It goes without saying that 2020 has been challenging, in all regards. The music and arts world has felt the struggle something fierce, with no gigs, no concerts, and less certainty than ever about what the future holds. I’m not going to sugar-coat it: it’s bleak.
However, as the great Art Blakey said, jazz is “faith in action.” This music was CREATED to break through the struggle, to laugh in the face of adversity, to overcome what pushes you down. Jazz music is the improvisational spirit made manifest. Jazz music is a true democracy, where everyone involved in the collective output has a voice that shines, but also contends with and celebrates the voices of everyone else in the group. The accompaniment is just as integral as the soloist. When you combine these things on the bandstand, there is some special sort of alchemy present that transcends the current situation. Bobby Watson said that, “the bandstand is your sanctuary, and you don’t take any of your troubles up there. You leave them on the side, and you’re there to take people on a journey, make them forget their everyday life.” Jazz music heals. Jazz music is, to steal a Watson title, “Blues for Hope.”
So when The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra had the recent opportunity to take the bandstand at the drive-in concert series at Plexpod in Midtown (kcdriveinconcerts.com), for a parking lot full of folks, the five bandmembers felt both the weight of the moment as well as the freedom of it. Saxophonist David Chael said, “Man, I had a lot of stuff to get out,” and indeed he did, playing torrent after torrent of emotional, soaring, melodic line. We all came together as friends, and for 90 minutes, played as though it was both the first and maybe the last time we’d get a chance to do it… and it was exhilarating.
I’ve never been so out of shape as a trumpet player. I maintain a practice schedule at home, but it doesn’t replicate being on the bandstand. By the end of the night, my face was exhausted and things that normally come out of my horn felt like the sonic equivalent of a 70-year old Rocky Balboa lugging himself into the boxing ring. But it was immensely joyful and cathartic to create with my friends, to share the spirit with the audience, and to take part in this jazz dialogue that has been spoken since the early 1900s.
We get to do this two more times, too! Jackie Myers, the pianist/vocalist/bandleader, has worked tirelessly to create this performance opportunity in the parking lot of the old Westport Middle School on the Northeast corner of 39th and Warwick, and small groups from the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra are populating the concert series. There was the one we just played, on Charlie Parker’s birthday, and two more: September 19th and October 3rd, where we will be diving into the classic jazz trope of the tenor saxophone battle as well as playing the music of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, respectively. Space is limited, and we would love to share this joy and creative exuberance with as many of you as possible. We miss playing for everyone, and we’re so excited to have these opportunities. Hope to see you out there. Stay safe, stay healthy, and look for those moments of art and creativity to light your paths during these trying times. We love you all.
More info on Drive-In concerts at www.kcjo.org/socially-distanced-events
–Clint Ashlock, trumpeter/composer/bandleader KCJO