Turmoil threatens eminent jazz club Jardine’s

Jardine’s has been Kansas City’s pre-eminent jazz club for nearly 20 years. But a dispute between former staff and the club’s owner has spread to the local jazz community, jeopardizing the club’s standing and the city’s jazz scene.

The club closed Nov. 30. Former staff members say they were summarily fired, and several musicians have since sworn off performing there. Former staffers and at least one musician have said the club owes them money.

The club has since reopened, and owner Beena Raja said this week only two of the staff members were fired; the rest quit. And she said that everyone who is owed money would be paid.

Because the club had been closed for nearly two weeks, Raja said, “Money is tight.”

Above the fray, many are hoping for some kind of peaceful resolution and a way to restore the club to its glory days.

Raja bought the club in 2003 from its previous owner, Greg Halstead, who opened it in 1993. It has since become the city’s eminent jazz club, showcasing an array of local and national performers, such as Grammy nominee Karrin Allyson, Marilyn Maye, Ida McBeth, the Dave Stephens Band and the Sons of Brasil. In 2010, Max Weinberg, drummer for the E Street Band, filled the room twice on a Sunday for two shows featuring his big band.

McBeth told The Star that “Beena has always treated me kind and fair” but that she will not perform her New Year’s Eve show at Jardine’s.

“I’ve been praying hard for everyone involved,” she said. “Hopefully this shall pass and Jardine’s will be back on track.”

Word spreads

While Jardine’s was temporarily closed, word began to spread among the music community that some of the club’s more popular performers would no longer play there. Some of them told The Star that changes need to be made before they would return.

This weekend, Jardine’s was scheduled to feature singer/songwriter Julia Othmer, who regularly fills the club when she returns to perform in her hometown. But in a personal Facebook message on Monday, Othmer said, “While I have never personally had any business issues with the management, I cannot support the practices that have taken place there. I would love to see Jardine’s reopen better than ever.”

Musician Dave Stephens says his band is owed money for its Nov. 23 performance (Raja says his payment is forthcoming). As for whether he’d go return to the club, he said: “Sure, I’d go back (to Jardine’s) — I’d love to go back there — but only if someone else is running it.”

Pianist Mark Lowrey, a Jardine’s mainstay, said the club has one of the best pianos in town, but the work environment has been challenging and volatile.

“But I was supportive, and I didn’t make any ultimatums or demands, until the most recent turn of events,” he said.

Lowrey said there are some musicians who will still play, but he thinks a majority won’t.

Raja said that’s the musicians’ prerogative.

“I can’t make anyone come back,” she said. “Any one of them who wants to can play here.”

Raja is booking other acts. The calendar includes the rhythm and blues band Mystique tonight and Kansas City jazz singer David Basse with guitarist Jerry Hahn on Saturday.

Basse said his perspective is different from Lowrey’s and others who won’t perform at Jardine’s.

“If this is the way the jazz community responds to someone who is obviously in trouble, then it’s not a community I want to be part of,” he said. “I know (Beena is) a little high-strung, but is that a reason to shut her out and ruin her business?”

Other clubs to close

The turmoil at Jardine’s comes at a rough time for the local jazz community, one that relies almost solely on regular live shows as its lifeblood. Two jazz venues announced this month that they would be closing.

Cafe Augusta, a Lenexa restaurant that featured live jazz, announced it was closing after business on Dec. 31. That same week, 1911 Main reported it would be closing this month, just several weeks after opening as primarily a live jazz club in the former Bar Natasha site. At least one more show is scheduled: Jazz singer Megan Birdsall performs there at 8 p.m. Saturday.

“It’s going to be detrimental in the short-term,” pianist Lowrey said of the unofficial boycott of Jardine’s, “but other club owners are stepping up and offering gigs.”

Anyone who steps forward has big shoes to fill. Jardine’s has won a host of local awards as best jazz club or nightclub. In 2009, it was recognized by the national jazz magazine Downbeat.

Raja, who worked at the club before she bought it, said that for now, she has no plans to sell the club.

“A lot of people have come in and said, ‘How much?’ but it’s more involved than that,” she said. “I didn’t give 20 years of my life for someone to come in and say, ‘How much?’ It’s unfortunate what happened, but I don’t want to be negative about it. I want to move on. I’m working to start over. Things will be different. Come and see.”

Birdsall said she, too, expects other venues to step forward, such as Take Five Coffee and Bar in Leawood, which now features live jazz. But she lamented the current state of the city’s best-known jazz club and hoped for a lasting solution — one that includes assurances that the environment will be different at Jardine’s. All parties involved need one another, she said.

“I love this city, I love Jardine’s, I love the musicians and I love Beena,” she said. “And I want them all healthy, strong and back again. However that has to happen, I want it to happen and to happen fast.”