On a warm, sunny Saturday, Dwight Frizzell and Allaudin Ottinger, two founding members of the Black Crack Revue, are sitting in a booth in a Westport restaurant, talking about the long, colorful history of their groovy polyphonic jazz/dance band.
Each has been asked to discuss two shows or events that might typify a group that celebrated its 30th birthday in February. Frizzell has brought a laptop, which is displaying a slideshow of photographs and memorabilia gathered over those three decades.
He also has brought some other mementos: an album cover, some promotional fliers and a BCR Buck — good on all band merchandise. He begins with an anecdote that’s not so much a story as it is an illustration of how important the mercurial concept of time is to BCR.
His anecdote is set in the mid-1980s in Columbia, at the original Blue Note, where BCR and special guest Wavy Gravy, a counter-culture provocateur, were booked to play with a band from California called the Vicious Hippies.
They are onstage playing the theme to “Shaft.” He is sitting in a dark and dingy upstairs room lit only by a scrap of neon in a broken beer sign. Next to him is reed player and fellow founding member Thomas Aber, whose face is almost touching the beer sign so he can see the print in the book he is reading.
“It occurs to me,” said Frizzell, also a reed player, “this is a unique historical moment. I’m somewhere I could never have predicted I’d be — at this convergence of weird events and cultural things that meet in a moment in time. Now, anybody can play the theme to ‘Shaft’; everyone should play it. But the Vicious Hippies from Berkeley are playing it only the way they can.
“I’m sitting in a dark and dingy upstairs room with Tom, who is as close as he can get to this neon light, reading this famous medieval Chinese novel, ‘Monkey.’ We’re about to go onstage to do ‘Rappin’ Kierkegaard’ with Wavy Gravy as part of the Nobody for President Campaign.
“And at that moment I realized how absurd and twisted and random and intertwined our realities are.”
BCR has been sustaining its own cosmic and wryly absurd version of reality since it played a night-before Valentine’s Day show in 1982. Over the ensuing three decades, the band has unleashed a cavalcade of inimitable music, illustrious performances, quirky anecdotes and twisted experiences. Those include a mid-performance bombing; a near engineering disaster at a New Year’s Eve show and appearances on three different stages at the same Spirit Festival.
This year, the band is celebrating in many ways its past and toasting its future — because the black crack is all about the black holes, the future and time travel. From 9 p.m. to midnight Thursday, BCR is throwing a 30th anniversary dance at Californos in Westport.
The show is also a CD release party for “Songs From the Cosmic Crevice: Recordings 1982-2007,” a collection of 14 restored and remixed dance, vocal and studio tracks. The CD will be available at the party and also at It’s a Beautiful Day, 3918 Broadway.
For the entire month of April, Frizzell’s weekly show on KKFI, “From Ark to Microchip,” will celebrate “BCR: History Untold” with four anniversary shows. And Frizzell is in the midst of completing “The Crack Box,” a 120-page, four-color tribute to the band and its history.
Few bands manage to survive and thrive long enough to compile a 30-year anthology, and Ottinger, a percussionist, and Frizzell have theories about BCR’s longevity.
“I think a lot of it has to do with us remaining a regional band,” Ottinger said, “in the classic tradition of regional bands from Kansas City. We’ve been invited to both coasts, we’ve played big festivals. But we pretty much stayed around here. I think if we’d gone on tour 120 nights a year, we’d probably been done after three years.”
Frizzell cited as another reason the amount of work that band members do outside BCR, both solo and with other arts groups, such as his work with the NewEar contemporary chamber ensemble. Ottinger has several, from his world-music excursions overseas to his work with the children’s performer Jim “Mr. Stinky Feet” Cosgrove.
But even more important, Frizzell said, is the band’s freewheeling ways of letting its music evolve and stay fresh, keeping songs in the present.
“There’s a dimension now that didn’t use to be there,” he said. “A lot of our songs have their own historical connection to when they were written, but now we bring them into the present and do different things to them. We get inside a song and do things to the arrangements. We hear them in different ways.
“So, our material has gotten tighter and more complex in their arrangements, but also looser and more open in their improvisational aspects because we trust ourselves to do that now.”
