Hot Town

Q&A with Jon McGraw

Rise the tide that lifts all jazz boats. It’s a mantra of sorts for Jon McGraw, president of Kansas City Jazz ALIVE, but one he doesn’t get tired of repeating. And when you’re trying to bring jazz to the people—and the people to jazz—it’s no wonder. McGraw, immediate past president of UMKC Jazz Friends, last year helped form the new jazz-promoting collective, which this August will launch the inaugural Kansas City Charlie Parker Celebration Aug. 14-31, the largest Parker tribute in the country. (Parker would have turned 94 on Aug. 29.) And just how will “Bird” be celebrated? Read on to find out how Parker’s legacy—and the current state of K.C. jazz—will be augmented in the coming weeks.

Spaces: Kansas City Jazz ALIVE is relatively new. How did it come about?

Jon McGraw: When I was serving as the president of UMKC Jazz Friends I was talking to [American Jazz Museum CEO] Greg Carroll about what we could be doing [for jazz] as a couple of organizations here in K.C. If we came together, we’d have a better voice than if we were just one.

We had done some stuff with the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors.Steve Hargrave was president of that. We pulled him into the loop from the community side. We grabbed Pam Hider Johnson from the Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz. So we had the young guys, the wisdom, the community and the museum.

We just got together for lunch a year ago and started talking. What could we be doing—it’s been said a few times now, we’ll have to put it somewhere as our official slogan—to rise the tide that lifts all jazz boats? We didn’t even really know what that’d turn out to be. We came up with the ALIVE acronym [Awareness, Listening, Ideas, Voice, Exposure]. We broke into committees. The “I” committee for ideas is where the Charlie Parker Celebration got kicked off.

S: What’s the motivation behind celebrating Bird?

JM: In the big scheme of things, he’s one of the more influential jazz icons in history. And he’s from Kansas City. We want to celebrate and continue that memory. It’s being able to bring those legends back. This is a piece of history, of the art that was happening in Kansas City. Today Parker would be a huge star. It’s keeping that alive.

S: What does the celebration entail?

JM: It starts Aug. 14 at the American Jazz Museum. There’s a lot of core stuff going on at 18th and Vine, but the events are all over—as far north as Zona Rosa and out to Johnson County Community College.

There’s the 21 Sax Salute at the gravesite, which is the Aug. 30 event. It revitalizes the tradition created by K.C. jazz legend Ahmad Alaadeen. Everybody gets together at the gravesite. What will happen is jazz musicians will show up with horns of different varieties. They’re not all saxophones. They’ll do a Charlie Parker tune. It’s just getting together to carry that on.

S: What else do you have in the works, in addition to the Charlie Parker Celebration?

JM: When the committee met, the idea was: What can we be doing to tell the community that there’s jazz going on, and what is the community looking for when they’re looking for jazz? Let’s be able to connect to that.

If you remember Ed Fenner, he was a jazz fan; he’d go to all the clubs. He’s send out this big long email of who was playing where, what was going on. It was great. The guy probably had the quintessential jazz database email list. When he passed away, that was the end of the Ed Fenner email list.

We thought, “We need a database searchable by musician, venue, and date.” Once we started talking to all of our geeks on how to do that [laughs], we thought, “Well maybe there’s someone who’s already done this.” So I started looking around the globe and ran across a guy named Michael Ricci, who’s in Philadelphia. He’s been at All About Jazz magazine for the last 20 years. I flew him in. Out of that came a partnership where he’s basically serving as our central database. He’s got an IOS app, soon to have an Android app, called Jazz Near You. It’s geo-targeted: Here in Kansas City, it pulls up jazz in Kansas City; if you’re in San Francisco, it pulls up San Francisco jazz. It has 250 cities across the United States. If you go to, one of the things we do is pick up his feed, so it’ll pull up what’s happening at various venues.

For a complete listing of the Charlie Parker Celebration events, go to