Step into The Broadway Jazz Club and you’re struck by the music.
Sit at one of the tables up front to be immersed in jazz. Settle there and you’re not going to talk, unless it’s to request a song or ask where the tip jar is.
Clearly, attention has been given to the sound. At the tables to the side of the stage, music is less dominant but still perfectly clear. Sit midway back in the club, at one of the tables where booth seating lines the wall, and you can hear the music or quietly converse without noise dominating the reason you came. Around the bar, you can drink and enjoy jazz, except maybe in that back left corner near the kitchen.
The kitchen. That’s important, too.
Sure, you can dine and enjoy jazz at The Majestic. But prices make dinner there, for many of us, a rare treat. Dinner is affordable at The Phoenix, but there you’re more likely to hear blues than jazz. Or if you don’t sit close enough to the piano bar, you’re more likely to hear the boisterous guy at the next table. Small plates at Green Lady and Kill Devil are nice, but they’re not really dinner. And The Blue Room offers no food at all.
Don’t take me wrong. There are plenty of other reasons to revel in jazz at these clubs, and I do. But a visit to Denver and their dinner jazz club, Dazzle, left me feeling a bit stung. Here was a room crammed with tables and diners and drinkers, comfort food reasonably priced, nothing new, nothing perfect, a large stage up front, ambiance with a dash of sleaze, with good sound, and good jazz. You can find rooms like this in New York, in New Orleans, in Chicago, in Seattle. But for the last two years, not in Kansas City.
The Broadway Jazz Club forgoes the crammed tables. You can comfortably maneuver the space around the large, U-shaped center bar. Red walls, red booths, wood floors and dark lighting set the mood (a little too dark, perhaps, for some of us to easily read the menu. Or maybe the tables need brighter candles). Paintings of KC jazz icons line a wall. Food ranges from sandwiches to steaks, salads to seafood, chicken, pasta and comfort food. A lot behind the building provides plenty of parking. Add wonderful sound and wailing jazz and the ambiance is dinner juke joint circa 2014. Not as straight-out-of-the-1940s as The Green Lady Lounge, but if your table wobbles a smidgen because the floor right there is uneven, you’re not surprised.
But it’s at 36th and Broadway.
This isn’t right off the Plaza, like KC's last dinner jazz club. You can’t see Nichols Fountain from the parking lot. The American Century office tower isn't next door. No hotels full of businessmen and tourists sit across the street. This may be more or less up the block from where Jardine’s thrived, but the neighborhood is different. This is midtown.
On my first visit, the audience was younger than you might expect in a jazz club, more twenty and thirty somethings than fifty and sixty somethings, more of the age group already comfortable with 36th and Broadway. It was wonderful to see a younger audience enjoying jazz. But for a jazz club in Kansas City to thrive, it also needs to attract the older guests who enjoy jazz and will drop a few bucks on dinner and drinks.
R Bar was a wonderful restaurant and bar in the West Bottoms. It opened featuring a stage in the front window, a sound system timed just right to carry music through its long, narrow space, and live jazz. But the owner found that jazz fans would not drive to the West Bottoms to enjoy the music. Musicians who filled other clubs played to a largely empty R Bar.
And there’s the elephant in the room. Will audiences that eschewed the West Bottoms embrace 36th and Broadway? How do you entice older patrons, often from Johnson County, who thought little of driving to the Plaza? Will they travel a little further, into less familiar midtown, to drop a little cash?
Megan Birdsall headlined The Broadway Jazz Club last Friday night. Her group was excellent: Paul Smith on piano, Danny Embrey on guitar, Steve Rigazzi on bass, Sam Wisman on drums. But as the evening progressed, other musicians stopped by. Steve Lambert brought his sax. Kevin Cerovich carried his trombone from a Take Five gig. Bassists Bob Bowman and Ben Leifer showed up. Pianist Andrew Ouellette and drummer John Kizilarmut walked in. Miguel “Mambo” DeLeon brought his congas.
Megan turned over her third set to the visitors, sitting in with them. The set effectively became an unexpected and unrehearsed jam session. And when Cerovich and Lambert soloed, then Kizilarmut and Mambo traded lines, those of us in The Broadway Jazz Club were treated to an Ellington tune performed magically, as you’ll only hear it in a Kansas City jam.
When opening a new club – probably any new business – consultants recommend having enough cash on hand to survive at least three months of inadequate revenue, while building the business, its image, its reputation.
A few weeks old, The Broadway Jazz Club is still in its infancy. But perhaps it’s on track towards building a reputation not just for musical excellence, but for the musically unexpected, because maybe this is where jazz musicians hang out. That’s a club nearly any jazz fan, of any generation, will seek out at least once.
And when they come, they’ll find that short walk from the parking lot to the front door, for a jazz club, offers just the right dash of sleaze.