Lisa Henry works the kiddie crowd during the American Jazz Museum’s First Fridays Jazz Storytelling program. (photo by Robert Butler)
KC’s Kid-Centric Entertainers Offer More Than Catchy Tunes
As a teen Lisa Henry sang with local jazz bands. She won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. She’s performed with heavy hitters like Herbie Hancock.
On this particular Friday, though, she’s facing not jazz aficionados but a sea of children, a hundred plus, ranging in age from diapers to middle school.
This is not a demographic you’d expect to appreciate jazz. But they do when Henry is doing the presenting.
The occasion is the regular monthly free performance (at 10 a.m. on First Fridays) of the Jazz Storytelling program in the lobby of the American Jazz Museum.
Watching Henry work the kiddie crowd, it’s easy to imagine her early years in a Baptist church. Like a riffing preacher, she gets the youngsters up on their feet and engaged in a call-and-response session.
Employing a rhythmic chant, she works through the instruments in a typical drum kit, naming the various skins and cymbals. Audience members echo the names.
“Jazz is a metaphor for life,” Henry says later. “It’s always been about freedom of expression with responsibility to the group. It encourages you to be who you are, but to recognize that you have a tribe around you.”
Putting on shows for children is a curious corner of the music business, and over the last two decades Kansas City has become something of a mecca for kid-centric entertainers. St. Louis has only one act working the kiddie crowd; Kansas City can boast of at least eight.
Why here in River City?
Trailblazer Stinky Feet
At least part of the credit can be laid at the feet of Jim “Mr. Stinky Feet” Cosgrove, a former newspaper reporter who eased into kid performing 20 years ago and has become a national phenomenon with his laid-back-but-upbeat style (think Jimmy Buffett for rugrats).
For a while, Cosgrove and his wife Jeni served as booking agency and clearinghouse for a half-dozen local entertainers working the kid circuit. He’s credited with popularizing live family entertainment and easing the entry of other musicians into the fold.
Like almost all the other musicians on the KC kid concert scene, Cosgrove never planned to become an idol of the preschool set.
“My career has been unconscious . . . well, subconscious,” he says. “Organic, certainly. I never set out to be a kids’ entertainer. I was just being me. Even before I had kids of my own I was writing songs for my nieces and nephews.
“This is how I know it’s right — because it sought me out.”
Cosgrove was teaching business writing seminars when he volunteered to do a musical gig at a St. Patrick’s Day event.
“After the first performance parents came up and asked if I had any CDs,” he recalled. “So, I got some musician friends together in a garage recording studio in Lawrence to make what I assumed would be our first and only album.”
Except that it began selling. And kept selling.
Now Cosgrove sells his many CDs and performance DVDs on his website, www.jimcosgrove.com, and keeps a touring schedule of nearly 300 gigs a year. (He’s accompanied on these treks by his wife and two daughters, ages 13 and 10.)
Connecting Through Live Music
Playing catchy, funny tunes for children might seem a fairly frivolous pastime . . . but that’s not how the kid crooners view it.
“What gets me most excited is the educational component of performing,” says Kevin Dolan, a former teacher who performs under the name Dino O’Dell.
“Music releases endorphins; it lights up different parts of the brain. It’s a powerful tool for engaging kids. At first, they react emotionally, but they quickly connect with the content and the language.
“Boys tend to be further behind girls when it comes to communication skills. One way to get them to interact with words is through music.”
A staple of Dolan’s live performances is an around-the-world musical tour in which he provides each continent with its own signature riff and rhythm. It isn’t just a geography lesson, he says, but a mind opener.
“I’ll use a pneumonic song, a counting song, a song where kids have to listen to the lyrics for clues. They become detectives. Basically, I’m seducing them into paying attention.”
Getting the kids to pay attention isn’t an issue for Brandon Draper, the driving force behind Drum Safari.
A typical performance finds him demonstrating a score of percussion instruments from around the world (drums, bongos, tambourine . . . even an African version of the marimba, made of wood planks and dried gourds).
But things really break loose when he distributes small drums to the crowd and invites everyone to jam. What begins as cacophony rapidly finds its beat and rhythm . . . within minutes a room full of strangers is playing together like old hands.
It is loud.
Kids love it; adults may love it even more.
“It’s not just kids’ stuff,” says Draper, who has performed with acts as varied as disco diva Donna Summer and the Santa Fe Orchestra. “It’s all about connecting with other humans through music. Age doesn’t matter.”
For a typical gig Draper shows up with his wife and two young daughters, all of whom have become part of the act. They’ve been so successful that Draper oversees three Drum Safari touring companies that put on as many as 400 shows a year.
Being a kiddie entertainer isn’t easy. It means extensive traveling. And it usually requires a second job to make ends meet:
Dolan is band director at a Prairie Village church; Henry is a substitute teacher; Draper teaches percussion at the University of Kansas, where he is developing a program to encourage musical entrepreneurship; Cosgrove worked for several years developing special products for Hallmark.
And because so many of their bookings are with schools and libraries, these entertainers have to develop acts that reflect the ever-evolving concerns of educators.
“Teachers will tell me, ‘We could use a song about respect,’” Cosgrove says. “So, I developed a school show called ‘The Rhythm of Respect.’”
And while each Drum Safari show follows a set template, Draper says, “every summer we change it a bit to fit the themes being explored that year by libraries.”
All of the entertainers find the work they are doing enjoyable. “It’s free therapy,” Henry says. “Rolling around on the floor with kids is the best medicine in the world.” They also believe it is important.
In a world in which kids are bombarded with electronic entertainment, these programs may be their first exposure to the marvels of live music.
“We see kids so used to techno music that if I play a CD and ask them to identify a sound — a sax, a trumpet — they can’t do it,” Henry says. “Culturally we’re in this fast-food mindset.
“But there’s something to be said for going to a concert or play and watching the process unfold. Being an audience member is an active, participatory thing.
“It’s not about just sitting there . . . it’s about coming alive.”