Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sue Vicory: The Plastic Sax Interview

Who is Sue Vicory and what is her deal?

I've been eager to find answers to those questions since I became aware that Vicory was interviewing jazz musicians and filming their performances.

Kansas City Jazz & Blues: Past, Present & Future, Vicory's documentary about Kansas City's jazz and blues scene, is almost complete. Marilyn Maye will be among the artists performing at the film's May 6 premiere at the Gem Theater. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.

I conducted the following email interview with Vicory prior to spending an hour with her at her home. I discovered that Vicory is an exceedingly kind person with absolutely no ulterior motives. She simply wanted to document the scene and is financing the film out of her own pocket.

I share Vicory's belief that she's doing important work. I don't think she agreed with me, however, when I suggested that scholars in Japan fifty years from now might find her film of more value than will most of Kansas City's current populace.

Plastic Sax: How did you manage to condense so much footage into one hour?

Sue Vicory: Ask my editor. It's not easy.

PS: Why did you limit the film to an hour?

SV: Because that was all I could afford!

PS: Where do you hope the film is shown after its premiere?

SV: In the schools, film festivals, all over the world.

PS: Public television? Art houses? Will it eventually be available on DVD?

SV: Yes. (To all of the above.)

PS: It seems like you've been working on this project for a long time. When did you begin?

SV: Three years ago.

PS: What inspired you to make this project?

SV: I was asked by a friend to become involved in a new arts organization. The only thing I had to offer was the possibility of making a film. Once the filming got started it created a life of its own. There was no way to stop until the story was told. The arts organization did not survive but it gave birth to this film so that pretty amazing.

PS: What's your background as a filmmaker?

SV: Film school in NYC. Editing school in DC. I am an Avid editor. My first film was called Homelessness and The Power of One. It premiered in 2005 two weeks after Katrina hit New Orleans. The film has raised over $200,000 for shelters. It most recently screened for Steve Lopez (The Soloist) when he was in town. It took me three years to make the film. I am also on the Board of Directors for Kansas City Women in Film and TV.

PS: How is the film being funded?

SV: Heartland Films, Inc. is my not for profit production company. I finance my own films.

PS: Did I read that Marilyn Maye is going to be part of the festivities at the premiere? How did that come about?

SV: Yes. I called her! We did her interview recently at UMKC White Hall. She was lovely.

PS: Who was the most interesting interview subject?

SV: Myra Taylor, Cotton Candy.

PS: The nicest?

SV: Candace Evans, Tim Whitmer, Stan Kessler, Danielle Hudspeth, Leon Brady, Mama Ray.

PS: The funniest?

SV: David Basse with his hat. Also Jo Burke was a hoot.

PS: The most difficult?

SV: The difficult ones were the musicians I asked for interviews consistently who didn't oblige.

PS: Who were you most excited to meet?

SV: The McFadden brothers, Mark Pender, Bobby Watson.

PS: Why did you decide to feature both jazz and blues in your film?

SV: Because blues and jazz are our true Kansas City musical roots.

PS: Please compare and contrast the blues and jazz scenes in Kansas City.

SV: I would say they are equally active with equal amounts of dedicated fans.

PS: What's your personal music taste?

SV: R&B. I'm a Motown girl. Bloodstone wrote the music for my first film and we screened the film in Detroit at a Motown concert.

PS: Which of the artists in the film do you most often listen to for pleasure?

SV: I have all their CD's. I'm pretty inspired by what Hermon Mehari is doing. I knew when I interviewed him that he had the makings of something great.

PS: What's your favorite music documentary?

SV: Michael Jackson's This Is It.

PS: Have you spent much time studying The Last of the Blue Devils?

SV: No, I barely watched it once.

PS: The film's subtitle is "Past, Present & Future." How does the present scene compare to that of the past?

SV: I would gauge that blues and jazz is as alive and active as it was back in the 20's, 30's and 40's. Extraordinary musicians playing extraordinary music. Personally I was blown away.

PS: And what's your outlook on the future of jazz and blues in Kansas City?

SV: It is here to stay! Our musicians are extremely talented. With folks like Leon Brady and Bobby Watson teaching the next generation of musicians, the legacy will live on.

PS: What response do you hope to elicit from viewers?

