A Kansas blues festival is putting on a 'last waltz' as too many of its elders pass away
The Kansas City, Kansas Street Blues Festival was created as a place for a small group of influential blues artists from northeast Kansas City, Kansas, to share their music with their community. Now, however, so many of these artists have died that the event organizer doesn’t believe he’ll be able to continue the festival.
Kansas City has long held a reputation as a center of blues music and culture. One neighborhood in northeast Kansas City, Kansas, produced many of the musicians who gave the metro that reputation.
Many of these artists found success as musicians, but that success often took them away from the community where their music had originated. Throughout the 20th Century, artists from KCK often had to leave town to perform at venues serving a mostly wealthy, white clientele.
“A lot of our musicians in town, almost half, had a Kansas City, Kansas, connection but everything was steered toward Kansas City, Missouri,” says Kansas City music activist Dawayne Gilley. “Nobody was telling this 3rd and 5th Street story of things that had gone on from the ‘40s into the ‘90s. That whole story was not being told by anybody.”
In the late ‘90s, Gilley began work on a profile of Kansas City blues artists for Living Blues Magazine.
In the year and a half he spent interviewing more than 100 Black musicians, Gilley came to hear the concerns many of them had about the lack of opportunity for larger performances in their own communities. In response, Gilley worked with them to organize the first Kansas City, Kansas, Street Blues Festival in 2000.
Since then, the festival has seen its share of successes and setbacks.
Now, however, this celebration appears to have reached its conclusion. With each passing year there are fewer people left to take the stage.
'A shiny moment'
Even before his work with Living Blues Magazine, Gilley says he saw the disparity in opportunities for Black musicians in the area.
“It just became really evident listening to people's stories,” Gilley says. “There wasn't this thing in KC where you could have a shiny moment as a Kansas City, Kansas, musician.”
After writing for Living Blues, Gilley worked on the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival, which was held at the Liberty Memorial in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, from 1990 to 2001.
His brief time working on the event led him to consider creating the more localized KCK Street Blues Festival.
“This line up of these musicians, we could see that festival anywhere,” Gilley said. “The same artist that we're having in Kansas City, we could see at these other places. Kansas City's a famous town, but we didn't act like it.”
Gilley reached out to several musicians from KCK and held the first festival on the section of 3rd Street from Parallel Parkway up to Troupe Avenue.
Over the next five years the festival grew in attendance and budget, with more than 10,000 people attending in 2005, the final year it was held on 3rd Street.
In 2006, the event was forced to move to Kaw Point Park to accommodate larger crowd sizes, beginning a lengthy history of operational challenges that prevented it from becoming an annual event.
After low turnout in 2006, the festival took a year off but returned in 2008 and 2009, at 13th and State. In 2010, Wyandotte County officials attempted to impose several new regulations due to it being a street event, causing the festival to halt operations until 2016.
“Finally, this guy named Frank Lavender built us an amphitheater on a property at 49th Drive,” Gilley says. “It would comfortably seat 2,000 to 4,000, maybe 6,000 if we pushed it.”
The festival continued at Lavender’s amphitheater from 2016 to 2019. Then, as with many other live events, COVID-19 forced the festival to take the last two years off.
Now it's returning, but not to its former home at Lavender’s amphitheater. This year’s festival will be at Knuckleheads Saloon in the East Bottoms of Kansas City, Missouri.
It’s being billed as “The Last Waltz,” a celebration of all those who have performed at the festival over its nearly quarter century run. Gilley says he plans for this festival to be the last. But it’s not city regulations or a lack of funding that's bringing it to an end.
It's that so many of the musicians who frequented its stages have passed away.
'The last of us'
Gilley says that since the start of the pandemic, more than 30 former performers have died. That number only grows when counting the dozens of others who have passed since the festival began in 2000.
“We really have gotten to the point where the Black elders of Kansas City that are still playing legit blues, that are front people… I have very little left at this point,” he says.
The deaths of former performers such as Frank “Iron Jaw” Oakley, Rock’n’Rick Patterson and Millage Gilbert convinced Gilley that the festival needed to hold a final goodbye to the community’s elders before they were gone.
Gilbert was the oldest remaining festival royalty, a ceremonial position reserved for the oldest and most well known musicians headlining each year’s festival.
The position of king or queen is a sign of intense respect, earned over the decades the artist spent making music within the community.
This year’s festival king is guitarist and singer Ron Teamer. While he hopes this festival isn’t actually the last, Teamer shares some of Gilley’s concerns.
“We're getting old basically. This is the last of us,” Teamer says. “After this, there has to be a younger group that comes in that really knows how to throw the flavor in there.”
'The flavor shouldn’t leave'
Teamer certainly fulfills the requirements to be named king. He’s been playing the blues for more than 50 years. He says he fell in love with the sound of the blues, or its flavor as he calls it, at a very young age.
Teamer says while he was growing up in the northeast corner of Kansas City, Kansas, an area long plagued by economic and racial inequality, themes and messages from classic blues artists helped him find joy in misfortune.
“It's poor man's music,” Teamer says. “It’s for a man who don't have nothing but a guitar or a slapstick or some type of rhythm to play. It helps poor people learn to survive.”
Despite growing up under financial hardship, Teamer’s family always supported his music career. His mother bought him his first electric guitar, a white Flying V, for his 15th birthday.
Its once bright white paint has faded to a dull shade of yellow, and Teamer admits he’s aged just as much as his favorite instrument.
He has a growing list of health issues that make traveling to shows and singing on stage more difficult. However, he doesn’t expect to stop performing anytime soon.
“I'm so proud to do this. If I was crawling, I would do it,” Teamer says. “The music matters that much to me. I'll keep on playing till the day I pass away.”
Teamer admits he’s not sure how many shows he has left, but says that he’s still hopeful for the future of blues. Though few in number, some younger artists are taking up the mantle of blues.
Teamer hopes that, through these young musicians, festivals like these continue even after his generation of musicians is gone.
“I hope they listen to the music and not create a sound that they think is blues,” Teamer says. “Because the flavor should never leave Kansas City, never.”
The Kansas City, Kansas, Street Blues Festival, Wednesday, Nov. 23-Sunday, Nov. 27 at Knuckleheads Saloon, 2715 Rochester Ave., Kansas City, Missouri 64120, 816-483-1456.