This week, the musicians in the Kansas City Kansas Community College Jazz Ensemble travel to Cuba, where they’ve been invited to perform at the Havana International Jazz Festival. It’s a point of pride for a little-known, but stellar music program.
Community college students are only in school for a couple of years, so Jim Mair, the college's director of instrumental studies, hasn’t had a lot of time to get to know the players he’s taking with him to a foreign country. A lot of them are working full-time jobs. Some aren’t even majoring in music.
“My lead trumpet player, he’s in our welding program, wants to be an underwater welder," Mair says. "My second alto player, he’s in the EMT program and he’s a firefighter. My lead alto player, he’s in our audio engineering program. So you can go down the line."
Despite those challenges, he decided all of the students ought to have what he calls a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." So they’ve spent the last year raising money – and practicing. In Havana they’ll play two 60 minute concerts, much of the music by Kansas City artists: "Swingmatism" by Jay McShann, "One O’Clock Jump," "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Kansas City Shout" from the Count Basie library.
Mair says playing at the Havana International Jazz Festival is unique to KCKCC.
“Most groups — UMKC, KU — they’ve been to the Montreux Jazz Festival, so have we. We’ve performed at the major festivals in New York.”
Mair’s been in charge of the instrumental music program at the college since 1999. Student groups perform as many as a hundred times a year, and have earned high ratings at every festival they’ve played.
One of Mair’s students is 21-year-old P.J. Churn. She started playing piano and then classical flute when she was a little kid. She picked up the saxophone in high school, playing with Leon Brady’s All Stars. She went to England with her high school band at Shawnee Mission West, but this is the first time she’s traveling internationally for jazz.
“I think this is going to be a wonderful opportunity to see that jazz is still alive in world culture and see how different cultures have interpreted jazz and developed it,” Churn says.
Another student, Andrew Tremain from Lansing, Kan., generally lets his trombone speak for him. But he plans to deliver a message for the international audience in Havana.
“That we’re good," Tremain says. "That we have rich jazz history, particularly in Kansas City.”
Besides the students, a few of the college's other faculty members are also going on the trip and performing with the ensemble. And 25 people from the community are joining them as well. One of those accompanists is Charles Williams, who plays piano with the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. He was there in early December when the ensemble performed a final dress rehearsal and fundraiser at Unity Temple.
“I think they’re good," Williams said. "I’ve been practicing with them. I see improvement each time I come. That’s what it’s all about — getting better and better, working at your craft, getting seasoned with it and having fun.”
Williams could tell they still needed practice. But Doris Givens, the KCKCC president, sounded euphoric at the idea of the ensemble representing her college at the international festival.
“They’ll be just wonderful there," Givens said. "It’s just overwhelming. And every time I hear them play I think, oh boy, that’s the best I’ve ever heard them, but tonight it was off the chart. Absolutely wonderful.”
Mair says his students will learn from their exposure to another culture.
“They’re going to see that there’s live music in every venue that you go, and musicians are held at the same level as far as compensation and esteem as a medical doctor would be – they’re pretty much paid on par with what a doctor would get in Cuba.”
Mostly, though, he wants them to be able to relax and have some fun while they’re playing. That’s because these community college musicians have a lot of other things on their minds around this time of the school year.
“One of my students to get his license in welding, those tests are taking place while we’re in Cuba, so he’s had to reschedule those for when we get back.”
At least he’ll take that welding test knowing he’s left the sound of Kansas City in the warm air of Havana.