SV: That they fall in love with our Kansas City musicians such as I have! I have lived in Kansas City for 25 years and had been to 18th & Vine once prior to making this film. I had never even heard of the Mutual Musicians Foundation. I attended my first late night jam there when Richie Cole was in town. The experience forever changed how I view our musical heritage here in Kansas City.

(Original image of Vicory in her home studio by Plastic Sax.)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Now's the Time: Ben Kynard

I almost fell out of my chair this morning. I was perusing the American Jazz Museum's site for details about Charlie Hunter's gig at the Blue Room when I encountered this listing:

Stories from the Vine
Featured Elder Statesmembers: Mr. J. Henry Hoard, Mr. Ben Kynard, Mr. Sellie Truitt, Jr. and Mr. Oscar “Lucky” Wesley
Hosted by Former Kansas City Chief and UMKC history professor and Jazz musician and educator Dennis Winslett
Date: Saturday, February 27th, 2010 1:00-2:30pm
Cost: free

What! Saxophonist Ben Kynard is alive? He must be ninety! He can be seen playing with Lionel Hampton in the embedded video. Kansas City's Kynard is credited as the composer of "Red Top." (I wonder what he thinks of this version?) According to AllMusic, Kynard's first recording date was in 1950. His albums appear to be out of print but plenty of material by his brother, organist Charles Kynard, is still available.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Confirmation: Weekly News & Notes

*From a press release: The Jazz Masters at Crown Center will feature the following artists for a two-day concert series in August, 2010: George Benson and David Sanborn / August 21st... Manhattan Transfer and John Pizzarelli / August 22nd. The evening concerts start at 8 pm.

*The very welcome trend of live jazz at unconventional venues is examined by KCJazzLark.

*Adorable or annoying? Here's Megan Birdsall's latest vlog. (Personal to Megan: neither of your two publicists has ever contacted me...)

*KCUR's KC Currents chats with Angela Hagenbach. (Tip via KCJazzLark.)

*Tony Botello implies that Plastic Sax's lavish praise of Matt Otto in the previous post is meaningless. "(S)o many artists come to Kansas City and experience widespread acclaim simply because this town isn’t accustomed to major league talent," he writes.

*Two students of architecture at the University of Nebraska won a design contest with their ambitious plan to revitalize 18th and Vine. Noting that "the area is in disrepair," the young men suggest that "Modern Bebop," the title of their plan, might "revitalize" the area. Download their proposal here.

*The Minneapolis debut of Marilyn Maye is reviewed.

*An article at NPR's jazz blog describes Bobby Watson as one of several "great older folks who don't make as many headlines as they once did, but who are still making really great music."

*Karrin Allyson racks up another favorable concert review. She returns to Jardine's on April 8 and 9.

*Logan Richardson receives praise from a jazz blogger.

*Excellent! Footage of Randy Weston's recent concert at the American Jazz Museum is posted at YouTube.

*The American Jazz Museum's "Jazz Ambassador" exhibit is the subject of a new promotional video.

*A Junction City, Kansas, gig by the Doug Talley Quartet garners a review.

*Good times were had at the Mutual Musicians Foundation on Fat Tuesday.

*Diverse's debut album is noted by the Examiner.

*A Portland radio station displays affection for a Joe Turner album.

*A blogger describes the fun she had listening to jazz at Harling's.

*Andrew Miller's trashing of Kansas City includes disparaging remarks about the Jazz District. An excerpt: The 18th and Vine district still exists, and there's probably even more money being funneled into it then there was in the Pendergast era, but without the brutal Mafia efficiency. Other than a couple active venues, which occasionally lure decent jazz artists with those mysteriously apportioned city funds but don't actually attract an audience because there's apparently no room in the budget for advertising and promotion, 18th and Vine consists mostly of fake storefronts...

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Matt Otto: An Appreciation

Kansas City is stacked with good jazz musicians. I'd happily spend my time and money hearing any one of our town's fifty best artists on any given night.

Some of them even specialize in what I characterize as "tourist jazz"- safe and conventional reproductions of what's been played countless times before. There's no shame in that. Several local traditionalists might even have dazzled Pete Johnson and Jay McShann.

That's not, however, what Matt Otto does. Not since Pat Metheny and Bobby Watson lit up Kansas City's clubs a few decades ago has a young locally-based jazz instrumentalist played with such imagination and innovation.

The great Bobby Watson aside, Otto is Kansas City's premier jazz artist.

