Sunday, March 31, 2019

Ears in Arrears

A Kansas City musician posted a derisive comment in response to a video clip I shared on Instagram documenting a dissonant performance at the Big Ears Festival.  His rejection of boundary-pushing music reflects the conservatism that often makes Kansas City’s jazz scene seem like the land that time forgot.

I recently joined 18,000 people at the Big Ears Festival because the festival was loaded with prominent jazz artists who haven’t played Kansas City in the past ten years, or in many cases, have never set foot inside the city limits.  The long list of luminaries at the 2019 edition of the festival included the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Nik Bärtsch, Tim Berne, Mathias Eick, Mary Halvorson, Shabaka Hutchings, Nicole Mitchell, Evan Parker, Ned Rothenberg, Leo Wadada Smith, Craig Taborn, David Torn, Ralph Towner and Nate Wooley.  If these cutting-edge musicians aren’t going to come to Kansas City, I’m going to go to them.  (My capsule reviews of the 30 concerts I caught at Big Ears are here.

Club owners and concert presenters aren’t to blame.  If there was a hearty appetite for forward-thinking jazz, they wouldn’t hesitate to dish it up.  Yet as proven time after time after time, there’s simply not much of an audience for the sound of the moment in Kansas City. 

It’s a civic embarrassment that the profoundly influential stars Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and Robert Glasper haven’t appeared in town in the past ten years.  Even the Lee’s Summit native Pat Metheny avoids his hometown.  Kansas City’s dogged adherence to convention compelled revolutionary artists ranging from Charlie Parker to Logan Richardson to establish their reputations elsewhere.

Much of the jazz performed in Kansas City today wouldn’t have sounded out of place sixty years ago.  And to be fair, that’s not an entirely bad thing.  Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon! and Count Basie and Billy Eckstine’s Basie/Eckstine Incorporated were released in 1959.  If you’re going to get stuck in the past, it doesn’t get much better than that.  But a full immersion in the sound of 2019 requires traveling to cities like Knoxville, London, Chicago and New York.

(Original image of David Torn, Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer, Nik Bärtsch, Steve Lake and Nate Chinen by Plastic Sax.)

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