Early this year, “Downbeat” magazine announced a global list of 25 cities where jazz “thrives.” Kansas City, alas, failed to make the cut. A friend in New York responded with outrage. Portland? I see her point, but I also understand how our jazz legacy is so often overlooked.
Sure, we pay lip service to it — Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams and so many more — but how well do we back it up? Not long ago, and wholly out of the blue, Kansas City’s jazz chops earned it a designation as a “city of music” from UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization that promotes “creative cities” around the globe. It’s possible the “Downbeat” editors failed to see that press release. Locals might be equally unaware of its meaning.
But there’s more to a city’s self-image than a successful application for recognition. Does Kansas City wholeheartedly embrace the music as a defining aspect of our creative character?
The lively Green Lady and Black Dolphin operation — two adjacent downtown clubs under the same ownership — provide popular local showcases. The Blue Room, at the American Jazz Museum, has music four nights a week. Promoters Lori and Doug Chandler, after closing the Take Five in Overland Park, present occasional pop-up gigs at various venues.
The RecordBar, a mainstay of indie-rock, offers jazz two Sunday nights a month, curated by hardworking bassist Jeff Harshbarger. There you can often catch the avant-garde inventiveness of Brad Cox and the People’s Liberation Big Band or, as I heard recently, the powerful big band led by trombonist and composer Marcus Lewis.
The overnight jam sessions at the Mutual Musicians Foundation remain one of the city’s essential jazz experiences.
Two annual jazz series bring “big-name” musicians to the Folly Theater and the Gem. In my humble opinion, both series tend to aim for the familiar middle ground instead of offering trailblazers of the day.
Jazz often struggles between its passive identity as socially friendly background music and its serious aspirations to demand our listening attention. In the market, it remains a tough sell.
One thing Kansas City is missing is a club where we can experience the pacemakers and emerging talents who have achieved national profiles. We can travel to Columbia and St. Louis for that. Or New York, of course. But why not here? The Chandlers have booked such important musicians as pianist Myra Melford and drummer Allison Miller — stellar shows, but with mixed audience results.
The jazz program at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, led by saxophonist Bobby Watson, has seeded our town with more admirable young players than ever. Some are helping to reshape the sound of jazz. (Full disclosure: I’m a board member of the Friends of the Conservatory.)
Trumpeter Hermon Mehari was a student when I first heard his astounding tone a decade ago at a Mutual Musicians Foundation jam.
Today he plants himself in Paris for much of the year. I sought out his perspective during a gig-packed visit to Kansas City in March. Our strength as a jazz town comes from its sense of community, he says.
“Over the past decade or so I have seen many people who come to love the jazz musicians who live in Kansas City but may not know anything about jazz artists from other places,” he told me. “The jazz music and scene in this city has always been associated with the people, and it has always been rooted soulfully.”
Mehari proudly regards Kansas City as one of the few places, beyond New York, Chicago and New Orleans — all the recognized “cradles of jazz” — “where people can hear great jazz regularly and jazz musicians can make a living playing mostly jazz.”
So, yes, it thrives. But is that enough?
Above: Hermon Mehari, with pianist Peter Schlamb, at Ça Va. (photo by Steve Paul)