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How A Musician With No Christmas Plans Fosters Health And Fellowship In Kansas City's Jazz Scene

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Luke X. Martin
/
KCUR 89.3
The American Jazz Museum's Gerald Dunn says Musicians Appreciation Day has turned into a chance for artists to check in on each others' health and well-being.

Holiday traditions sometimes start in unlikely ways.

Case in point: Gerald Dunn and Kansas City's Musicians Appreciation Day, which these days offers live music for the public and free health screenings and fresh produce for musicians of all genres.

It started years ago as a chance encounter between Dunn, director of entertainment at the American Jazz Museum and Blue Room general manager, and tenor saxophonist Eddie Saunders, who died in 2012. The two spotted each other in a grocery store and shared a joke over not having Christmastime plans.

After returning home, Dunn says, "I thought about it and I said, 'Why don't I just give him a call?'"

Saunders invited a few others to meet at Dunn's home, and "that just turned into a great time of listening to great stories, food, and it just turned into doing it again the next year."

The next year more musicians showed up, and the tradition was established. Dunn, one of the younger people in the group, realized over time that he could use the day to check in on the well-being of his friends.

"Watching these guys put so much of themselves into the art scene, a lot of times they forget about themselves," he says. "You start thinking about these things like, 'Well, we should probably start some type of program so that we can be more aware of each other ... (and) focused on a healthy lifestyle.'"

Dunn says former Truman Medical Centers president and CEO John Bluford and current Chief Community Relations Officer Niki Lee Donawa were instrumental in putting together an event that now includes blood pressure, glucose and cholesteral screenings, nutrition and chronic disease education, and a free bag of produce.

"We know that a lot of the musicians may not have a medical home," Donawa says, "and so we wanted to encourage them find a medical home in the community."

A colorectal cancer screening kit will also be available, says Donawa. The condition affects and kills more African Americans than any other ethnic group in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.

For artists making a living in music, especially those on tour, it's easy to fall into bad habits like "eating late at night, or scarfing down some food in between a set," says Dunn. "Those types of things start to add up and stack up, and before you know it you don't realize how sick you are."

Income can play a part, too. Sometimes gigs don't pay much, Dunn admits, so affording health care can be a hurdle.

Wes Blackman, a guitarist and bandleader from Kansas City who has attended the Musicians Appreciation event in previous years, agrees.

"You can make a living," says Blackman, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. But saving for emergencies is often out of the question.

"Many times I have, as the leader, taken less money because I really do want my guys to get paid as best as possible," he says. An artist might play a three- or four-hour gig and walk away with $50.

"It is what it is," Blackman says. "You take what you take."

Kansas City jazz musicians, by and large, says Donawa, "well, unfortunately they're not in the best shape."

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Luke X. Martin
/
KCUR 89.3

"I've known of at least one musician who was sent (from the Musicians' Aprreciation Day event) to the ER and ended up there in surgery," she says. That might have saved the man's life.

This year Dunn, who plays the saxophone, hopes his holiday tradition will draw 15-20 musicians or more, and he's hopeful about the next generation of artists.

Touring musicians, he says, are becoming more interested in finding the nearest grocery store or fitness center and skipping the fast food.

"If you don't replenish your well-being after a gig — even just knowing how to unplug and get good, relaxing sleep," Dunn says, "all of that stuff starts to play into your ability to be creative. I mean, if your body's not healthy, your mind is not healthy."

The American Jazz Museum's Musicians Appreciation Day begins at 5 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 19 at Blue Room Jazz Club, 1600 E. 18th St., Kansas City, Missouri 64108. For more information, visit AmericanJazzMuseum.org.

Gerald Dunn, Niki Lee Donawa and Wes Blackman spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date. Listen to their entire conversation here.

Luke X. Martin is associate producer of KCUR's Up To Date. Contact him at luke@kcur.org or on Twitter, @lukexmartin.

Luke X. Martin is associate producer of KCUR’s Up To Date. Contact him at luke@kcur.org or on Twitter, @lukexmartin.