PHOTO BY ZACH BAUMAN
This story first appeared in The Pitch Weekly on 28 September, 2016
Eddie Moore is looking for a home.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Actually, it’s probably better if the place is a little rough here and there — not big, not formal. Moore, the jazz pianist who leads Eddie Moore and and the Outer Circle, knows Kansas City boasts some really beautiful places, old and venerable joints, coat-and-tie rooms.
That’s not really his thing.
In one of the cradles of this most American sound, he’s looking for a stage set for youth, for boldness, for discovery. Moore says he and other musicians of his generation sometimes struggle to break in here, to join the capital-J-Jazz community of people who have dedicated their time and energy to the art — and to do it without propping up jazz as an antique or a tribute to something bygone, a seance for 18th and Vine.
“We’re just trying to find a home for the jazz of now in KC,” Moore says. “People are still stuck on making money from the classic Kansas City jazz. When do we stop talking about Charlie Parker and start talking about now?”
Moore is, by any measure, one of the most important young musicians in the city. His band’s new record, Kings and Queens, was, at last glance, the top-selling Kansas City-based jazz album on Bandcamp, the independent online music retailer. He won the Charlotte Street Generative Performance Art award this year. He’s been here more than a decade, playing in Marcus Lewis’ big band as well as in numerous other projects filed under jazz and elsewhere. Yet he sometimes feels like an outsider because he has little interest in a dark-bars-with-cocktails-and-jazz scene he says is so pervasive in the city.
That vibe is cool, he says. It’s the Kansas City thing. But, he adds, it’s only one side of jazz.
It’s a side he can play, of course. He’s booked at the Blue Room at the American Jazz Museum this week, as traditional as venues come (and uniformly admired by local musicians and touring lifers alike). But Moore’s frustration speaks to Kansas City’s place in the broader jazz world. In New York, the undisputed home of modern jazz in America, you can stroll from venue to venue and be exposed to everything the genre provides — those classic chambers where folks quietly sip cocktails while the music plays, yes, but also bustling rooms where the audience is encouraged to do impossibly daring things such as dance.
PHOTO BY ZACH BAUMAN
Here, things are different. KC is smaller. It’s also in the shadow of its own towering, even overwhelming history. In part for these reasons, Kansas City lacks venues willing to stray from a tried-and-true Kansas City sound, the swing and the standards.
“The problem is that we don’t have enough venues to present our original music,” says Hermon Mehari, the renowned Kansas City trumpeter spending some of his early autumn in Paris, gigging, rehearsing and spending time with jazz legend and Kansas City native Logan Richardson. “We have enough venues to support ourselves. But we don’t have enough venues to put out as much creativity as we’d like to.”
There are a number of reasons why, Mehari and others say, perhaps none greater than timing and culture.
Kansas City might be the second-most-important jazz city in America, but it is also one of its most conservative. The particular brand of swing-heavy jazz perfected here in the late 1920s and early 1930s remains a dictating force in the city. The most prominent jazz venue in town, the Blue Room is operated by a museum dedicated to preserving the past. It books different varieties of jazz, often with a decidedly smooth, R&B lean. But it is, not for nothing, keyed to the standards.
Gerald Dunn, the entertainment director at the American Jazz Museum and manager of the Blue Room, did not respond to requests to comment for this story. But Dunn has told The Pitch in the past that he is dedicated to booking both new and traditional jazz acts at the club, and the club’s diverse schedule reflects that.
Not far away, the Green Lady Lounge — a relatively recent addition to the city’s jazz scene, in the Crossroads — is meant to look and feel as though it existed during the 1940s. The acts that occupy its stage almost look like they’re hoping Parker or Count Basie will walk in and pull up an instrument.
Last Friday night, in the club’s main room, the musicians who comprise the Boogaloo 7 performed in a cluster toward the front door, suited up in jackets and ties, as club owner John Scott demands of all the acts there, playing a familiar-sounding jazz that clearly succeeds here. Patrons at a dozen or so small tables listened attentively. Beyond those tables, the long, deep room can get noisier as people chat over their drinks. It’s a charming experience, a time machine of sorts, just as Scott designed.
Scott shrugs off the idea that there is a lack of space for original jazz in the city, but admits that he is very precise about who he books for the Green Lady: chiefly, players who share the room’s “very classic Kansas City aesthetic.”
And what is that aesthetic? “Well, I’ll tell you what it’s not,” Scott says. “It’s not jazz dick music.” This is a term he uses to describe the experimental or crossover jazz he finds self-serving. “It’s not music that denies the need for an audience.”
Scott says he books acts with a swinging and supportive rhythm section. “It’s a no-nonsense sound,” he explains. “It’s got a lot of swing to it. It’s not drunken music. It’s like the Royals — it’s the hometown team. I like Kansas City jazz.” Newcomers migrate to the city with all kinds of influences, he says. They listen to hip-hop and they listen to what he calls “hair bands.” For him, those blends of styles don’t work. “It’s basically an imported sound. That’s completely fucking fine. But don’t complain when you don’t find an audience.”
Scott has invited Moore and Mehari to perform at the Green Lady. Moore recorded an acclaimed live record there, and he and Scott are friends. But both artists have declined the invitation; Moore has said his band’s music doesn’t fit the club’s style.
