Monday, May 29, 2017


Before I assume the role of an imperious Monday morning quarterback, it’s imperative that I explicitly state that I loved the first edition of the American Jazz Museum’s Kansas City Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Hearing longtime personal favorites Chick Corea, Lalah Hathaway and John Scofield perform consecutive sets on the attractive main grounds of the festival on Friday was a dream come true. Greg Tardy’s intrepid trio thrilled me on Saturday. The Brian Blade Fellowship closed the festival on Sunday with exquisite chamber jazz. Speaking of drummers, providing the opportunity to hear rhythmic geniuses including Blade, Jaimeo Brown, Marcus Gilmore, Victor Lewis and Bill Stewart reflects the festival’s commendable artistic ambition.

I’d gladly buy a $150 pass to a comparable Kansas City Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2018. And yet…

I’m deeply troubled by the miserable attendance at the jazz portion of the festival. The R&B/pop artists Hathaway, Brandy, Will Downing and Oleta Adams drew nice crowds, but it took just a few seconds to conduct thorough head counts at the jazz showcases. Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, the executive director of the American Jazz Museum, insists that Kansas City is a jazz town. It may have sounded like one over the weekend, but it sure didn’t look like it.

I deserted an audience of about 200 at a performance by Sunday’s jazz headliner Regina Carter (photo above), to join a reported 50,000 people to hear Patti Austin sing with the Kansas City Symphony at the nearby Celebration at the Station concert (photo below).

What explains the staggering contrast? Money, of course, has a lot to do with it. Celebration at the Station is free. Tickets for the Kansas City Jazz & Heritage Festival were $25 for entry to the main stage per day or $50 for access to all five stages per day. Given that the over/under on the number of people in Kansas City willing to pay $25 or more to attend a concert by a small acoustic jazz band is 1,000, jazz is a tough sell in this town.

There are three large-scale jazz festivals with free attendance in the Midwest- the Chicago Jazz Festival (2017 performers include Jon Faddis, Roscoe Mitchell and Lonnie Smith), the Detroit Jazz Festival (2017 performers include Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Bennie Golson) and the Iowa City Jazz Festival (2017 performers include the Cookers, Donny McCaslin and Stacey Kent). A free event in Kansas City may be a preferable model to develop interest in the form and to avoid painfully awkward crowd sizes.

And what about R&B? I’m all for it. Kansas City would clearly support a spinoff of the Essence Festival. The American Jazz Museum’s impressive efforts at the inaugural Kansas City Jazz & Heritage Festival indicate that the institution may be capable of overseeing that event as well.

(Original images by Plastic Sax.)

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