas, but I can't be certain; I don’t speak Russian).

The Blue Room is more than a jazz club. Standing at Kansas City’s most historic corner, it is a destination for visitors.

And let’s not forget that just a couple years ago, after Jardine’s expired, The Blue Room, solidly, reliably, stood as this city’s principal location for jazz and a drink, until new club owners had the opportunity to help fill the void.

For the record, on Saturday night, the Jazz Disciples delighted everyone in that room.

*****

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.