Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival > News > Media Coverage > Scofield, Corea and strong homegrown talent elevated the first Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival — but next year needs to be better

Scofield, Corea and strong homegrown talent elevated the first Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival — but next year needs to be better

Published 28 June, 2017 By Larry Kopitnik

On the Friday night of Memorial Day weekend, in the middle of the Paseo, at 16th Street, guitarist John Scofield spun solos around and through country standards and classic pop, reimagining them as jazz. Scofield is a jazz icon. He toured with Miles Davis. He won two Grammy awards this year, for Best Jazz Instrumental Album (Country for Old Men) and Best Improvised Jazz Solo. Just before the last song of his set, Scofield looked out over the audience and mused, “Back east we know about you, Kansas City, because this is a jazz city if there ever was one.”

Scofield headlined the opening night of the inaugural Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival, staged by the American Jazz Museum. A stretch of Paseo had been closed to let its broad, parklike median act as the main festival grounds. One stage, at 17th Terrace, faced north; a second, at 16thStreet, looked south. Performers alternated stages to minimize breaks between acts. Other musicians filled the Gem Theater and the Blue Room. Tents and table and an open marketplace lined 18th Street between the Paseo and Highland (where there was another stage).

The museum had planned big. A grant from the Hall Family Foundation had allowed board members and staff to study other jazz festivals and define the event Kansas City should host. The result, a mix of jazz, R&B and neo-soul, was designed to attract audiences to this city’s most historic, yet sometimes its least understood and most feared, district while maintaining its musical integrity.

Besides Scofield, Friday’s bill included another icon: pianist Chick Corea, who also toured with Miles Davis and who owns 22 Grammys. Scofield was backed by an all-star band, with Sullivan Fortner on piano and organ, Vicente Archer on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. (Fortner returns to Kansas City for 10 days in August during the annual Charlie Parker celebration.) Corea fronted a trio with bassist Carlitos Del Puerto and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Piano trios often don’t play well to a large outdoor space. But with excellent staging and sound — and a genius at the piano — it worked. Violinist Regina Carter, a Sunday headliner, has won a MacArthur “genius” grant, and her solos proved why. On Saturday, saxophonist Bobby Watson reunited his acclaimed band Horizon. Singers Karrin Allyson, Kevin Mahogany, Oleta Adams and Queen Bey returned home. Tennessee saxophonist Greg Tardy surprised as a name few knew but whose trio sets in the Blue Room stood among the weekend’s most inspired music.

R&B drew the largest crowds (that, after all, is why it’s booked in a jazz festival). Laylah Hathaway’s dynamic voice sometimes rode the edges of jazz, but with mainstream appeal. Brandy, best known for her TV sitcom, Moesha, was a bit too prepackaged and slick, a mashup of singer and actress, but the crowd on the Paseo median loved her.

The scheduling didn’t always work. Friday’s main stages genre-hopped between jazz and R&B then back again, creating an awkward flow to the music. Allyson, who added renowned saxophonist Houston Person to her ensemble, should not have been scheduled in the Gem while Corea played the main stage. But correcting such minor glitches should be easy tweaks for future festivals. And cross-booking isn’t all bad. Anyone who wanted to hear some spontaneity while Brandy performed on the main stage could wander to the Blue Room or the Gem.

Drawing an audience is more challenging. Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, the museum’s executive director, pegged attendance across all of the festival venues on Friday at 5,000 people. On Saturday, rain fell sporadically into the early evening, and no musician performed before more than a few hundred fans. (The Kansas City Star’s review dinged Saturday jazz acts for drawing small audiences seven times in 425 words. Maybe Kansas Citians just had enough sense to come in out of the rain.) Sunday attendance was in the low thousands at best.

It’s not enough.

In 2007, the Rhythm and Ribs Festival in Parade Park, just across the Paseo, featured George Benson, Al Jarreau and Pat Metheny, charged the same base admission price, and drew larger crowds. This year’s festival originally, but mistakenly, announced Janelle Monáe as headliner, and no doubt Monáe would have brought more attention. But the measure of success cannot be whether the festival overcame that gaffe. The measure needs to be whether the event can begin to overcome decades-old perceptions about the jazz district. This year, it did not. After all the research and studies, the district did not stage a more popular jazz festival than it presented a decade ago.

But the Paseo was closed and fenced off to create a long, grassy park for a festival because Parade Park isn’t available anymore. The Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy is under construction there. You could see it across the street and through the fences: four baseball diamonds being built to attract youth — youth without preconceptions — and their parents into the historic district.

Also, recognize that this was the first festival undertaken by a new administration at the jazz museum. Big festivals are tough to pull off. Yet, anyone walking the festival grounds saw a multistage event that was well-organized, ran on time, with went off without apparent incidents. One’s opinion about Brandy notwithstanding, the event provided three days of outstanding music.

Yes, KC is “a jazz city if there ever was one.” We already knew that, but the inaugural Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival was a good start at reminding locals about our shared legacy. But it was only a start, a solid base upon which to build next year’s event. Whatever the museum does in 2018 needs to be planned even better, announced without errors, and executed in a truly major way.

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