Who gives better advice, bartenders or jazz musicians?
Legendary Kansas City bartender Tom Kramer has a quick answer: “Oh, bartenders, for sure. Ask any jazz musician.”
Kramer’s quip comes during a Friday night shift at the Majestic Restaurant and Jazz Club, where the 73-year-old barkeep has conscientiously plied his hospitable trade for 15 years.
Kramer is himself a cocktail of apparent contradictions that actually provide cohesion. He can be utterly amiable one moment and amusingly irascible the next. He’s both a dreamer and a realist. A kidder who also doesn’t kid around. All while slinging drinks and soaking up local music as he has for more than 40 years.
How did Kramer get to be a local bartending legend? “By being old,” he says. “That’s how you get to be called ‘a legend,’ for crying out loud.”
In 1973, Kramer opened Madam Lovejoy’s, a popular but short-lived jazz-folk-rock club in the River Quay (now the River Market) that died when organized crime factions began using the downtown neighborhood as a battlefield.
“After a couple or three buildings were blown up, that was it,” Kramer recalls matter-of-factly, although you can still hear a sense of loss in his voice. “I have a reputation, maybe, for being the town’s biggest wannabe,” he says.
For a short time in the late 1980s, Kramer took over the struggling Parody Hall in the River Market, where he hoped to resurrect his concept of a mass-appeal, multi-genre music venue. Highlights included an impromptu jam by Gene Clark’s touring version of the Byrds.
“The few people that were there, were like, ‘I don’t believe I’m here,’ you know?’’ Kramer remembers. “Mr. Tambourine Man and all that stuff. It went on for an hour.”
Kramer wanted to buy Parody Hall, but the property was sold to a redeveloper and the building demolished. “That was my second turn down there,” he says. “I was 0 for 2. I was a little bummed.”
Kramer still dreams of owning his own club. In recent years, he’s come close to acquiring the investments needed for his proposed Blue Devil Restaurant and Performance Venue, where the artist-audience relationship would be paramount.
“My complaint has always been that there are not enough really well-designed venues,” Kramer says. “Especially in jazz, it’s really important to have an artist-audience rapport. It’s key. So you have to design your layout with that in mind. You need to encourage the audience to pay attention.”
The jazz performed seven nights a week at the Majestic “works pretty well here,” Kramer says, including the music of world-class stride pianist Bram Wijnands.
“He’s performed with Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center,” Kramer says. “He’s performed at Carnegie Hall. The guy’s no slouch. I’ve always been awed by musicians like Bram. He’s going to kill me for saying this, but he can get underneath the piano and cross his hands with the keyboard behind him and play it. We don’t ask him to do it anymore, because he’s got a little arthritis in his wrist and it hurts. But he can do it!”
Until Kramer finds the means to open the Blue Devil, he’ll keep doing his best to please all of his friends at the Majestic. But if you want him at his friendliest, do yourself a favor and maybe try to keep it old school.
“Somebody will come up to the bar and say, ‘Do you have a martini list?’ Oh, that annoys me,” Kramer says. “What do you need a martini list for? A martini’s made of gin — or vodka, I’ll give you that. But what else do you need to know?”
What else would you expect a legend to say?
“I treat this place like it’s my own,” he says. “I’ve been around here a long time. There are a lot of customers that come in, we recognize each other, I chit-chat with them. We know some personal things. One customer who’s aware of my plans has always said, ‘Tommy, I wish you luck, but we’ll sure miss you down here.’ And, of course, that’s a good feeling.”
Photo of Tom Kramer by Jim Barcus