Kansas City’s jazz community works to hook the next generation

05/20/2014 9:18 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

A steady thump of bass quiets the wiggling toddlers and preschoolers gathered in the atrium of the American Jazz Museum.

Two-year-old Isaac Newcomer, who’s here from Overland Park with his mom, settles his little legs, too.

From up front, close to the upright bass and drums, jazz singer and storyteller Lisa Henry scans the crowd.

“Raise your hand if it’s your first time,” she says. “Well, here’s what we do. … We move and we groove and we scat and we listen to stories.”

A scene like this happens at 10 a.m. on the first Friday of every month, when the museum presents Jazz Storytelling. The events bring parents and kids from city and suburb to Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine district.

It’s one way the jazz community is imparting the city’s unique musical heritage to a new generation. It takes work, because musical tastes have changed.

“Jazz hasn’t been a popular music for quite some time,” said Doug Talley, a local jazz musician and teacher.

“Even many middle-aged people were not part of the population when jazz was popular.”

That’s why Henry and Brother John Anderson are at the museum — to share the beat and bring kids to their feet.

“Hell-o, how-are-ya, pleased to meet-ya. Hell-o, how-are-ya, pleased to meet ya.”

Isaac’s eyes brighten as Henry finds him seated on the floor.

“Are you gonna have fun today?” she asks.

He grasped her hand tightly, awed by his moment with today’s celebrity.

“High-five,” Henry says before reaching for another child.

Isaac and his mom, Beth Newcomer, make the trip often from Johnson County so they can be part of the experience.

“It’s fun to get him out and expose him to something new,” Newcomer says, as she keeps an eye on 8-month-old Simon in his stroller. “He doesn’t go to day care, and this is one way to get him around other kids.”

The next hour includes more songs as bassist Tyrone Clark and drummer Mike Warren steer the background tunes to a jazzy “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and to a regular stomping and clapping rhythm game.

Jazz Storytelling has been around for a dozen years.

It’s easy to feel Kansas City’s jazz history at the museum, connected to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on 18th Street. Its walls are pocked with timelines and portraits of the jazz greats who brought their shows to town.

Outside, dated signs hint at the district’s past, while shuttered buildings keep the spirits inside.

Fans find their way to the Blue Room and the Gem Theater, home to the Kansas City jazz style that includes a mellower blues mixed with the spontaneous jumps known in jazz.

Here, civic officials looked the other way during Prohibition and let the libations flow with the melodies. More than 50 clubs once operated in this neighborhood, where Count Basie and Charlie Parker honed their talents.

The jazz scene today, though smaller, continues to reach out to younger players across the area, aiming to instill a love of the city’s sound.

Maddie Roberts stands near a soda dispenser at a Shawnee Planet Sub on a Thursday evening. In a far corner, wooden tables have been pushed aside and the matching chairs lined in a row for Roberts and others who play in the Shawnee Mission Northwest High School Jazz Band.

For a few hours, Planet Sub’s blue and cream walls with their colorful murals will enclose a listening room as diners sip fountain drinks and eat sandwiches wrapped in foil.

“It’s different than a normal concert. It’s more relaxed,” says Roberts, a baritone saxophonist, wearing the band’s matching polo shirt and an orange flower in her hair.

It’s standing room only, and people spill onto the sidewalk as a middle school honors band wraps up its set. Many attending are relatives and friends of the students, who will receive a portion of the night’s profits as part of a fundraiser.

Jazz is something that many students have grown to like.

“You have to learn to love it,” says Kristy Gentry, who plays trumpet.

But after listening to it, she says, “you realize there is a huge jazz world out there you didn’t know about.”

Do kids their age listen to jazz?

“It depends on the kind of jazz,” Roberts says.

Michael Bublé might be considered worthy by some peers. Others might have picked up on jazz in movies, such as the newest movie release of “The Great Gatsby.”

As the high school students find their places, their teacher, Doug Talley, takes a spot in the saxophone section. He plays along with his students as they begin the uptempo “Sing, Sing, Sing” made famous by Benny Goodman.

Talley has taught music at Shawnee Mission Northwest for more than two decades. He also performs with his quartet and the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra and teaches courses at area colleges.

In his youth, Talley wandered record stores and sometimes chose albums solely on their artwork and design.

“I loved looking at the Blue Note, Impulse and CTI labels,” he said, noting artists Chick Corea, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Dexter Gordon.

“They were records, and just holding them in your hands” helped you connect to them, Talley said.

The preferred medium now, of course, is mp3.

“It’s a battle to keep jazz vibrant, and it shifts with time,” said Talley.

The trick to bridging the generational divide?

“Getting them to listen to the music,” Talley said. “If they listen to enough of it, and receive some sort of education about it.”

Talley has a library of CDs and encourages students to check out John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Duke Ellington.

Each quarter, students are required to identify about 50 different tracks.

“I want them to enjoy them and make a fun exercise of it,” he said. “What it does is encourages listening to jazz so they understand it and there’s an outgrowth from there.

“It is an acquired taste, but I think it was an acquired taste even when it was popular.”

The 5 Star Jazz Band in the Northland began on an off-beat note in 2008.

Tom Bates, along with his daughter Natalie Bates and other students, established the band when students wanted to keep receiving instruction from former North Kansas City High School band director Bob Drummond after the district let him go.

They also wanted to eliminate any economic barriers that went along with band instruments, uniforms and fees.

Its stated mission is to “keep alive Kansas City’s music legacy in Big Band, Swing and Jazz among school-age musicians, and to enable our members to carry on this legacy.”

