The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra aims to help young musicians make a cool genre hot again
Jazz and Kansas City have been linked for more than half a century, but some say the art form has lost its luster over time — especially with young listeners. That’s why the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra embraces education and performance to raise the next generation of musicians.
On a small, dimly lit stage at one of Kansas City’s oldest live jazz venues, the songwriter, producer and jazz vocalist Lee Langston serenades a packed house.
Fans and aspiring artists have flocked to The Phoenix every Friday night for more than two decades. There, Langston envelops them in sultry covers of funk, pop, R&B and jazz hits on the first floor of the old hotel in the former garment district.
Langston says he’s remained a mainstay on the local jazz scene because of his willingness to guide the next generation of musicians.
“I made sure I was providing a platform for other musicians, singers, or spoken word artists,” he says, “giving them a place where they can come and hone their craft, you know, every single week.”
That commitment means Langston sometimes gets to share the stage with musicians he says he’s “poured into since they were babies.”
“Now they're coming in the door and performing on the same nights,” Langston says.
Langston has reaped the benefits of being a jazz artist from, and in, Kansas City. But many others didn’t gain prominence until they left town, and some gained global fame faster than they could closer to home. That includes luminaries likeHermon Mehari, Logan Richardson and Oleta Adams.
“Eric Lynn who is (another) artist from here that has moved away,” Langston says. “When they wrote some things about him a few years back, it brought me joy to see him say … there are people like Lee Langston who have paved the way.”
That pattern of leaving the area, or making it big elsewhere instead, is why Langston and others are now teaming up with the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. In an effort to help raise the next generation of musicians, the ensemble hosts masterclass programs, quarterly workshops and other clinics.
A concert on Friday called The Future is part of that effort. It will pair Langston with the orchestra’s 18-piece big band and give students from Kansas City Kansas Community College and Soundwave Academy a chance to perform alongside the professionals.
“Kansas City and jazz, you know what I mean?” says Langston. “To say that you're out of Kansas City and even say the word ‘jazz,’ people get it immediately — and if they don't get it, they need to sit down and do a little bit of research.”
Taking jazz to the cafeteria
Jazz Orchestra Executive Director Lea Petrie is one of the architects of the concert and many of the organization's education efforts.
Her inspiration for one such program comes from a childhood memory at Boone Elementary, when Kansas City jazz legend Sonny Kenner came to play for an assembly.
“I was probably 7, 8, I think, and I thought it was the coolest thing,” Petrie says. “Funny thing is that it never left me.”
Thirty years later, Petrie updated that idea for a pilot program called Jazz Café.
“We send a trio out, they play during the lunch period, and it's generally no cost to the schools. The kids just enjoyed it and the teachers said that they really had a better afternoon after that,” she says.
“My goal — and I don't care if anybody knows it or if anybody imitates it — is to really focus on educating Kansas City's children about what jazz is in a fun way,” Petrie adds.
Educating the future
This weekend, some of Alyssa Bell’s students will be part of the Orchestra’s opening act in one of the city’s glitziest venues.
“It’s a really great experience,” says the co-founder of Soundwave Academy. “To be in the Kauffman Center, and get to perform with singers — which we don't get to do super often — it's just a lot of new and exciting things for the students.”
Bell’s nonprofit provides six-week sessions to teach ear training, music theory and chamber music. Since 2019, they’ve built a teenage-led ensemble of classically trained and contemporary musicians who come from all around the city.
“We have 12 string players, two saxophone players and a piano player,” she says, some of whom are getting mentored by Orchestra members.
“I’m happy to have this relationship with the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra and be able to help provide this opportunity for kids,” Bell says. “Putting these professionals on a more human level with these kids makes it easier to relate with them, and makes their dream seem like something that's more attainable.”
Bell admits not every student who goes through the nonprofit’s program will ultimately go into music, but she says that’s not the only goal.
“They're not trying to create conservatory-level musicians, necessarily,” she says. “They're just trying to help these kids get out there, get into college, and have a place that's safe, that they can use their minds.”
If just a few of those young minds can make a career out of jazz in Kansas City, the art form might have a bright future in one of its original birthplaces.