Monday, November 19, 2012

Review: UMKC Student Jazz Combos at White Recital Hall

Jazz is hard.  The music's advocates in Kansas City are so accustomed to hearing performances by exquisitely refined musicians that it's easy to take their virtuosity for granted. 

I was one of about 50 people who witnessed 14 students of UMKC's Jazz Studies program struggle to master their craft as members of three ensembles at White Recital Hall on the evening of November 12.  The concert concluded with a performance of a band led by Paul Roberts

I was unable to identify a player that seemed destined for greatness but that doesn't mean that none of the students won't develop into extraordinary musicians.  It usually takes time to develop an individual voice.  There's a big difference between achieving technical proficiency and becoming an interesting musician.  One drummer, for instance, played with the lifeless efficiency of an intricate drum machine. 

Much of the problem may have been a function of the format.  The members of a couple ensembles seemed constricted by the inclinations of both their bandmates and by the presence of their instructors.  I suspect that the students are fully capable of playing with far more passion in looser settings with likeminded musicians of their own choosing. 

That's why I was disconcerted that I was laying my eyes on all but two or three of the students for the first time.  Maybe if these budding musicians had spent more time attending confident performances by the likes of Vijay Iyer and Jeff Harshbarger they wouldn't have seemed quite as uncomfortable on stage Monday. 

With the addition of a little more seasoning in the real world, I'm confident that Bobby Watson and his excellent staff at UMKC will transform at least one of these promising kids into the next Hermon Mehari or Logan Richardson. 

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)


john said...


Would you elaborate on your statement that, "It usually takes time to develop an individual voice. There's a big difference between achieving technical proficiency and becoming an interesting musician."? Please be specific.


Bobby Watson said...

tsk, tsk, tsk, Why come down on our students? there were four groups that night, not three,,,and there were another three that played the Monday before. We have seven combos and two big bands. Why not do your due diligence and witness the total depth of our wonderful, hard working students before putting the "mighty" pen to paper. Let's do lunch Bill.


Bobby Watson

Happy In Bag said...

It's cool that you're sticking up for your kids, Bobby, but I really don't think I'm picking on them.

Because they're students playing in an academic setting, I didn't mention any of them by name. But because the performance was open to the public, I believe publishing my general impressions is fair.

When we have lunch- and I hope it's soon- we can talk about ways in which the Conservatory can help fans, bloggers and representatives of the media better understand the totality of your program.

Happy In Bag said...

The comment you question, John, is hardly original. Elite artists possess both impeccable chops and the ability to convey powerful emotional and artistic concepts. If I had to choose between listening to a technically perfect instrumentalist who lacked originality and soul or an shoddy instrumentalist with a gift for expression, I'd opt for the latter musician.

Hunter-Black House said...

I think it is in extremely poor taste to criticize students who are in the early stages of their development and performing in a school setting. I also question your judgement that a critique of a student recital is worthy reading material. Even the UMKC student newspaper doesn't cover events like this.

Let's also keep in mind that school-assigned jazz combos are notoriously bad because most of the time the players don't get to choose who they play with or what material they get to play.

Feel free to criticize people who take your money and are actually being paid to perform. Spare the young and stuggling your half-assed musings on whether or not you think they're destined for greatness.

Happy In Bag said...

My "half-assed musings" aside, I'm still not convinced that writing about a public performance by UMKC jazz students is out of line. The work Bobby Watson and his colleagues have done at UMKC is arguably the most significant jazz-related story in Kansas City. The Conservatory's impressive track record of transforming musicians in the "early stages of their development" into phenomenal players is an important ongoing success story. That said, Hunter, I value your opinion. I may be willing to concede that you and Bobby are right.

Leo said...

Hermon and Logan sound the way they do because of their own hard work. Give credit where credit is due.

As far as an "individual voice" is concerned. There are very few sound and melodic innovators in the history of jazz. Getting the language down is one thing. Having your own voice is another story. These cats did both.

Bud Powell
Al Grey
Kenny Garrett
Bobby Watson
Oscar Peterson
Bill Evans
Sonny Rollins
Bill Watrous
There are certainly more but unless you can pick them out blindfolded in a few bars then they don't have an "individual voice"

Happy In Bag said...

Notice to the author of an anonymous comment submitted at 1:06 p.m.- I can't publish one of your assertions. Feel free to give it another go without the libelous part. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Forget it. Do you want the truth or do you want to sugarcoat it.

John said...


This is what I mean by asking you to be specific. Can you please describe the powerful emotional and artistic concepts you are referring to that make someone "interesting"?

What is it that makes someone "original". There is nothing new under the sun Happy. Or do you just mean, they repackage an idea that's been used countless times in a way that is suitable to you taste? Or rather the particular stylistic trend that is wetting your whistle at that point in time. Also, what do you mean to play with "soul"? Everyone has a soul, and the music that comes out of their body tends to express that without even trying. How could someone NOT play with soul?

