Kansas City's Inaugural Jazz And Heritage Festival Comes With Blessings — And Lessons

May 29, 2017

Kansas City's inaugural Jazz and Heritage Festival accomplished something rarely seen in town: A genuinely diverse crowd of people enjoying themselves.

For three days over the Memorial Day weekend, that audience was perhaps most diverse in its musical tastes.

People paid respect to the Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole-style standard jazz as rendered by Queen Bey — who said she was surprised that a hundred or so people had come to the Gem Theater at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, thanking them for coming to hear music "that's almost dead" — as well as to barely narrative but mesmerizing bass-and-DJ electronica of Dominique Sanders across the street in the Blue Room.

Kansas City jazz singer Queen Bey thanked people for coming out to hear music she said was 'almost dead.'
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

The genius of this festival was to put its two main stages outside at both ends of a large median in Paseo Boulevard just north of 18th Street. Tall trees made picturesque backdrops, and the grassy lawn more than accommodated everyone's folding chairs and blankets, along with tents for the sound guys. Vendors sold adult beverages out of another tent, while (most of the) food trucks parked on Paseo did a steady business.

Watching Bobby Watson's brilliant improvisations with his band Horizon while the sun set behind the colonnaded brick Guadalupe Center's High School, it was easy to have a renewed sense of the neighborhood's promise (especially with Major League Baseball's new Urban Youth Academy under construction on the other side of the street).

Putting the main stages on Paseo was the idea of Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, who took over as director of the American Jazz Museum last year. Kositany-Buckner was also adamant about giving Kansas City talent equal billing to national acts like Chick Corea, Lalah Hathaway, and Brandy.

Carlitos Del Puerto, bass player for pianist Chick Corea, appeared to be enjoying their headlining set on Friday evening.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

Throughout the weekend, however, it was those national acts who drew the most lawn chairs. So it was disappointing to see the talented artists playing for non-existent crowds in front of the KC Showcase Stage stage at 18th and Highland (especially on Sunday afternoon, when 18th Street was inexplicably empty of all the arts, crafts and snack vendors who'd filled the space between the American Jazz Museum and the Gem Theater on Friday and Saturday).

Kositany-Buckner knew there would be lessons learned from this first, ambitious effort, one that had a rocky rollout. In an informal conversation with reporters early Saturday evening as the day's worrisome thunderstorms gave way to gorgeous evening, Kositany-Buckner said she expected the festival to break even this year, and that organizers would debrief afterwards. She was thinking about programming more blues acts, for example.

And scheduling the festival's third day —headlined by Kansas City native Oleta Adams — in direct competition with the beloved tradition of a free Kansas City Symphony performance with fireworks at Union Station, may need to be re-thought, given what had to have been disappointing attendance on Sunday night.

Earlier that day, rising saxophonist Logan Richardson and his band played an astounding set for perhaps a couple hundred people. Earlier this year, NPR named Richardson's album Shift one of the 50 best albums of the year — not just among jazz albums, but all albums (a list that included David Bowie, Beyonce and Sturgill Simpson).

Richardson's band harnessed all of the world's complexities into one forward motion — bassist DeAndre Manning pulling up the earth's magma and channeling it into a fluid foundation for rocket-science guitar work by 18-year-old Justus West, prodigy offspring of Prince and Jimi Hendrix — with Richardson's sax playing accompanied into the future by Ryan Lee's drumming and Aaron Mayfield's keyboards.

"It's like Miles Davis — it goes on for a while," a guy in the crowd explained to a friend unfamiliar with Richardson's work.

After half an hour or so, Richardson was moved to stop playing and speak a few words.

He began by saying he was amazed at how much the neighborhood had changed since he was 14.

"If you don’t know who I am, I am born and bred and from the inner city of Kansas City, Missouri," said Richardson, now 37. "It’s really a pleasure and an honor to be here. When I left Kansas City, I ran away and I never came back, basically."

That wasn't quite true because he's been back to play gigs, including this one, obviously.

Vocalist Deborah Brown gave what one member of the Gem Theater audience would describe on social media as 'phenomenal.'
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

But, Richardson explained, "I've been chasing the legacy that’s been instilled inside of me from the great masters that come from this city. Anytime I go somewhere else and people in other places are more familiar with the masters who come from this land and this soil and this earth and this air than they are familiar with us, then we have some work to do about the rich legacy that lives here, and lives on."

For proof, he pointed to his band: Each member is from Kansas City.

"It's a Kansas City band but it's an international band, because we have a platform where we travel around the world. Whether you ordain me as an ambassador for this city or not, that’s what I do. I leave from here and I go to Paris and Japan, and then I come back. Then I go to Rome and I come back. So this is for you," he said.

"But at the same time, we need to find a way to bring it back in so that I’m not foreign to any of you. I shouldn’t be foreign to any of you," he said.

If people hadn't heard of him, Richardson asked, had they heard of the other Kansas City masters who'd inspired him: Ahmad Alaadeen, Sonny Kenner, Eddie Saunders, Luqman Hamza?

"One thing I want to mention that I think is terribly sad," he said, "is we have this neighborhood full of families and children. I certainly hope that if children wanted to come to this festival they wouldn’t have to spend $25 to come in," he said, to "Amens" in the crowd. "Especially considering this is an organization that’s been donated millions of dollars," Richardson said of the American Jazz Museum.

"Next time," Richardson continued, "we need to think about the education of youth and the future of the legacy, because without the youth we have no legacy. If this place wouldn’t have invested in me, I wouldn’t be standing here right now and wouldn’t be going around the world," he said. "Kids should be all running around right now."

And there was plenty of room for them in the grassy median of Paseo.

Richardson said he didn't usually give such speeches.

"I just wanted to take a minute to talk," said Richardson, who was wearing a backwards black ball cap with emblazoned with the word "VOTE."

"In a time like now, we have to talk more, considering there’s a lot of other people talking crazy things, whether it’s in politics or in science or whatever we choose to believe," he said, " we all live in the same world so we need to find a way to understand one another even if we disagree."

As the small crowd applauded, Richardson said he was finished preaching to the choir.

"That is if you’re in the choir," he said. "If you're not, then come to the church."

And the small congregation that heard the rest of Richardson's set was unquestionably blessed.

Friday headliner Lalah Hathaway drew an enthusiastic crowd.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.