Since the program began, nearly 200 young people, ages 12-21, have participated. The organization has drawn from nearly 40 schools and has a $20,000 annual budget.

“It’s run like a business, and they get paid for CDs, gigs,” said Tom Bates, who leads the board of directors, generates publicity and writes grant proposals.

Natalie Bates is now a student at the conservatory jazz studies program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and is an assistant director and percussion instructor for the band.

As a band member, she learned the logistics of being a professional performer, from scheduling a gig to communicating with people.

“What happens in high school, generally, is that if you are in jazz band you play a total of three songs a year,” she said.

With 5 Star, she said, “we had a repertoire of more than 100 songs.”

But it took some time for Natalie Bates to appreciate jazz. She just wanted to play drums, and it wasn’t until she played for a while, listened and watched the greats on YouTube that she began to connect with it.

“One day it just clicked and I understood how to play the music,” she said. “It takes a while to get your inner beat to switch, but once you understand it, you feel more creative.”

Limited repertoire aside, the good news about high school jazz ensembles is that most schools do have them, said jazz educator Clarence Smith. And he says participation rates are excellent.

“But to go beyond the typical big-band and jazz ensemble (instruction), there is a dropoff in participation of the true understanding of improvisation.”

Smith is a music coordinator at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley, teaches jazz history, music appreciation and percussion there and at other MCC locations as well as coordinates Metropolitan Jazz Workshop Kansas City.

His days often start before 7 a.m. when he teaches clinics at area schools.

His big event is a three-day 18th and Vine Jazz Festival in late April that gives real-world experience to middle, high school and college jazz musicians and performers.

He previously taught at the Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts.

His biggest concern with jazz education is the declining number of African-American students involved.

“It is kind of alarming in that historically African-Americans have played such a dominating role in the music,” he said.

One factor, he said, is that some public schools are cutting arts education, even classical programs.

“It’s something I’ve been trying to figure out for years, whether it’s lack of interest or parents just not listening to it,” he said.

Jim Mair, too, aims to take instruction to a higher level.

Mair, director of instrumental studies at Kansas City Kansas Community College, brings nearly 50 music students together at the KCKCC/KCJO Jazz Camp in early June.

This camp caters to all ability levels but focuses on improvisation.

Mair also serves as the artistic director for the Kansas City Jazz Alliance, the Kansas City High School All-Stars Jazz Ensemble and the Kansas City Jazz Quintet and is the producer of the Kansas City Jazz Summit.

The key to keeping kids engaged is to make jazz fun and something they can relate to.

“Jazz and blues came together in Kansas City, and that’s what connects the audience to the music,” he said.

“If you look at jazz without the blues, it’s an intellectual thing. When the old cats were still around, it was always fun and very accessible. A lot of the music now it is more scientific and esoteric.”

Glenn North has an expertise in poetry, and was, until recently, the American Jazz Museum’s education manager and poet-in-residence. In his roles, he used the art form to show young people the connection between the word play and jazz sounds.

North grew up at 21st and Vine and would ride his bike to buy comic books and penny candy at a corner dime store called Cheap Charlie’s nearly 40 years ago.

The 18th and Vine area was a shadow of itself then, and North had a small understanding of its cultural significance. It wasn’t until the museum was established that North realized how the black community thrived there.

When North was 8 years old, his grandmother gave him a copy of “If” by Rudyard Kipling and challenged him to memorize it. He connected with the poetry.

“I was proud and I didn’t understand it at the time, but I did love the rhythm and the rhyme,” he said.

Jazz influenced the spoken word, North explained.

“Langston Hughes drew from the music genre — its rhythm and cadence, in his poems.”

North, a Bishop Hogan graduate, encountered the spoken-word scene in Washington, D.C. He returned to Kansas City and started a spoken-word night called “Verbal Attack” at Club Mardi Gras at 19th and Vine.

He also volunteered for the museum and became a staff member in 2004.

His role was to connect with creative young people who were maybe not so interested in playing jazz, but wanted something else. He organized jazz poetry workshops and contacted high schools to participate.

“We’re sure going to miss him,” said museum CEO Greg Carroll of North’s departure. “He’s pursuing his academic and other professional aspirations. We intend to fully support our education programs.”

The museum has posted an opening for education manager to move forward.

“Reaching the 25-plus crowd has been difficult as jazz has morphed away from pop music,” Carroll said. “That’s why storytelling is so important.”

Jazz storyteller Henry’s forehead beads with sweat after she’s danced the final song of the session at the jazz museum.

The lyrics, “Shake it like a duck ... work it out,” linger as moms corral their children.

Pam Elliott of Pam’s Day Care in Prairie Village picks up her canvas bag of books, brought to occupy her contingent when they arrive early, and files out with eight kids in matching bright yellow shirts.

They tell their parents that they “get real jazzed,” referring to one of the storyteller’s songs, after their museum adventure.

Henry started performing in Kansas City at 17 and now travels regularly to teach and perform with national artists.

She brings the energy to jazz storytelling, while Anderson adds comedic interjections.

For Henry, it’s gratifying to pass along regional culture to children, including some who pile into minivans and wagons bound for the suburbs.

“Every child in Kansas City should know something about scat singing, and something about Charlie Parker,” she says.

That means exposing them to jazz music as children and providing age-appropriate history lessons on what was happening during various periods of jazz music.

Henry also knows the kids might be learning more than jazz.

“One of my favorite moments is the cultural barrier breakdown … when black kids go up to white kids and white kids to black kids and shake hands,” she said. “I think, ‘This is how it can be in the rest of the world. People meeting people.’”

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