Happy, please be specific when you are using these terms, because from the outside looking in, it seems as if you're just using the same blanket terms every pseudo-intellectual uses to describe why they can't wrap their mind around a certain person's expression, that vaguely express what they are actually trying to say. In other words, please express your opinion with some "soul" so that we can all benefit, as we are supposed to, from your opinions about something that you cannot even pretend to do.

I would offer my own opinion that your writings are often the same recycled jargon and technically proficient but soulless type of "artistic expression" that you write so poorly of in your blog.



Happy In Bag said...

I'll be specific for you, John. In today's Confirmation post I link to an appreciation of Rahsaan Roland Kirk written by Chris Lewis of Killer Strayhorn. It's music like Kirk's that I have in mind. Lewis, you'll be pleased to learn, writes with soul.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I reacted somewhat viscerally to your post. As a musician, I have little use for critics. They have simply added nothing to my musical life. They haven’t inspired me or challenged me. Their only contribution seems to be adding more static to the signal to noise ratio. They are the 1 per centers – exclusive, condescending, self-righteous, self-serving. The takers parading as the makers. They are the Mitt Romney’s of music, speaking a language that appears both native and foreign.

The more I move along in my own musical journey, the greater my intolerance grows. Perhaps it is because I have become more understanding of how difficult it is to put yourself out there as I myself have spent more and more time under the unforgiving lights of a naked stage. Perhaps it is because I realize that little good comes of it. Perhaps it is simply because I have become more courteous (and somehow less tolerant of the discourteous?). And yes, I get the irony of criticizing a critic for criticizing.

To be clear, this certainly doesn’t mean I don’t have criticisms to give. I think very critically of what I hear, and I hear a lot.

But seriously, offering criticism of a group of young student musicians seems to serve absolutely no purpose. They have no product to sell, no live gigs to promote, no merch to hawk. They are simply young musicians taking another small step along the ever-expanding path that is being a musician. Trust me, musicians have enough self-generated bullshit to deal with. I am sure the musicians on that stage, or any stage, feel a weight most will never understand.

Not to pull the ‘it’s a musician thing, you probably wouldn’t understand’ card but it is a musician thing and you probably wouldn’t understand.

I do appreciate all you do to promote the music we love, however. Sincerely.

Happy In Bag said...

Thanks, Anon 1102. While a lot of musicians monitor the content of Plastic Sax, they're not my target audience. One of my objectives is to make Kansas City's jazz scene more accessible to people who aren't yet invested in the music. Even so, I have no interest in assuming the role of an insipid cheerleader. In the case of the controversial UMKC post, I hoped to remind potential jazz listeners of the Conservatory's significance and of its ongoing accessibility.

Anonymous said...

This sure seems like a lot of angst for what is a general comment about a student recital. Most of the review statements are true of 99% of the many student jazz recitals I have attended.And no one was identified to embarass them.As for anyone who has no use for critics, why are you reading this blog?

Anonymous said...

Most musicians I know who follow this blog do so because its an amusing trainwreck most of the time, whether it's Happy's posts or the idiots in the comment boards. It's an odd feeling to have no use for critics, yet watch how badly something you care about is misunderstood and misrepresented in public.

Hunter-Black House said...

I understand your heart may be in the right place. But if I was still in school and saw a blurry picture of me on a blog post which stated that no one at the performance seem "destined for greatness," the fact that you didn't use my name would do little to mitigate my reaction.

One of the main benefits of school is that you get to suck in anonymity while you get your shit together. People pay a lot of money for this opportunity and your post comes a little to close to violating this for those players.

Also, you should have suggested they come do a Black House workshop if they want to get better.


John said...


Thanks for trying, but posting a link of someone else's review of a musician is not exactly what I meant by "please be specific about what you are trying to say". In fact, it's exactly the opposite. Thanks anyways,


Michael said...

Might as well get rid of the Down Beat Student awards if you can't take criticism. Lets do away with college jazz festivals too. God forbid anyone gets criticized.

Lets give everybody a participation medal from the UMKC program. They are just wonderful.

You bunch of wimps!

Oh, by the way, a degree in "Jazz Studies" is the biggest unusable degree in the history of higher ed.


Anonymous said...

Can we move on now? What started as an interesting debate quickly degenerated into insults. The sniping and one-upmanship in this thread has gotten thoroughly tiresome.

Mike - nice try, but I hope no one bites on that one.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Anonymous said...

I find sniping and one-upsmanship infinitely more interesting than all else that's transpired so far.

...and Mike is right, however so is Hunter. It falls under the category of: just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Let's be honest, the petty stuff is the only thing that keeps any of us reading.

Michael said...

