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Where To Next For KC Jazz?

The past few months have been rough for local jazz. Two promising newer venues, 1911 Main and Café Augusta in Lenexa, have shut down. And at Jardine's Restaurant and Jazz Club, one of the city’s most celebrated venues, a dispute between the owner and employees led to a boycott by musicians. The restaurant then closed its doors, and its future remains up in the air.

According to local music critic Bill Brownlee, Jardine's booked the most, and most wide-ranging, jazz acts of any club in town, as it operated seven nights a week with several different acts performing most nights.

Restaurants and bars in Kansas City come and go all the time, but what’s the significance when a dedicated jazz venue closes down? What does it take to have a successful jazz venue? And what should artists do to keep the scene vibrant?

This week, the KC Currents staff teamed up to ask some of the city’s best-known musicians and music writers these questions. Our story was edited by Alex Smith with music from some of the musicians to whom we spoke.

Interview Highlights

Alto Saxophonist, Composer and UMKC Professor Bobby Watson

"Some places are not conducive for me to play around town because they [the audience] don't listen … management sets the tone for the policy towards musicians."

"The more established artists here in town, they have a responsibility to upgrade their repertoire over the years … you go to see them, year after year, decade after decade, they're playing the same stuff."

Pianist Mark Lowrey

"I used to go to [Jardine's] and practice when I was in high school, after I got out of school, cause they had the most fantastic piano outside of any club in town outside of UMKC or the concert halls like the Folly … It was kind of in some ways a fantasy, I always got to practice at the jazz club and it was always my goal – maybe somebody I'll play here."

"The situation at that club [Jardine's] is complicated, and even I don't know all the pieces.  I wasn't a business partner; I was really a musician-employee that was very close friends with other employees. What I've come to love about Kansas City when I travel is that we have a wealth of common decency and manners towards each other in a lot of respects. When I saw that more and more wasn't happening in an explosion of a lot of business decisions that affected close friends of mine I just had to walk away."

Bill Brownlee, Freelance Writer, Music Blogger: Plastic Sax

"The shuttering of Jardine's is particularly unfortunate for the hundreds if not thousands of people who are unwilling to go to the city's best jazz club, the Blue Room, because of its location. There's still a terrible mis-perception that the jazz district isn't safe."

"The Kansas City jazz scene is going through this transition in terms of its audience.  A younger, more open-minded audience is being developed while the older audience, the people who can remember a time when jazz was popular music, is naturally going away … there's an opportunity for a club that is willing to cater to people in their twenties and thirties to thrive if they book jazz musicians with an interest in hip hop and R&B and rock music as well."

Trumpet Player Hermon Mehari

"If my livelihood is significantly dependent on one club … I think that speaks for my career in a sense … I don't think you have to sacrifice your art to be concerned about the audience, but if you purposely don't care what the audience thinks, they're probably not going to really care what you think. So artists kind of need to lose that self-entitlement."

Larry Kopitnik, Music Blogger: KC Jazz Lark

"The marketing end is where I see most of these establishments at their weakest.  There are a certain number of people who will come because it's jazz, but first and foremost the place is a restaurant or bar.  That's how it makes its money, and it needs to sell that experience and excel at that experience to get an audience to come back and come for the music as well."

Pianist and Bandleader Tim Whitmer

"We're at a really significant point right now with openings of cultural institutions like the Kauffman Center. There are more and more big acts – Sprint Center – coming to town and I think there will be off-shoots of different clubs.  I look for clubs to build up around the Kauffman Center area. I look for more clubs in the Crossroads. I look in the West Bottoms … I think it's going to be a really positive time."

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents podcast.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Susan admits that her “first love” was radio, being an avid listener since childhood. However, she spent much of her career in mental health, healthcare administration, and sports psychology (Susan holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and an MBA from the Bloch School of Business at UMKC.) In the meantime, Wilson satisfied her journalistic cravings by doing public speaking, providing “expert” interviews for local television, and being a guest commentator/contributor to KPRS’s morning drive time show and the teen talk show “Generation Rap.”
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