Editorial: Bounced checks and a city bailout — Kansas City’s jazz festival is in disarray

Chris Hazelton and the Boogaloo 7 were among the performers at the Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival who were issued bum checks.
Chris Hazelton and the Boogaloo 7 were among the performers at the Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival who were issued bum checks. CLINT ASHLOCK

Shortly after Chris Hazelton and his group, the Boogaloo 7, walked offstage at the Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival in May, he was handed a check for his performance.

So far, so good.

But when Hazelton tried to deposit that check the next week, something unexpected happened: It bounced. So did checks for about 10 other performers that Memorial Day weekend, including headliners John Scofield and Regina Carter.

Hazelton reached out to officials at the American Jazz Museum, which staged the festival, and was told the situation would be rectified. But nothing happened. Then the communication stopped. After two weeks of radio silence, Hazelton vented on Facebook.

“If the AJM (American Jazz Museum) wants the KC Jazz & Heritage Fest to be a festival of national prominence, then they are truly going to have their work cut out for them in repairing their reputation before next year,” he wrote this week.

His frustration was justified. As of Friday morning, more than a month after the festival, Hazelton still hadn’t received a check, though museum officials told him one was on the way. They also apologized.

Apologies or not, the bottom line is another embarrassment for the museum, which clearly overreached in its bid to present a world-class, three-day festival featuring jazz luminaries such as Chick Corea, Bobby Watson, Logan Richardson and The Hot Sardines.

The museum had good intentions and, for the record, wound up staging a terrific weekend of music that drew 4,500 people. Led by its second-year director, Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, organizers were seeking to put Kansas City’s new festival on the international jazz map. The thinking was that Kansas City, known worldwide as a jazz town, deserved a major festival featuring some of the best-known players in the world.

The city has a long history of staging jazz festivals, often with disappointing results. Kositany-Buckner was determined to deliver a winner.

Things got off to a rocky start. In February, organizers announced a big-name headliner: Janelle Monáe, the singer and actress from Kansas City, Kan. Monae was a to-die-for first-year draw who might have attracted thousands. But the museum jumped the gun.

“Unfortunately this is untrue information,” Monae wrote on Twitter. “An alternative fact.”

Now comes the bounced-check fiasco and something else: an admission from Anita Maltbia, who chairs the museum’s board of directors, that the city had to bail out the festival to the tune of $117,000. Board members were asked to pitch in, and the museum borrowed money as well.

Maltbia said this was the first time in 20 years that the museum had failed to pay performers.

“We take this very seriously,” she said. “We are most regretful that this happened. However, once something like this happens, the only thing and the best thing you can do is to work real hard to rectify it and to avoid it in the future.”

Officials plan to stage another festival next year but acknowledge that they have some soul-searching to do.

We agree that the hometown of Charlie Parker, who remains one of the most important figures in the music’s history, should stage a premier jazz festival. But this was too much, too fast, and the size of the city’s bailout is an outrage. As enjoyable as the festivities were, museum officials are going to have to think hard about what a 2018 festival looks like — if there’s one at all.