The saxophonist's gig at Jardine's last week served as further confirmation that Otto is working at an exceptional level. His versatile style acts as a resounding rebuttal to anyone claiming that outside-leaning jazz musicians are unable to play conventionally. Otto possesses an immaculate tone and can deliver ballads with refined beauty. His adventurous attack Tuesday, however, referenced Ornette Coleman, Lee Konitz and Steve Lacy. Otto discusses his approach in an interview I conducted with him a few months ago.

As is usually the case with the best artists, Otto elevates the playing of his peers. I'd never heard saxophonist Gerald Dunn and drummer Mike Warren sound better. Bassist Ben Leifer, as usual, was also phenomenal. Otto didn't draw a big crowd Tuesday, but I'll submit that he and his band are capable of wowing jaded aficionados at the world's most hallowed jazz venues.

I'm not suggesting that Otto is a star in the making. Alas, that's not a realistic possibility for jazz instrumentalists in 2010. But if you care about Kansas City's jazz scene- or even if you just pretend to care about it- then Matt Otto is the name you need to know.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Now's the Time: Deborah Brown

The first time I featured a video of Kansas City vocalist Deborah Brown at Plastic Sax, in March of 2008, almost no footage existed at YouTube. A few decent clips have been added in the intervening years, including this performance, but there's still nothing that definitively showcases why many jazz insiders claim that Brown is one of the world's top talents. She remains, at least in the United States, an undiscovered artist. Even the person who uploaded this video, for heaven's sake, misspelled her name. Brown performs Friday, February 19, at the Blue Room.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Confirmation: Weekly News & Notes

*Rick Hellman interviewed Dave Frishberg. The jazz songwriter performs at the Folly Theater on February 27.

*The multi-talented KCJazzLark documents a Megan Birdsall gig. Great stuff as usual.

*Megan Birdsall and ragtime pianist Frederick Hodges were guests on Steve Kraske's Up To Date show on Wednesday.

*Abesha magazine interviews Hermon Mehari of Diverse.

*Black House Improvisors' Collective announced the lineup for their third incarnation.

*David Martin posted an excellent editorial about the Jazz District.

*Kansas City's "Loneliest Piano" resides in Union Station.

*An entity named GetJuke gave me a free lossless download for a previously out-of-print Chico Freeman album. They hoped that I would mention their "innovation platform for artists who want to promote their music over the social networks and beyond." The downloading process was seamless.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Classical Gas

I cringe every time I hear the tired claim that "jazz is America's classical music." It sounds more like a publicist's slogan than an evidential artistic claim. Still, I couldn't help thinking about jazz as I attended two classical concerts last weekend.

The Harriman-Jewell Series gave away tickets to a "Discovery" concert featuring two musicians, both still in college, performing Beethoven, Prokofiev, Webern and Enescu. About 1,000 people- half of whom were under the age of fifty- took in the free concert. Both the quality of the performance and the size of the audience were impressive.

The jazz equivalent would feature a pair of promising students from the Berklee College of Music interpreting compositions by Ellington, Monk, Coleman and Zorn. Could a free concert of that nature fill the Folly Theater? And who would fund it?

The next day I caught the third of the Kansas City Symphony's three weekend performances. Their takes on Sibelius and Stravinsky were outstanding. It's too bad more weren't on hand to experience it. In spite of a massive media blitz that included billboards, print and radio advertising, a YouTube channel, Twitter messages and deeply discounted tickets (I paid $20 a ticket but should have held out for a buy-one-get-one-free promotion), the balcony where I sat was less than a third full. I couldn't see the entire floor of the Lyric Theater, but I spotted plenty of empty seats.

I don't envy the task of trying to sell a cumulative 4,000 or so tickets for each Symphony program. In spite of the excellence of the Kansas City Symphony (I'm a huge fan), demand for orchestral music in Kansas City seems severely limited. The symphony, however, can rely on the enormous sponsorship of many of Kansas City's moneyed elite. They're even financing a beautiful new venue.

What's it all mean for the jazz community?

There's clearly a young audience willing to take a flier on experimental music when the price is right. Additionally, there are hundreds of citizens who make significant financial contributions to the symphony. They don't, however, necessarily wish to attend the concerts. Is it possible that these same privileged people might have an affinity for jazz? And would the Kansas City Symphony benefit by beginning to incorporate jazz into its programming?

