Sunday, February 2, 2014
Stan Kessler: The Plastic Sax Person of the Year
Stan Kessler has been one of Kansas City's most prominent jazz musicians for decades. He performs in a variety of settings several nights a week. When he's not on the bandstand, Kessler can often be spotted in the audience at jazz shows.
His ensembles include the forward-thinking Parallax, the Sons of Brasil and the new quartet Crossfire.
Partly because the outgoing trumpeter, composer, educator and bandleader rarely hesitates to proffer his strong opinions, an interview accompanies the coronation of Kessler as the 2013 Plastic Sax Person of the Year.
Which do you consider more exciting- rubbing shoulders with numerous jazz legends when you first hit Kansas City's jazz scene or today's environment, an era in which impressive young musicians are bountiful?
I highly respected the KC jazz legends and was impressed and inspired by them. Without them I wouldn't be the player I am today. However, I'd have to say that I am even more excited and inspired by the recent crop of amazing young players. There are so many of them and they are simply astounding. They are so mature and developed for their age, or any age for that matter. They are blessed with talent and and have gleaned much from the current jazz education machine, something guys my age never had the pleasure of experiencing. These young cats are constantly kicking my ass, which is a good thing. It's highly motivating!
You're exceptionally outspoken. You don't hesitate to share your opinions on a variety of subjects. Has your candor ever hindered your professional career? And if so, do you care?
I've always been outspoken, and I have some strong opinions that I choose to share. They are just my opinions, nothing more, based on my experiences. I try to be truthful, which I'm sure occasionally ruffles some feathers. I try to be tactful, but don't always succeed. It may have hindered my career, but I'm not aware of it, which is usually the case. My intention is never to harm, but when I see injustice, oppression or hypocrisy, I feel compelled. It's also true that sometimes I wish I'd kept my damn mouth shut, a feeling probably shared by many. I don't care if someone disagrees with me, I love a good discussion or debate. The problem arises when people take things personally or too seriously. It seems to me that people have gotten so thin skinned. It used to be that you could have an argument with someone with an opposing view, agree to disagree and part friends. What I really care about is being misunderstood. For example, I often get heated responses from a Facebook post that is intended to just get people thinking about something. I also enjoy being the devil's advocate just to stimulate a discussion. A mutual friend of ours told me to be careful when you put sarcasm in print, people may not know your tongue is in your cheek. That's so true! Those who really know me get me.
An enormous gap in knowledge often separates a casual listener in a jazz club and a serious musician. Is it frustrating knowing that if you quote, say, Clifford Brown in a solo that it's likely that only your band mates will get the reference?
Not at all, it's really for the musicians anyway. But it is especially gratifying when someone in the audience laughs and is hip enough to catch it.
What's your greatest musical moment on stage- not necessarily your biggest audience or your most prestigious gig but a time when you felt you'd achieved something particularly extraordinary?
There are so many, I've been at this for 45 years. I truly feel that there are moments on any given gig when I feel transported to a heavenly place, when I think to myself "This is why I do this." At those times, I feel that I've been part of something extraordinary. There have been concerts or festivals where I've felt that the band had the listeners in the palms of our hands. The first time The Sons of Brasil did Jazz In June in Omaha it was particularly thrilling. There were 7000 people there, as far as the eye could see, and they were really with us. The first gig Parallax played at Take Five Coffee Bar was amazing. You were there! Another one that sticks out in my mind was when I was in the Wichita State Jazz Ensemble and we won the UMKC big band competition. The prize was a spot in the KC Jazz Fest at Municipal Aud., where my parents had been taking me to see the event since I was ten. Finally, during the WSU jazz festival, I got to meet, hang and do a plunger duet with Clark Terry at the closing concert. I though my heart would burst.
You were a central figure in the drama swirling around the closure of Jardine's in 2012. Is there anything you'd like to clarify to set the record straight or do you prefer to let bygones be bygones?
I moved on from that long ago. I love Beena and I'm happy that she has landed on her feet and is once again thriving. It was such an tragic and heart breaking chain of events, especially for her. For the most part, I'd rather not revisit it. However, I would like to clear up a couple of things. Somewhere along the line, our local gossip monger stated that I was responsible for a boycott of the club, which is bullshit. His claim was based on supposition and erroneous information that he could not back up. I simply informed my friends, some of which asked me about it directly, on what had happened and they made up their own minds as to what to do. Most of them chose to not play. There was also a picket line organized by my son and the other ex-employees which I had nothing to do with. He even called me beforehand and asked me if I was comfortable with it and would it adversely affect my career. I told him to follow his heart and do what he thought was right and disregard me.
Do you work in a variety of settings out of economic necessity or are your many ensembles essential outlets for your creative interests?
It's both. I want to stay busy and each group has its place(s) in various venues. I love playing with lots of different people and try to put groups together with personnel that reflect the direction I want the music to go. And, I am open to any interest that keeps me relevant and nurtures my endless creative desires. I never want to just stand still.
The Broadway Jazz Cafe just opened. What's the right number of jazz clubs for Kansas City?
100. Seriously, I am always concerned about that. Right now, there is a nice equilibrium between the number of venues, musicians and fans. I hope it continues and that everyone can prosper. This town is not so big and there's a limited amount of disposable income out there that everyone is competing for. Things are pretty stable right now, but it's a house of cards. If one club closes it throws everything off. If too many players move here, the scene get saturated and it gets even tougher to stay working. The older players understand this because they've experienced the ebb and flow of the biz for many years. They also have families, substantial bills and mortgages. I hope that some of the younger cats will catch on to the idea of balance, think of their future and act accordingly.
If you had the power to make a single change to Kansas City's jazz scene, what would it be?
I would wish that the city and the venues would spend a lot more money promoting the scene, getting the people out. Unfortunately, they are scuffling financially like everyone else, running on budgets that are minimal and making little profit. It's fallen on the musicians to carry the load, with Facebook, mailing lists, etc. This needs to change soon, but the economy has to get back on its feet.
You choose to work with a lot of young musicians. What do you hear in them and how do they influence your music?
I hear brilliance, courage and passion. It's contagious. They delight and inspire me, each of them having such individual and unique voices. They are all such great people and players. I want to be involved with them as long as they will have me.
What do you hope to achieve with your new quartet?
I want to break some new ground, personally and musically. I want to be challenged and make good new music with these vibrant musicians. I want to move the audience on an emotional level. And, of course. I want to entertain.
Which is more important in a jazz musician- technical proficiency or imagination and inspiration?
Oh by far, imagination and inspiration. Chops are so overrated and not the point. Playing fast, high and loud does not equate to playing musically. Miles proved that. You only need enough proficiency to pull off your ideas, what you hear. It just so happens that jazz players need a lot of chops because the music demands it. I'd much rather hear two notes that have feeling than 100 regurgitated by a button pusher. I want to hear originality, especially in songwriting. It's not an easy thing to do, having a unique voice in the world.
What's going on with your hair? (I like it.)
I don't remember the 60's, so I'm reliving it. Actually, I just need a change. Another change will come soon, the long hair is a pain in the ass. It is, however, keeping my head and neck warm! I'm so relieved that you like it, I was worried.
The previous Plastic Sax people of the year are Doug and Lori Chandler (2012), Jeff Harshbarger (2011), Mark Lowrey (2010) and Hermon Mehari (2009). Bobby Watson was named the Plastic Person Person of the Decade in 2009.
(Original image by Plastic Sax.)