Jazz was the main attraction on the second day of the new Kansas City Jazz & Heritage Festival on Saturday. Following an opening night in which R&B hit-makers drew thousands of revelers to the festival grounds near 18th and the Paseo, substantially fewer people took in sets by the jazz musicians that dominated the schedule.
Dicey weather undoubtedly dampened attendance. No musicians on any of the five stages played for more than 500 fans, and most sets were attended by only a few dozen people. A final burst of rain fell at about 5:20 p.m. as Queen Bey was performing inside the Gem Theater.
Decades before the cultural icon Beyoncé became synonymous with her moniker, vocalist Queen Bey was charming Kansas City audiences with interpretations of jazz standards. After a delightful reading of “Misty,” she congratulated her admirers for choosing to support a “kind of music that’s almost dead.” The form’s popularity may be languishing, but jazz was very much alive on Saturday.
The Kansas City saxophonist Bobby Watson and his reconstituted group Horizon played almost 90 minutes of vital mainstream jazz on the second of two primary outdoor stages. The superlative ensemble of Watson, trumpeter Terell Stafford, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Victor Lewis revisited longtime Watson favorites including the party-minded “Lemoncello” and the gorgeous “Love Remains.”
Performed at dusk, an interpretation of “In a Sentimental Mood” was heartbreakingly melancholic. Watson tarnished the otherwise sublime outing by indignantly proclaiming that “in my next life I’m coming back as a plumber — they get paid.”
Just as Watson and Horizon refined the most artistically pleasing aspects of conventional bop, a performance by an ingenious trio led by the Tennessee based saxophonist Greg Tardy in the Blue Room acted as a reminder of the thrills that can be provided by daring jazz musicians.
The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra approached jazz from an entirely different angle. The big band’s arrangement of the Count Basie staple “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” featured boisterous solos from the trumpeter Stan Kessler and the guitarist Rod Fleeman that conjured Kansas City’s jazz heyday.
Supported by a sympathetic quartet during the most desirable slot on the primary stage, the Kansas City native Kevin Mahogany sang that he and the members of his audience of about 200 should strive to “keep jazz alive.” The paltry turnout caused the sentiment to resemble wishful thinking. Even so, the miniscule size of the Saturday’s crowd didn’t make the occasionally superlative jazz that filled the air any less vibrant.