With Hunter on this one. I object to the "destined for greatness" line--thought it was in poor taste.

Michael said...

Anonymous potshots suck, too.

Jason said...

Tsk, Tsk, Bobby.
You need to be around more. I was at UMKC for two years. You were on the road constantly and classes started late everyday when you were there. Thats not a good example. You make 108k (KC Star) Why do you need to be traveling that much?

How about helping your students find a gig after they graduate. Whats the UMKC placement rate?
I was blessed to find a good job in music with no help from the Conservatory. The Conservatory paints a rosy picture that everybody is so happy and collegial. The Conservatory and the KC Symphony actually have a lot in common. People hate each other behind close doors.

Bobby, you sure can play though.

That previous poster about "Jazz Degrees" was right on the money. A Jazz Degree is a scam perpetrated on the naive college student.

Get a usable degree AND play your butt off. You don't need a jazz degree to tell people you can play. Besides, the curriculum is not well rounded enough. Its too myopic.

Just sayin' and just ramblin'....but at least your readers heard the truth.


Russell Thorpe said...

I wish I was just a cross-eyed idiot savant. Wouldn't it be so much easier if you could put me in diapers and have me play mournful ballads for Tina Turner in some post-apocalyptic paradise. Never mind the drool...

Matt Leifer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

Anonymous diatribes against Bobby and UMKC from behind a computer don't make you seem like a bitter, clueless clown at all.

It's hilarious--the people that bash on UMKC and Bobby almost invariably have NO FRAME OF REFERENCE and don't know what it's like at other schools or in other cities. I'm sorry that Bobby didn't hold your hand and tell you what to practice. Thankfully his tactics are good enough for, oh, I don't know, every single good player under 35 in Kansas City save for about two of them.

Your perspective is really that warped that you can't notice the talent that's come out of that school the past decade and sustained the scene because sometimes improv class starts at 2:04? Big picture, bro. I'm curious, though--what happened after you had to wait those extra four minutes for class to start? Did you...did you get to learn improvisation from one of the greatest improvisers alive? Yeah, I mean, I know that Bobby is one of the most important jazz musicians alive and everything, and I know he's revered by musicians all over the world, but...golly, sometimes I just wish we had a guy with a doctorate from East Montana State who could really draw up a syllabus.

You think the University of Miami called up Art Blakey and arranged for Bobby to join the Messengers? What the hell were you expecting?

By the way, you want to talk curriculum? I just graduated from one of the institutions that helped define what standard curriculum is in jazz academia. Classes were taught by the guys who wrote the textbooks. And guess what? The undergraduate students there would get absolutely CRUSHED in a real life musical situation by the UMKC guys. Destroyed. Maybe, just maybe, it's because the UMKC students encounter someone who actually lived it, was actually in the trenches?

ryan said...

Thank you Michael, I've been trying to put my thoughts about that on a page since late last night. Couldn't figure out what to say. You pretty much nailed it.

You know what we did when Bobby was running late to big band? We practiced on things we knew he would want to run. Tardiness aside, we learned how to be professionals. Bobby would come in and run the group like a professional group, but he wouldn't hesitate to use anything as a teaching moment. I've been a jazz GTA at two other universities, ran combos and big bands and I learned more about running a group in two years sitting in Bobby's band than I did actually running ensembles.

Degree program or not, if Bobby wasn't here, the younger generation of musicians in this town would, more than likely, not be here.

Jason, sorry your experience at UMKC wasn't what you had hoped. I've had issues with it too but I'm glad to be a part of that community. I'm glad I can call up f%#&ing Bobby Watson if I have a problem and he'll take the time to talk or call me back. The same goes for Joe Parisi, Lindsey Williams, Steve Davis and JoDee Davis. I'm glad Peter Witte still asks about my son two years after he was born. I'm glad that my pointless performance degrees have allowed me to get a job teaching at a college, get connections with some of the most talented, remarkable people I have ever known all while continuing to find my own sound and improve as a person an musician. I'll stop rambling too.


Michael said...

One last thing--I want to clarify that the first post from someone identifying themselves as "Michael" and "Mike" from 10:27 Nov. 22nd was not me (I am Michael Shults). Would be awfully nice if folks would either create an account or post their full names to post to avoid the confusion.

Cb said...


I sincerely don't know how I missed this post and dialog, but it seems good and healthy interaction regarding the KC scene at some fundamental level, I suppose.

UMKC is only one of several pretty darned good .edu programs contributing young jazz talent to the local scene each graduating semester. I didn't take your review as a put down of students, but was somewhat puzzled that it was done in the first place.

And, I don't agree with the calling out of names like like you did in using Hermon Mehari (UMKC graduate) and Logan Richardson (who did not graduate from any local .edu, btw) in your concluding paragraph, because that is not fair to those whose names you dropped in this context.

