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A Kansas City Jazz Pianist Racks up 88 Facebook Live Performances with His Plants

09-04-20_cm_Mark Lowrey.jpg
Photo Courtesy of Mark Lowrey
Mark Lowrey performs on Facebook Live from his home from Sept. 1.

When his performance schedule ground to a halt, pianist Mark Lowrey created a concert series. Facebook Live is the venue, and house plants are the groupies.

Mark Lowrey thinks of himself as a beginner-level plant enthusiast, but fans of his Jazz and Plants performances might never guess that.

Since March, Lowrey, a 20-year fixture in Kansas City’s music scene, has given as many as six two-hour piano performances a week surrounded by his plant collection. He plays jazz, pop, rock, and world music. He also takes requests for tunes, which has generated oddball material like video game theme songs.

He just aired episode 88.

“I feel weird not working, like everybody I’m sure, but I also get a lot of validation from trying to entertain people. It’s nice to be able to continue to play for people,” Lowrey says.

His online concert series has generated a bit of income during a time when he and his colleagues are largely out of work. Only recently has he begun accepting some private gigs, which he thinks of as calculated risks he's willing to take.

“Public bars, there’s more X-factors. There are a lot of things you can’t control, especially since most of the venues are indoors. I don’t know what their circulation system is like," Lowrey says. “It’s not worth it to play publicly.”

He's not especially concerned about his own health, but that of his older relatives or even older people at the grocery store he may encounter. He sees members of that particular set really enjoying his remote performances.

The plant part looks integral but is actually incidental, and Lowrey insists he's not conducting a science experiment about growing the happiest plants through sound therapy.

“I’m not trying to discount the existence of energy, of course. I like to think that the plants like the music,” he allows.

Instead, he says he simply wanted a backdrop with more visual appeal than his one-bedroom apartment naturally affords. Last winter, his girlfriend started helping him perk up the place with plants—he has now arranged nearly 20 along a sunny window .

“It’s the best wall in my house, and it seems to work.”

He speaks fondly of his Chinese money plant, his rapidly reproducing aloe, the peace lily no one thought would survive, and Dennis, his Madagascar palm.

The double fern he calls “the Edwards” more or less remains off-camera during performances, as does “a little pointy guy that’s a different species—I forget what—but since he’s, like, little and cooler, he’s Eddie,” Lowrey says.

These plants have a front row seat to Lowrey's performances.
Mark Lowrey
These plants have a front row seat to Lowrey's performances.

Before the pandemic, Lowrey’s private foliage-rich world was known to few. The Gladstone native had a regular rotation of weekly gigs hosting open-mic nights at Johnny’s at the B&B Theatre in Liberty and jazz jam sessions at the Phoenix, playing the piano at Café Trio and the Majestic, and gigging at private parties with his cover band, Lost Wax.

Lowrey’s music is known on the national and international stage as well. Toward the beginning of his career, he won second place playing with the band Tango Lorca at an ensemble competition at the Argentine consulate in New York City. He also improvised source material for Tech9’s 2015 album “Special Effects” which features Eminem and Lil Wayne.

Lowrey studied with Bobby Watson, whom he calls “the number one reason that so many young talented jazz artists moved to Kansas City in the 2000s and the 2010s. He’s a magnet, he’s a legend, he’s a great teacher.”

As new talent pours into town, Lowrey says older performers—at 40, he includes himself in that group—step up their game. The effect is nothing short of a rebirth, as far as he’s concerned.

“I’m really hoping that after this pandemic is under control, that we can pick back up that momentum in feeling like Kansas City was experiencing a musical renaissance,” Lowrey says.

Until then, though, he feels like he’s weathering the current situation fairly well and feels fortunate to play an instrument that allows him to make solo music, as he does with Jazz and Plants. He can’t quantify how his fan base has changed, but he does know that his high school band directors have tuned in.

“Who doesn’t want to play for their high school band director and get positive feedback, right?” he asks. "It’s almost like this incredibly inconvenient time has made it ironically more convenient for musically connecting with some people.”

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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