Jazz is, after all, "America's classical music."

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Last of the Blue Devils

It seems as if the Mutual Musicians Foundation has been getting attention for all the wrong reasons lately. I thought it would be nice to take a look at the one of the happier- albeit bittersweet- moments in its illustrious history. The Last of the Blue Devils documented a 1979 reunion of Kansas City jazz legends. The wonderful film is available at Amazon and Netflix. This clip features Jay McShann and Jesse Price at the Foundation. Joe Turner is part of the Greek chorus.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Confirmation: Weekly News & Notes

*Pitch reporter David Martin added a couple sidebars to his cover story about strife at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. In this piece, he lists the new administration at the Foundation. And he looks into the area's ongoing blight here.

*KCJazzLark provides a fascinating backstory in response the Pitch's examination of the Jazz District drama.

*I'm thrilled to learn that two of my favorite acts in Kansas City, Diverse and Les Izmore, are collaborating. Details are available at Diverse's site.

*The latest installment of Alaadeen's memoirs is surprising. I just can't see the saxophonist carousing with Lester Bowie.

"(T)he attendance was a bit lacking," according to the Pitch's review of Javon Jackson's weekend show at the Blue Room.

*Michael Pagan's new album earned a glowing review.

*The story behind the new children's book about Mary Lou Williams is told.

*Randy Weston made a brief appearance on KCUR's Up To Date on February 4.

*D.J. Sweeney has created a new petition in an attempt to restore three hours of weekday jazz programming on KKFI.

*The relationship between the late Claude "Fiddler" Williams and Mark O'Connor is noted by Steve Penn.

*Citing "lack of progress," a federal judge's forthcoming decision may affect properties in the Jazz District.

*Former Kansas Citian Krystle Warren plays a London gig promisingly titled Next Big Thing.

*Greg Carroll of the American Jazz Museum is scheduled to participate in a panel discussion February 13 at the Brand Library in California.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Conversation With Randy Weston

Randy Weston radiates greatness.

The legendary jazz musician possesses a rare combination of gentle grace and regal bearing. Even people who have no idea that the 83-year-old was apprenticed by Thelonious Monk, was produced by Duke Ellington and was a collaborator with the likes of Langston Hughes and Charles Mingus surely recognize that Weston exudes a powerful energy. It was all I could do to keep from bowing in his majestic presence during the hour I spent with Weston Thursday morning at the American Jazz Museum.

Other obligations prevented me from attending Weston's free presentation at the museum that evening. One friend characterized Weston's performance as "simply stunning." Another associate, Joel Francis of The Daily Record, was part of the audience of about 200 people. "The music was spellbinding," he reported. "It was incredible to witness a musician of this caliber in such an intimate setting. "

Weston's beautiful Senegalese wife was on hand and a television cameraman made a brief appearance. Otherwise, museum C.E.O. Greg Carroll (below) and I had the pianist and composer to ourselves. I recorded the discussion, but the roar of vacuums and the relentless chirp of smooth jazz spilling in from the museum's atrium make a complete transcription impossible.

A few choice quotes from our conversation follow.

"I feel the spirit of my Creator and the spirit of my grandfather." - how he experiences the music of Africa

"You are an African born in America." - the message given to him by his grandfather

"You have to study the great empire of Africa." - a suggestion that has informed his life

"I wanted to look at African music from an African perspective." - about Uhuru Afrika, the sadly out-of-print landmark recording

"Randy Weston, thanks for giving me Africa." - what he was told by Dee Dee Bridgewater

"I wanted to find out where the hell we came from." - about his exploration of Africa

"That's our music. That's where we all come from. That's why we all feel it." - of humanity's common African heritage

Music and spirituality
"I make to communicate with people. I'm having a spiritual dialogue with people. Every time I perform I have a spiritual experience." - on the power and the meaning of music

"Charlie Parker is just as spiritual as Mahalia Jackson. In Africa they don't separate the secular and the spiritual. It's all one." - on the artificial separation of secular and sacred music

"All of us were little boys in bow ties. None of us could go party after that. We went home and went to bed." - recalling a Saturday night performance by Mahalia Jackson

"Our music is based on love. Our music is based on respect. Respect to our family, elders and ancestors."- about the meaning of his music