That aside, Prof. Bobby Watson doesn't need me or anyone else to "take up for him", because he's validated through history already and resides on a level in his field that most people don't ever know exists. His genius is what it is.

The same type of stance can be taken with the observation of music students.

Talent is not fair. Talent is not fair in sports. Some kids are big, coordinated and fast, while some kids are not.

In music, most of the "kids" who are good enough to actually make a living doing music full time, have something that nobody gave them except their parents via inherent DNA and genetics.

Beyond that .edu is only a coach. Having a sports coach who has played at the pro level (NBA, NFL, NHL) is more relevant to student athletes who are headed to that level. Same with music.

Having a professional jazz artist (who can teach) instructing .edu is an advantage to students for similar reasons.

Preparatory guidance to assist a student to make a living outside of the static .edu institutional complex is the inherent goal of such an instructor.

So, having someone like Bobby Watson back in Kansas City is good for the music community on many levels. Touring the world, being a community leader, recruiting the best young talent from around the country to attend the university and also teaching - might make one late for a class or two.

I have been back home on the KC scene since 2001 and it has always been pretty vibrant. Always changing. Venues closing, new ones opening.

College students graduating and staying in town as home base. College students graduating and going somewhere else to base. Established musicians from other places coming to get KC certified and going on to spread our news. It will go on and it will be good. This is Kansas City. This is jazz. Both, are bigger than all of us. We are mere stewards.

If I had a criticism of most dialog that I continue to see and read about the KC jazz scene is that it comes off so "home town referee-ish". I have rarely seen anyone become a "star" whom the KC media has held up or pushed that way. I think most media folks don't do this, so they don't know. That's not a put down to those who write about the music and don't play. The genuinely brilliant and talented didn't, doesn't, and don't need that hype stuff, nor does a scene as rich in genuine art as Kansas City.

In our enthusiasm for some young ones, we leave out many others who are actually the ones doing what we are supposedly excited about.

It is nice when a student musician grows to become an artist because that means they have moved from imitation and appropriating other peoples' work as if it is their own, to actually creating and innovating.

That's the reality that a Bobby Watson brings by example to the music community of our region, just by being here. I am confident that the UMKC students who apply their talent will get it.

Sorry this is so long ...

Peace, Cb

Clint Ashlock said...

I agree with Michael. Anonymity in such a small community is, like calling college kids not "destined for greatness," in poor taste.

Honestly, anyone who criticizes Bobby for being on the road needs to get some perspective. Do you think he got hired, and gets six figures because he's a pedagogue who sits in his office all day? That he was supposed to just put on a tweed jacket with elbow pads and quit being Bobby Watson? He's SUPPOSED to go on the road, to write, to record, to play, to teach elsewhere... that's HIS JOB. Everything Michael and Ryan said were much better put than anything I'm going to write, but I wanted to add to the conversation in support for not only a great player, but one of the greatest teachers of music and life that I've ever had. If you couldn't learn - anything - from Bobby Watson, well... I'm sorry, man. Maybe someday. Like Michael said, it isn't Bobby's fault you didn't practice.

Like most other musicians in town, I give the UMKC program my full support and love. It pissed me off just the same as a lot of people when Bill rained on the concert. Criticism is fine, but let's let the students' teachers hand it out. I heard someone ask why this should be any different than college sports, that we criticize those athletes too. I don't have an answer for that, but the eyeball test tells me it's different.

Anonymous said...

Clint, it's because we don't compare college athletes to the greatest professionals who ever played the game. We compare them to other college athletes.

Apples to apples.

Anonymous said...

Paul Roberts,

I thought all the combos did a great job musically of playing the songs they played. Some of the "newer to jazz" combos may not have sounded like the Miles quintet, but they sounded better than what they did in September and THAT is what is important. They grew as musicians that night adn will continue to grow.

Not everyone who is in a student combo has their eyes set on making it as a jazz musician. Many, myself included, are seeking to become teachers in our community so that we can keep the jazz flame alive for future generations.

I am glad Bobby is out there showing his face to the world as he is an ambassador of Kansas City jazz and UMKC. His appearence at some remote town or far away land might attract some monster jazz musician to UMKC. You can't get people to study here if they don't know what is going on here.

The first principle of teaching is, modeling. Bobby does just that when he is away performing. Modeling what you can get exposed to at UMKC.

Sure, being in the grad combo with some other locally established cats makes me biased, but I just had to share my thoughts.

As far as a "review", I might not have reviewed the performance unless it was being touted as some significant event, like "Student Combo #4 plays the Miles 1964 Concert!".

d.hitchcock said...

Hermon Mehari and Logan Richardson weren't what they are now when they were presenting their senior recitals.

Looking for Trane at a student concert is ... misplaced optimism.

It happens later for most of us.