The opening night of the Kansas City Jazz & Heritage Festival was a nearly unqualified success. Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, the executive director of the American Jazz Museum, pegged attendance at about 5,000.
Most were on hand to catch performances by two top-flight R&B divas and bask in the improvisational genius of a pair of jazz legends. The headliners were presented on two large stages on a grassy median on the Paseo one block northwest of the museum complex. Brandy Norwood and Lalah Hathaway entertained on the south stage. John Scofield and Chick Corea led bands on a stage about 100 yard to the north.
Brandy Norwood, known by television viewers for playing the lead role on the sitcom “Moesha,” performed sugary confections like “Top of the World.” Although Hathaway suggested that Norwood’s voice was “chalky and powdery, like a thick ole chocolate milk,” the processed flavor of Norwood’s presentation left an unpleasant aftertaste.
If Norwood’s showcase was the equivalent of tasty fast food, Hathaway’s outing represented an elaborate home-cooked feast. Backed by a six-piece band, Hathaway brought fans to their feet by displaying her bone-rattling lower range on “Angel” and by hitting celestial high notes on a rendition of her 2004 hit “Forever, For Always, For Love.”
Although Hathaway scatted like a hip-hop Ella Fitzgerald on “Something,” few of her fans share her obvious enthusiasm for jazz. Thousands of people opted to congregate around the stage where Norwood was slated to appear rather than take in Scofield’s 90-minute set just a few dozen steps away.
The eminent guitarist Scofield was joined by keyboardist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Bill Stewart. The all-star band deconstructed country chestnuts. A reading of the Kenny Rogers staple “The Gambler” was filtered through the sweat-drenched funk of James Brown and the untamed electric jazz of Scofield’s one-time employer Miles Davis.
Bassist Carlitos Del Puerto and drummer Marcus Gilmore accompanied the iconic keyboardist Chick Corea in an acoustic trio format. The younger men inspired Corea to discover new treasures on his 1973 composition “500 Miles High.”
Additional performances took place in the Gem Theater, the Blue Room and on 18th Street. Among the highlights: the octogenarian saxophonist Houston Person added luster to a set by vocalist Karrin Allyson. The Soul Rebels, an energetic New Orleans brass band, incited rapturous dancing with an arrangement of Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky.”
Boasting superior sound and efficient scheduling, the new three-day event began auspiciously. Yet while Norwood and Hathaway drew big crowds, several showcases were lightly attended. As Kansas City Mayor Sly James said in a short speech, “there’s a lot of people that aren’t here that should be.”
The Kansas City Jazz & Heritage Festival continues Saturday, May 27 and Sunday, May 28, in the 18th and Vine Jazz District, along the Paseo from Truman Road to 19th Street and along 18th Street from the Paseo to Highland Avenue. Tickets to the main stage begin at $25 per day, and prices vary from stage to stage. The Community Stage at 18th and Highland and vendor areas are free and open to the public.