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Arts & Life

50 years into show business, Lonnie McFadden opened his own Kansas City nightclub to call home

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Julie Denesha
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Lonnie McFadden performs onstage at Lonnie's Reno Club in the Ambassador Hotel.

After headlining on stages around the world, Lonnie McFadden opened his own nightclub in the midst of the pandemic. Now the trumpeter and tap dancer is "celebrating life" — and Kansas City jazz — at Lonnie's Reno Club in the Ambassador Hotel.

Lonnie McFadden has something important he wants to say.

“Happy 41 years of marriage. Happy anniversary to LaVelle and Martin,” says the Kansas City jazz performer, in the first half of his show on a recent Saturday night at Lonnie's Reno Club in the Ambassador Hotel.

The old-school nightclub is packed with diners. Black and white photos of Charlie Parker and other Kansas City jazz legends line the walls.

LaVelle and Martin smile as the audience claps wildly.

At 66, McFadden is celebrating a milestone himself. This is his 50th year in show business, but the first time he's had his own place.

When McFadden’s regular gigs were canceled due to COVID-19 in 2020, he started a weekly livestream concert. Soon, though, staff at the Ambassador Hotel approached him about performing — outside at first. McFadden jumped at the chance. He says his need to perform outweighs his fear of COVID.

“Just to play for people and there's laughing and smiling and clapping and dancing,” McFadden says. “Oh, man, it's just a great time.”

McFadden named the club after the original Reno Club, where Count Basie forged the Count Basie Orchestra in 1935. And it’s where early radio broadcasts introduced Kansas City jazz to the world.

“I'm glad that I get a chance to tell the story about Basie and Hot Lips Page, Mary Lou Williams, The Chocolate Drops, Charlie Parker, so many great musicians and so many great things that have happened here in the history of jazz and I like telling the story,” McFadden says.

In the front row, Sandy and Leo Miller are at the Reno Club to celebrate 39 years of marriage.

“And just reliving the history of Kansas City. And I think it's wonderful. Just wonderful,” Sandy Miller says.

Lonnie McFadden tap dances onstage at Lonnie’s Reno Club downtown at The Ambassador Hotel

McFadden grew up just blocks from 18th & Vine. His father, tap dancer Jimmy McFadden — known as “Pops” — toured with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Count Basie in top jazz orchestras in the thirties and forties.

“I've always been proud of the DNA, the whatever it is that we have here that makes our swing different,” McFadden says. “It makes it soulful. It's bluesy. Oh, it’s just great to me.”

McFadden was a 16-year-old trumpet player at Lincoln High School when he was picked up by legendary Kansas City funk band Clyde N’em and Her.

“Every weekend, I'm going to school, I'm playing these gigs with Clyde N’em and Her at these nightclubs: AG's Lounge, The Inferno, 50-Yard Line, all these basically Black clubs because, back then, a predominantly Black band couldn't play on the Country Club Plaza."

When the band went on the road they asked him to join the tour. McFadden says he found himself at a fork in the road.

“I had to make a decision and to me it was no decision, but I had to talk with my mom and dad,” he remembers.

McFadden says he was able to convince his parents that he was serious about music.

“And that was the beginning. I quit high school at 16 years old and I left Kansas City and went on the road.”

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Julie Denesha
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"What you see up there is me celebrating life," Lonnie McFadden says of his energetic performances.

Around Kansas City, McFadden is known for putting on high energy shows. But he sees it a little differently.

“People say I got energy,” McFadden says. “I don't have energy. What you see up there is me celebrating life, celebrating the fact that I actually get to do something that I always wanted to do. And I'm doing it and I get to pay the bills.”

“He's the Michael Jordan of jazz, “ Cindy Bussjaeger, sitting at a table with a friend, says during a break in the music.

“I used to watch him at the Phoenix Jazz back in high school,” Bussjaeger says. “I would say that's 20 years ago. Super proud that he's at the Ambassador Hotel and I mean goose bumps. You can't leave this club without having goose bumps.”

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Julie Denesha
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After Lonnie McFadden's show, Federica Spagni (left) McFadden and Cindy Bussjaeger pose with him for a photo.

In between songs, McFadden takes a moment to showcase those celebrations.

Maitre d’ Joshua Judy prepares the list of names and goes over it with McFadden before the show, so McFadden can be sure he pronounces every name correctly.

“Carl, birthday,” Judy reads. “Larry, birthday. LaVelle and Martin, 41-year anniversary.”

Judy says people held off marking personal milestones during the pandemic. Now, celebrating is more important than ever.

“For a lot of people, they haven't been out in a long time,” Judy explains. “They needed to have music. They needed to have that chance to celebrate. If it's a special occasion, Lonnie acknowledges it.”

McFadden says he’s noticed audiences have a different vibe now that the COVID situation’s improved.

“Every week, I can feel the energy,” McFadden explains. “And I don't know if that's something that's going on all over. I hope it is. But I know here the electricity is palpable. I mean, the people are meeting us halfway and we meet them back. I mean, it's a certain synergy that happens and I love it.”

And after years of performing on a different stage every night, McFadden says it’s nice to have a place to call his own.

“I know everybody here,” McFadden says. “I know all the cleaning ladies. I know all the cooks. I'm part of the Ambassador Hotel. These are my people. So it's like, yeah, I've never been a part of anything. And now I'm at home.”

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