Community (from Inside Jazz Kansas City)


July 6, 2015


So much of what we do boils down to this. A strong community yields a stronger everything, doesn't it? As a life-long sports guy, I've heard it constantly from my coaches, from pros, from the media: "build a winning environment," or "they signed him because he's a good clubhouse guy," "create the right kind of culture," and so forth. We all know that in sports, winning breeds winning and losing breeds losing, and that in business, a happy workplace is a productive workplace, and all of that.

There's no better example of what a good community can bear than in music. On a micro level, the intimate interplay a piano trio can produce is something nearly palpable: slight nods from one player to another, covert smiles when something beautiful happens, banter between bandmates on and offstage. On the opposite end of the spectrum is noticible conflict, and the tension it can produce. Tension can take the music to a different level, create competitively charged flights of fancy, and sometimes tension can diminish the output of a group of singularly talented players. The crowd, large or small, can affect the performance of a group, as can an amiable or antagonistic club owner. On a micro level, community is a large part of music performance.

On a macro level, the greater community of a scene is of equal importance. How do the musicians get along when they run into each other? Do they hang out? Do they promote each other, either personally or professionally? What's the general vibe of the people who create the product? I'm convinced that if there is no sense of community, the scene can't ever thrive. 


I was driving from Kansas City to Hannibal, MO for a gig with Matt Kane's Generations band a few months ago, and riding with me was the great bassist and my good friend Ben Leifer. I've known Ben since he was a freshman at UMKC and watched him become one of the best musicians in Kansas City, move to New York, and then return here. He is a consummate musician who studies and hones his craft, is adept in many diverse (no pun intended) settings and is what I call an "additive" musician: he always brings something unique to every situation that enhances and pushes the other players involved. Ben is also extraordinarily thoughtful, introspective and sensitive to the intangible facets of music, and a musical life. On this drive across Missouri, we talked a lot, and one of the things that has stuck with me was an insight he made about Blue Note records, how it just seemed like that label produced such a consistent output because of the stable of great musicians that seemingly all played on each other's albums. You'll see Herbie Hancock play as a sideman on a Freddie Hubbard record, and then see Freddie play on a disc that has Herbie as a leader, and so on. Ben was saying that it wasn't that they just sort of played with each other all the time, it was that they were a community, that they interacted with each other on a deeper, more connected level, and that's why the music they created was so great. 


Here in Kansas City, our jazz scene has been on the uptick for years. However, recently it seems, things have really grown into something special. Not only do we have a pretty deep roster of good players, we also have some exceptional ones. People like Matt OttoPeter Schlamb and John Kizilarmut have moved here within the past few years, enhancing our community with world-reaching talents. Matt, Peter and John (and other recent transplants) aren't just good for Kansas City, they're significantly important voices on their instruments and would be no matter where they laid their hats. They also moved to town at a time when some of our homegrown talent can say the very same: Hermon Mehari, Steve Lambert and Ryan Lee (and many others) are young guys who've been here since before they were adults, and have developed musical stature which transcends regionality. We also have professionals: artists who have carried the Kansas City torch here and elsewhere for decades. You know who they are. Kessler. Dunn. Bowman.* So many more. We have folks who were born here that became musical icons on the biggest scenes. Todd StraitDeborah Brown. Of course, Bobby Watson. We have educators who teach the right way, and young up-and-comers who will make waves. We have many flagship groups that are as we speak developing a NEW Kansas City sound - something that hopefully our city will speak of soon with as much reverence as it does Basie, Williams, Parker. There are great things happening in Kansas City jazz right now. We have something exciting brewing, and venues who are starting to really support it. It's a really cool time to be here, right now. 

So, why? 


If you find yourself enjoying the coffee scene here in KC (which, you really should get hip if you aren't), you're likely to see many of us hanging at one of the coffeehouses in our downtime. Broadway CafeOddly CorrectCrowsParisi (no Starbucks, thank you very much).** We hang, joke, tell stories, reflect, talk a little yak, be silly and solve the world's problems one well-crafted shot or pour-over at a time. There are incredibly deep disc golf hangs with SchlComaLein's crew at Rosedale Park. The Kessler Lunches are partially legendary. Anywhere at any time, the reverential Watson might show up to take a hang to the next level and impart some wisdom and a made-you-look barrage all at the same time. We go to each other's gigs. We buy each other's records. We sit in with each other, and go to each other's sessions. We pain and grow and fail and succeed together here in Kansas City, and that's why the scene is so strong right now. 


So that's why I wanted to start this website. I wanted to create a space where we, the musicians, can talk to everyone else. I don't know who's all going to contribute over time (although I know a lot of people have asked to). I don't know what exactly they're all going to say (but I know it'll be interesting or funny or dark or insightful or educational or some or all of the above). I do know, however, that it's going to be really cool. 

I'll try to help create content that covers a wide range of topics: I'll upload videos to our YouTube channel, post some pictures of gigs, give you links to Soundcloud bootlegs of different cats in town (with their permission), probably do some podcasts and who knows, maybe a video series knockoff of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. You can find out when we're playing, who we want to go see, what we're talking about and even, if you want, buy our stuff. 

Mainly, though, we want to have a collective voice representing our scene. With media being what it is today, we musicians sometimes feel like we have more to say than we get space for. Here's an attempt to create that space for ourselves, and most importantly, for you. Hope you enjoy it. 

*There are seriously too many musicians to mention, and I know, I know, maybe I shouldn't have tried to pick names, but I did. The other guys know they're loved. Even Todd Wilkinson knows he's loved. Deeply. Mmm.

**Man, even one of our great venues, Take Five Coffee + Bar is an actual coffeehouse that has a real espresso machine and Broadway beans and everything! Shucks. 

Clint Ashlock