"Music is our real language. God is the real musician. We are all the messengers." - on the significance of music

"If you know there are cosmic rhythms you can reach other dimensions." - on the use of music by African tribes to expand consciousness

"You can't become six until you're five. You can't play the song of a 60-year-old until you've been 59." - on musical progression

"Music was created to soothe you. The other side of music is music to stir you." - on the power of music

The decline of jazz in popular culture
"We don't have access to the media. We don't exist." - in response to Carroll's disappointment about poor attendance at the press conference

"We have average music. We have average times." - on the domination of popular music

"People are hungry for something new." - on why he believes jazz will enjoy a resurgence in popularity

"Our music is not defined. They don't know who we are." - on jazz' unpopularity among black Americans

"Our music is only meant to get to the few. Our music has always been an intimate music. We're like chamber music." - citing reasons why jazz isn't more popular

Defining jazz
"I've always considered my music African rhythms." - how he describes his style of music

"Jazz is African music in the United States." - on his dislike of the word "jazz"

"I call it spiritual music." - on his preferred definition of his music

(Original images by Plastic Sax. I'd to thank Suzetta Parks for allowing me the great privilege of meeting Weston.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Now's the Time: Javon Jackson

Javon Jackson is big in Ukraine. Actually, I don't know if that's true. The forced urgency of the embedded television commercial just begs to be mocked. Jackson performed in Kansas City last October with the Kind of Blue tribute band. One critic called Jackson's outing "tentative". Another suggested that he seemed "hesitant and overwhelmed". I agree with those assessments, although playing John Coltrane's parts is a can't-win proposition. I suspect Jackson will fully redeem himself Saturday at the Blue Room.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Confirmation: Weekly News & Notes

*For shame! Several people have been imploring me to investigate recent events at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. I lacked the time and the stomach to go after the story. David Martin did the dirty work. His excellent coverage of the sickening sequence of events breaks my heart. Martin's accompanying editorial provides invaluable context.

*The ongoing troubles at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum are extremely bad news for the adjacent American Jazz Museum and for Kansas City as a whole. This sad story has generated a great deal of attention. The internet chatter about the possibility of the museum moving to Cooperstown seems to be gaining momentum. Here's an example.

*Back To Rockville checked in with Matt Chalk. Did you see him perform with the Dave Matthews Band at the Grammys?

*In stark contrast to last year, Kansas City-related jazz artists won no awards at this year's Grammys.

*The (mis)perception of danger in the Jazz District is addressed by KCJazzLark.

*KCTV provided a Grammy tie-in feature.

*Metheny mania: The New York Times jumps on the Pat Metheny bandwagon. I recommend the audio version of this fine Pat Metheny feature. And Steve Paul provides a few photos of Metheny's robots.

*John Simonson reminds readers of Count Basie's politics.

*Megan Birdsall' Mbird project has a Kickstarter account. She's trying to raise $2,000.

*Last Saturday's Masquerade Ball looks like a lot of fun. The People's Liberation Big Band and Hearts of Darkness provided the music.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Monday, February 1, 2010

From Blackout To Whitebread: A Jazz Weekend

"Anyone know what time is it? It's Miller time! Glenn Miller, that is."

I guffawed in disbelief when The Noteables' uniformed vocalist used that cornball line in her introduction to "Little Brown Jug".

I should have known that the official representatives of the United States Air Force would pay tribute to the bandleader during their appearance Sunday at Asbury United Methodist Church. After all, Miller died as a member of the Air Force during World War II.

In addition to Miller's hits, the Noteables offered a mix of patriotic songs and nostalgic material like "Big Spender" from Sweet Charity. An audience of about 250 was delighted.

I liked it too. Sure, the Noteables are square. That doesn't mean they're not any good. So what if their rendition of Duke Ellington's "The Mooche" was jaunty rather than seductive? That's precisely what the members of the military intended.

I attended the concert in the Prairie Village church in an attempt to snap out of the blissful daze I found myself in after the previous evening's outing by Stefon Harris and Blackout. (I more or less agree with this account of the concert.)

The New York-based ensemble's performance was so revolutionary that I wasn't certain that I could ever enjoy the sound of a traditional big band again. That's why I felt compelled to expose myself to the opposite end of the jazz spectrum the next day.

Thanks to the Noteables' brassy effort, equilibrium has been restored.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)