Mehari says his only complaint about the Green Lady is that it’s not really built for listening. To him, it feels like a nightclub where jazz bands happen to play. No one disputes the yeoman’s work Scott has undertaken for Kansas City jazz. But Mehari and others had a listening room, and it’s gone.
By the time Take Five closed, owners Lori and Doug Chandler had built their business into one of the city’s premier jazz venues, a place where acts of every jazz discipline felt comfortable. But a move to a space on 135th Street and Metcalf slashed what had been robust crowd sizes, and the Chandlers closed the club last July.
“We lost Take Five,” Mehari says. “That was a listening room, and it was pretty easy to get in there and perform. We need more places like that.”
“Take Five was the spot,” Moore says. “That was the only spot where I felt like I could come in and do what I want — where there were, like, no barriers.”
Trombonist and bandleader Marcus Lewis says Take Five booked even avant-garde music that risked alienating thirsty weekenders walking by a place to get a drink and hear something. “It was a really great mix,” he says. “I’m really sad to see that club go.”
I ask Lewis, with whom Moore and Mehari perform, what the city needs now, and he says the words as clearly and emphatically as he can: “Original. Modern. Music.”
I’ve found Lewis by phone as he drives to Des Moines, one stop on a short jazz tour around the region. Lewis grew up in small-town Waynesboro, Georgia, and lived in Atlanta for years before coming to Kansas City when his wife took a job here. As a relative newcomer to the city, he’s hesitant to talk too much about its culture, about the gravity of its historic jazz infrastructure, but he knows this much: It could really use a couple more places where he and others can play original modern music.
Lewis has hardly been unsuccessful. There have been several iterations of the Marcus Lewis Band, but the 2012 version, credited on the excellent Facing East LP, included saxophonist Richardson, noted pianist Sam Harris and others. He’s also part of pop singer Janelle Mónae’s band when she tours. He appreciates the standards, he says. He just doesn’t perform them. Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” for instance, feels to Lewis so well-spoken-for by generations of players that there’s nothing he can really add to the song. He plays his own music. And why wouldn’t he want a regular KC stage for that?
“It doesn’t have to be all the time,” Lewis says. “It could just be on certain nights.”
Lewis says he has considered organizing a roundtable of artists and venue owners, a kind of search committee to scout a space to play artful, modern, original jazz. If nothing else, he says, the roundtable could spark an honest conversation about the state of jazz, and jazz venues, in the city.
The Chandlers left open the possibility that they would resuscitate Take Five in some form, but things have been quiet. Lori Chandler did not return messages asking about their plans, but Matt Otto, the assistant director of jazz studies at the University of Kansas and one of the city’s best tenor-sax players, says he had dinner with the Chandlers recently and talked about opening a new club, perhaps by next summer.
There are other jazz-friendly venues in the city that have dedicated time and space for original jazz performances. The Majestic hosts jazz every night; Mehari performs there with a trio at least once a week, as do Mark Lowrey, Bram Wijnands and others. The Ship, in the West Bottoms, does a weekly jazz series that includes free-jazz, Latin jazz groups and other sounds left of the KC mainstream.
The venues that exist now, traditional or otherwise, are keeping jazz alive in the city. But ask Moore about them and he’ll tell you that there are gatekeepers at these venues, and they are particular about what kind of acts they let in. Moore envisions something different, something informed by the rock and punk world, in which he also operates. He believes that a do-it-yourself ethos could work in KC’s jazz community, which is well-stocked with grad-school minted musicians, music students and veteran sessioners. Kansas City is not New York City. It’s less expensive. It’s accessible. It’s a place where unique, sometimes risky jazz might thrive.
PHOTO BY ZACH BAUMAN
Last Thursday afternoon, Moore and I sat at a window table in Westport Coffee House, the longstanding performance space on the edge of Westport proper. This place is one possible answer, Moore said. The downstairs room is small but open to hosting jazz of all varieties. Trouble is, shows at the coffeehouse and most other jazz-friendly venues are door gigs, tying the performers’ payment to the number of people who show up. There’s good money to be made playing the Blue Room and the Green Lady, which don’t yoke their bills to the door, but guarantees anywhere else are all but nonexistent. At the moment, Moore and his band perform door gigs at the Tank Room, the bar across a skinny alleyway from the Green Lady.
The next night, Moore was set up behind two keyboards on the Tank Room’s stage, wearing a dashiki, his dreadlocks draped over his shoulders. He opened the show with songs from the band’s 2013 album, The Freedom of Expression. The song “September 15th” started with lingering, cascading keys that led to a skipping beat — one two-two, one two-two — and a rising wave of funk-tinged improvisation. About a dozen people sat inside. A few folks listened closely. Four people on what might have been a double date chatted at a center table. Star Wars played on the televisions around the bar.
During a break, Moore stood outside the club and talked with his band and greeted friends and met a stranger or two. He said he felt thankful that his bandmates — all of them real talents in their own right — wanted to play a door gig with him on a Friday night.
A moment later, a man walked outside and thanked Moore for performing, told him the band sounded great. Don’t worry, the man said. It’s early — not even 11 p.m. yet. The room will fill up.