But this discussion is also about the band’s past, and Ottinger comes up with two episodes that he thinks typify the band’s story and its place in the local scene.
“For about 10 years, starting in 1984, we did these New Year’s Eve shows at Harling’s,” he said. “And they became an annual community event and an amazing gathering point.”
Frizzell recalled: “Our midnight song was ‘The World Is a Monkey’; everyone was waiting for it. We did it in triple time that year, and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the floor at Harling’s, but with all those people dancing we thought it was going to cave in. So we changed the wave dynamic to something very polyrhythmic. People kept dancing, but we shifted the emphasis and saved the place.”
The other: “We played the Spirit Festival in 1990 or so,” he said, “and we played on the jazz stage, the reggae stage and the rock stage. We were booked separately by each stage. That’s emblematic of how versatile we can be and how many hats we can wear.”
Frizzell told the infamous office-bombing story, which occurred during the band’s first year. While the band was performing, a bomb went off in the office above the stage.
“We’d been hanging out in that office before the show,” he said. “I was sitting with my feet up on the desk.”
The blast jarred the band silly and destroyed its sound system. Afterward, rumors surfaced of revenge for a drug deal gone bad. Frizzell said he got a death threat or two in the days after.
“It would have been a great show except for the bombing,” he said. “After the explosion, we kept on playing without the sound system until the bomb squad showed up and shut it down. It really galvanized the group. For anyone who wasn’t a full-time member, that was the initiation. If you live through a bombing, you’re in the band.”
The BCR lineup has changed a lot over the years, and names of alums come up during the discussion: Bill Dye, Jeff Rendlen, Bird Fleming, Randy Weinstein, Bobby Nickens. The band has also attracted a host of guests, such as jazz trumpeter Stan Kessler, fiddler Betse Ellis, percussionist Brandon Draper and guitarist Joey Skidmore. Ellis said each BCR experience was like a merry day at music school.
“I was awed by their musical mastery and overjoyed by their inventive composition and performance styles,” she said. “They made their audience a part of the show. BCR shows were just so much fun — celebratory but also challenging.”
Draper said, “BCR makes me think of pushing boundaries and embracing musical diversity. I was introduced to these guys from my friend the late Bongo Barry Bernstein, who was a huge Sun Ra fan.”
Ra, a jazz composer and cosmic philosopher, is a significant part of the BCR lore. Ottinger and Frizzell rave about a series of shows Ra performed in Kansas City just as BCR was forming. But beyond the musical and philosophical inspirations, Frizzell said, Ra taught the band some business sense.
“We went through some business stuff and got burned a little,” he said. “Everybody does. Then we decided to do it our own way, kind of in the Sun Ra tradition: Start your own label, print your own stuff, put it all together yourself.”
That philosophy has paid off. For 30 years, Frizzell, Ottinger, Aber and a rotation of members and guests have managed to create their own unique scene: a mix of comic/absurdist theater, sublime music and cosmic escapism, all in the name of a good time.
Frizzell arouses one of his own unique-but-absurd confluences of circumstance and time as he tells another anecdote, one that gets to the pith of his band and its enduring spirit. He is nibbling a Brussels sprout, the waitress nearly confuses the BCR Buck for her tip and the music blaring in the noisy restaurant is a 30-year-old Men at Work song. Frizzell talks about one of his favorite BCR tunes, “Robot Lips,” written by Rendlen.
“It’s a song about a love between a man and a robot,” he said. “It’s complicated. The state won’t marry them. They’re in an awkward situation. Yet he’s taking her in for a lip upgrade and replacement, and he’s real apprehensive about it: ‘What’s going to happen? What’s it going to look like?’ It’s the typical things young lovers experience, except: one’s a robot.
“It’s a funny, sci-fi song, but there’s a bigger purpose to it: It’s about ‘otherness,’ whether it’s our own or someone else’s, like a robot. And the way we break through the barrier of ‘otherness’ is through love.
“In a sense, that’s BCR in a nutshell. We always act like the fool, and we always have fun and we always do this ‘thing.’ But as fun and goofy as it is, we’re also serious. We’re entertaining on one level so that when you come to see us you can dance and talk with your friend and dance and have a good time.
“But there are other things happening on different levels, and when you’re really ready to go to a different level, we can take you somewhere.”