Chicago Jazz Festival: I’m not unhappy with what’s readily available on Kansas City’s jazz scene. Instead, I’m deeply frustrated by the infrequency of performances of homegrown progressive sounds and by the apparent boycott of Kansas City by adventurous touring artists. I’m obligated to leave town to experience much of the music I love. During my trek to Chicago- my third music-oriented trip of 2019- I verified that the city’s jazz scene is thriving. Kansas City is stuck in a rut. Why?
Chicago’s greater metropolitan area is five times the size of Kansas City. A performance by an all-star band led by Vijay Iyer can’t sell 100 tickets in Kansas City, but the same group likely to draw 500 paying customers in Chicago.
The ghost of Charlie Parker is an oppressive presence in Kansas City. Chicago jazz legends like Ramsey Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell are living symbols of innovation. And Kansas City has no equivalent to the Chicago based AACM. The improvised music created in each city reflects those dynamics.
The decrepit buildings scattered throughout the Jazz District aren’t the only things crumbling in Kansas City. Self-inflicted wounds have impaired three of the most prominent Kansas City jazz organizations. Advocacy groups such as the Jazz Institute of Chicago efficiently coordinate their efforts with like-minded concerns to achieve large-scale successes including the Chicago Jazz Festival.
Try to find a review of a 2019 album by a locally based jazz musician anywhere but Plastic Sax. Not one exists. Yet releases by Chicago artists- especially those by the hugely influential International Anthem Recording Co.- are regularly given serious consideration at prominent outlets including Downbeat, The New York Times and Pitchfork.
If you talk to almost any Kansas City jazz musician for more than five minutes, he or she will bemoan the lack of rooms for unconventional sounds. In addition to renowned straight-ahead clubs including Andy’s Jazz Club & Restaurant, the Green Mill and Jazz Showcase, Chicago has spaces designed for innovation including Constellation, Elastic Arts and Hungry Brain.
Plastic Sax is the sole forum in Kansas City reporting on jazz every week. Howard Reich writes extensively about jazz for The Chicago Tribune. The Chicago Reader is also dedicated to covering the scene. Chicago Jazz Magazine is among the specialty publications. KKFI- the only viable radio outlet for jazz in Kansas City- plays 15 hours of jazz a week. Chicago’s WDCB- one of several Chicago stations programming jazz- offers more than 15 hours of jazz every day.
On Saturday, September 28, jazz fans in Chicago will attend performances by groundbreaking touring artists including Ambrose Akinmusire, Chico Freeman and Mary Halvorson. Angel Bat Dawid and Ari Brown are among the Chicago based musicians with international reputations who have hometown shows. And in Kansas City? No touring acts are in town, but I highly recommend guitarist Rod Fleeman’s regular matinee gig at Green Lady Lounge.
The first and second parts of this three-part series were published earlier this month.
(Original image of Sam Harris, Ambrose Akinmusire, Harish Raghavan and Justin Brown at the Chicago Jazz Festival by Plastic Sax.)