Kansas City blues and jazz lover Dawayne Gilley, who calls himself a "music activist," has some business he's needed to finish for almost a decade.
On Monday, when he gives away hundreds of posters at a free jam session, he hopes it’ll be the end of a long and tortured project that started with the best of intentions.
Gilley is a fixture of the city's music scene. He's organized the sometimes-on-sometimes-off Kansas City Kansas Street Blues Festival, and he managed singer Myra Taylor before she died in 2011.
His ongoing poster problem started nearly two decades ago, when he secured a gig working on a special edition of Living Blues magazine devoted to Kansas City, which was published in January 2000. Though he isn't a journalist, Gilley spent months interviewing dozens of area musicians, and, on September 18, 1999, he organized a photo shoot in which 189 of them posed for Living Blues photographer James Fraher in front of the Mutual Musicians Foundation.
“I knew that so many musicians would never get a chance to have an article in Living Blues," he says. "This way they all could be in the magazine.”
He’d been inspired by an iconic Art Kane photograph of blues musicians in Harlem and by a photo taken in Kansas City on May 4, 1930, when the Mutual Musicians Foundation was a black musicians’ union hall.
But Living Blues, which is dedicated to the African-American blues tradition, wouldn’t publish the photograph because it had white musicians in it, Gilley says. He understood the magazine’s position, but now he had his first poster problem.
“I had to rethink what to do for those 189 souls who spent their Saturday morning to come be a part of the photo,” he says.
So the following July, he had 1,000 copies printed in time to sell at the 2001 Kansas City Blues & Jazz Festival. Musicians who were in the photo got one copy free and could buy as many more as they wanted for $10; the general public paid $25.
In the years that followed, record stores such as the now-defunct Music Exchange and Recycled Sounds sold more of the posters, as did organizations such as the American Jazz Museum, the Kansas City Blues Society and the Jazz Ambassadors.
“From 2001 to 2010, the 1999 photo poster raised $10,000 in charity revenue for the Mutual Musicians Foundation," Gilley says. "I used many posters as auction items through the years to raise money for musician funerals and music charities. It cost me $3,100 to cover all of the expenses. I never made a single dollar from the 1999 photo.”
Gilley makes a point of explaining the financials because of what happened when he decided to arrange for another photo, which caused his second poster problem.
“I thought it should be an every-10-year photo shoot,” Gilley says. “A once-a-decade moment of Kansas City artists for history’s sake.”
By then the Mutual Musicians Foundation had a new leader, Betty Crow (her official title was secretary; she had replaced Ramonda Doakes, who helped with Gilley’s 1999 poster project but had since taken a job at City Hall).
“Betty thought it would be best to choose August 29, 2009, as it was Charlie Parker’s 89th birthday,” Gilley remembers. “We got busy planning a single-day festival on Highland in front of the Mutual Musicians’ Foundation. The photo was the main event of the day.”
The photographer was T. Michael Stanley.
“This time we knew we wanted to make a poster,” Gilley says. “We had 257 people show up on a Saturday at noon – not a minor miracle for a group of musicians.”
But before a poster could be distributed, Gilley says, he and Stanley “got caught in the crossfire” of one of the Mutual Musicians Foundations’ periodic internal upheavals, one in which Crow was deposed. Gilley says he began hearing accusations that he'd somehow taken Foundation money in 2009 and had "run off with" the picture by 2011.
But Gilley, who says he has no particular beef with the current Foundation leadership, says he and Stanley never got “a single dime.”
He says he’s tried to resolve the situation over the years but has had no luck.
So once again, he's had 1,000 copies of a poster printed. This time he's giving them away to everyone who shows up to get one at a Blue Monday jam at Knuckleheads Garage on February 12.
“All of these musicians deserve to get a copy of this poster,” he says. “I am going to deliver.”
No cash will be exchanged, he says. Not for the posters, and not to see blues sets led by Eugene Smiley and jazz sets led by Al Pearson.
“It’s hard to get accused of stealing when I am simply giving it away,” Gilley says.
“I have never made money working with blues and jazz in Kansas City,” he adds. “I always hope that I just don’t lose too much money. I have always said I am not a promoter. Promoters make money. I am a music activist. If I can help musicians or to help the music, I just dive in and bloody my nose and forehead. I am an old rugby player. Pain and hurt don’t scare me. Quitting and letting my teammates down has always driven me.”
Besides being motivated by the idea of not letting anyone down, he says, "I'm looking super forward to getting this one off my plate."
"Blue Monday" 2009 Poster Release Party, 6 p.m. Monday, February 12 at Knuckleheads Garage, 2715 Rochester, Kansas City, Missouri, 64120; 816-483-1456.
C.J. Janovy is KCUR 89.3's digital content editor. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.