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Kansas City Jazz Musician Lonnie McFadden Says Music Helps Him Improvise With The Times

Screenshot from Lonnie McFadden's Facebook Live performance on May 2, 2020.
Lonnie McFadden performs for fans with his quartet at Unity of Kansas City North.

Kansas City jazz clubs have been shut down since mid-March. Across the metro, veteran musicians are finding new ways to reach their fans as the virus continues to take its toll on the local music industry.

Trumpet player, singer and tap dancer Lonnie McFadden has been a fixture in the Kansas City music scene since he was a teenager, often performing with his brother Ronnie. After five decades of entertaining, McFadden is experiencing something new. For the past month he’s been performing with his quartet without a live audience.

McFadden plays trumpet. He sings and tap dances and, for the past month, he’s been streaming his musical act every Saturday night — live on Facebook. His jazz quartet is set up at the altar, beneath a stained glass window, at Unity of Kansas City North on Northeast Barry Road. The pews have been empty there for the past month.

“Oh yes, we are live," says McFadden addressing a camera set up on a tripod. "I’m excited. I’m excited. I’m always excited."

“We’re in an empty church, a church that’s been empty almost a month now. We’re a minimum of eight feet apart from each other, a couple of us are ten feet.

The Lonnie McFadden Quartet Performs At Unity of Kansas City North

"So we’re trying to do the social distancing," says McFadden. "We’re trying to follow the rules but the bottom line is if there’s any way for me to play, I’m going to play.”

These concerts have been a way for him and his musicians to keep working. Fans send them money through Venmo and PayPal .

“If I get to pay my guys and I get to make a donation to the church here and I get to make something, it’s a win, says McFadden. "It really is.”

Screenshot from Lonnie McFadden's Facebook Live performance on April 9, 2020.
Musician Lonnie McFadden says he tries to imagine his audience during his hour-long performances on Facebook Live.

Before COVID-19 shut down the jazz clubs McFadden was a big part of the Kansas City music scene.

“Thursday night at Chaz, Friday night at the Phoenix, Saturday night at Black Dolphin and then Sunday night at Johnny’s Jazz Bar," McFadden says. "I’ve gotten so used to seeing people four times a week, and I miss them so much.”

For McFadden, connecting means moving people with the music he makes.

“I like it when I play a ballad and I see a lady in the audience snuggle up under the guys she’s with," says McFadden. "That knocks me out. I’m not there to show off. I’m not there to prove anything to anybody. I am there to help facilitate a fun evening. And I miss that connection I make on stage with the audience.”

Now McFadden can’t see his audience, so he tries to imagine them.

“Some of them, I think, are in their living rooms or on their patios or wherever, and I’m trying to picture that in my mind because as an entertainer, my main goal is to connect,” says McFadden.

The Lonnie McFadden Quartet Performs At Unity of Kansas City North

Whether he’s in a jazz club or an empty church, when McFadden steps out on stage his energy level is at its peak.

“In my mind I’m at the main showroom at the MGM Grand Hotel every day," McFadden says. "It really doesn’t matter where I’m at. In my brain the room is packed and it’s at least two thousand people in the audience every time I perform. It’s part of who I am.”

For now, McFadden is making things work with his weekly Facebook Live concert. But he admits that it has been difficult.

“It’s not that I can’t get a gig, but nobody can get a gig," says McFadden. "There’s no place to play. I went from playing four and five times a week and making a pretty decent living to zero."

"I hear about stimulus checks. I haven’t got one," continues McFadden. "I hear about self-employed people that are able to get on unemployment. I haven’t been able to do it. I’ve been trying.”

Musicians face a lot of uncertainty these days. But McFadden says a good jazz player needs to be ready for anything.

"The ultimate improvisation is life," McFadden says. "I can’t speak for other genres of music, but jazz is about reacting to the moment.

"I don’t know what tempo. I don’t know what key it’s going to be in. I do know that now I’m on the bandstand and once they count it off, It’s on! I’m running with it.

"I'm going to play," says McFadden with a laugh. "It's going to happen. So I'm very fortunate that I have a spiritual and emotional outlet to do what I love to do."

It’ll be awhile before musicians can perform in Kansas City's nightclubs again. But one thing is certain, Lonnie McFadden’s not ready to stop making music anytime soon.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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