The weekend of July 13 to 15 was a mild one, with temperatures in the mid-80s and a steady summer breeze. And the week of July 23 to 27 was a mostly temperate one as well, dominated by cloud-covered skies and periodic showers. But the weekend of July 20 to 22 was Kansas City’s token scorcher, with an unobstructed sun punishing anyone brave enough to venture outdoors. And those, unfortunately, were the days Kansas City’s Blues and Jazz Festival landed in Penn Valley Park. For the festival’s organizers, the pleasant weather before and after must have seemed to be cruel mockery; intemperate attitudes toward triple-digit temperatures led to decreased attendance. Approximately 43,000 patrons (a few thousand fewer than last year’s total) witnessed an event that was low on big-name pull (especially after R.L. Burnside bailed at the last minute) but packed with impressive Kansas City-based talent.
Much was made of this year’s lack of a marquee superstar — a B.B. King, a Buddy Guy, a Robert Cray, hell, a Brian Setzer Orchestra — but this is, after all, the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival, not an OZZfest-style, packaged-for-all-regions touring extravaganza. “Whether we have a lot of Chicago guitar or New Orleans soul, we want to make sure we have a lot of Kansas City sounds as well,” says festival director Greg Patterson. “That will always be an important element of this festival.”
Topping nearly every observer’s list of highlights was Karrin Allyson, the New York transplant making her triumphant return in support of her stunning Ballads, a tribute to John Coltrane. On that disc, reportedly the biggest seller at Streetside Records’ on-site booth and a steady moving title locally since its late-May release, Allyson undergoes the monumental task of singing Coltrane’s 1961 album, Ballads, in the “same way” that the original artists played it. In the liner notes, she explains that this involved deep pursuit and interpretation, and her heartfelt effort paid off in amazing reworkings of the sinewy “All or Nothing at All” and the soulful “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” (Her phrasing almost evokes Stevie Wonder.) Both tunes received supreme treatment during Sunday’s penultimate performance on the jazz stage, with guitarist Danny Embrey and drummer Todd Strait, locally based standouts who didn’t appear on the disc, adding their inspired input.
Allyson’s performance was dazzling on its own merits, but it also filled what Patterson calls the “hometown hero does big” slot, which in the past has featured crowd-pleasing turns by Pat Metheny and Kevin Mahogany. Such bittersweet reunions might become more frequent, as Kansas City’s music scene, like its baseball team, shows signs of becoming a farm team for coastal culture centers. But some treasured locals have no intentions of packing their bags, and the festival displayed them all in fine form: Claude “Fiddler” Williams, Ida McBeth, Jay McShann and the Elder Statesmen with Myra Taylor all instilled appreciative hometown observers with civic pride. They also sent visitors (Patterson estimates that up to 40 percent of the festival’s draw came from out of town) the message that Kansas City still deserves attention as the home of some jazz greats.
Cuban jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, who followed Allyson on the jazz stage, created the most buzz of any touring performer, because of both his mesmerizing performance (during which he played a muted serenade to an awestruck young girl) and his shouting down of Smooth Jazz 106.5 music director Michelle Chase during a question-and-answer session in the Soul School tent earlier in the day. When Chase an-nounced her affiliation before posing her query, Sandoval interrupted: “Do you play my music on your radio station?” He went on to harangue smooth-jazz stations as a whole, much to the amusement of a crowd that — rightly or not — associates the subgenre with the likes of Kenny G, and to the chagrin of Chase, who counts (er, counted?) herself as a fan.
Sandoval had a way of saying what others in the audience were thinking, but never more so than when he announced he was feeling “hot, hot, hot!” The sticky, sweaty conditions made many exhausted patrons wonder why the festival couldn’t be held earlier or later in the year. Patterson has a ready answer: “Here in the Midwest, if you’re going to do an outdoor event, you just take the weather that God gives you and do the best with it that you can.” Patterson adds that rain is the only thing that really keeps spectators away en masse and that moving the festival to the spring would make the risk of storms much greater.
Moving the festival to the fall would put it in conflict with the Spirit Festival, which seizes control of Penn Valley Park from August 31 to September 2 each year. However, it’s rumored that team Spirit is headed north to the Richard L. Berkley Riverfront Park, where the 150,000 to 200,000 who attend that festival annually can gaze at the Missouri River while enjoying the latest crop of retro acts. Penn Valley Park’s vacancy on Labor Day weekend is a moot point — Patterson assures that the Blues and Jazz Fest isn’t budging from its traditional third-week-in-July slot. However, the Spirit Festival’s relocation has spurred talk of similarly nomadic behavior by the Blues and Jazz organizers, with a certain fancy new racetrack surfacing in rumors regarding that event’s new home.
Not our speed, says Patterson. “We’re really waiting to get the rest of the park back to expand even farther,” he explains. “In Kansas City, there’s not a whole big number of parks to do an event our size in, and we don’t want to move any further away from the 18th and Vine district. Also, parks and recreation has done some things to make the park even more festival-friendly, so I can’t think of anything that would pick us up and take us off the Penn Valley Park site. There’s a beautiful view to the west, a backdrop of the city behind the monument, and it’s one of the few places in Kansas City that has a breeze.”
However, Patterson confirms he has been in touch with the Kansas Speedway about a possible collaboration. “We’d entertain the option of holding a blues event that would fit their crowd,” he explains. “Part of our job is to help garner tourism dollars and tourism period, and if it takes partnering up with the speedway for a music and racing event, then by golly, I’m not beyond that.”
And, by golly, if it takes an all-day summer festival to get casual fans (who avoid 18th and Vine’s Blue Room like it’s a smooth-jazz sampler) out to see local music royalty, so be it.