It was one of the city’s best parties, but Dawayne Gilley’s KCK Street Blues Festival has now been canned
It’s Thursday, May 13. Sitting at a white-draped table in a ballroom at the Jack Reardon Convention Center, Dawayne Gilley flips through the Kansas City, Kansas–Wyandotte County Official Visitors Guide.
The cover of the glossy brochure boasts a grinning plastic dinosaur from the T-Rex Café at the Legends at Village West. Smaller photos show scenes from a T-Bones game, a NASCAR race and a Schlitterbahn innertube ride — some of WyCo’s biggest tourism-revenue generators.
On page 25, under “Festivals & Annual Events,” is a blurb for the project to which Gilley has devoted himself the past nine years.
“The Kansas City, Kansas, Street Blues Festival: A world-renowned blues festival that resembles a block party or family reunion featuring KC musicians.”
Short, but true.
Approaching its 10th year, the festival is now a tradition for the last weekend in June.
Gilley has come to the Reardon Center to accept the 2009 Tourism Event of the Year award from the Kansas City, Kansas-Wyandotte County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
But in a cruel twist of irony, Kansas City, Kansas, is quietly turning its back on the Street Blues Festival because of a petty, bureaucratic issue involving liquor laws.
Gilley is tall and heavyset, with a full head of sandy brown hair and a trimmed, white-sprinkled beard. His saucerlike eyes look even bigger behind his thick glasses. He’s dressed in a blue-checked, long-sleeved dress shirt, black slacks and black New Balance sneakers — this is about as formal as Gilley gets.
Last night, he worked late at his job as warranty parts expediter for the Ford Motor Company so that he could take a few hours off to accept his plaque and free lunch.
Passing boats of ranch dressing for their iceberg-lettuce salads and eating beef medallions are Mayor Joe Reardon and 135 other city and state politicians, officers of civic organizations, representatives from the brochure-cover enterprises and other western Wyandotte County attractions such as Cabela’s and the Great Wolf Lodge.
After a promotional video, Convention & Visitors Bureau Director Bridgette Jobe describes a social-media tourism campaign starring “Dottie Wyandotte,” an attractive blogger-mom type who tweets and posts videos and photos to drum up online interest for local attractions.
Gilley organized the first three Street Blues Festivals without the benefit of e-mail. He didn’t even own a cell phone until two years ago.
“You get a lot more done face to face,” he explains. “If people are serious, they’ll find time to meet.”
Gilley is the first of four award winners. Melissa Bynum of the Wyandot Center presents his award. Unlike, apparently, most of the people at the luncheon, Bynum has actually been to the Street Blues Festival.
Calling it “a lovefest of music,” she talks about dancing with strangers and making new friends at past festivals. She holds up an 8-by-10-inch glossy photo of Bobby Rush that the legendary musician autographed for her at one fest.
When he gets up to the podium, Gilley says Bynum’s introduction has put a lump in his throat.
But he has bad news.
“A new state law was passed, and our patrons may not be able to bring their coolers, and that’s really gonna impact us in a far greater way than you could imagine,” he says.
“We’re in serious jeopardy at this moment.”
He says there’s a chance that the festival might be saved, but he’s not hopeful.
He thanks the Convention & Visitors Bureau, returns to his seat, and digs into the dessert that he’d been saving for the comedown.
A few days later, he will meet with the festival board, talk to the would-be king and queen of the festival (musicians K.C. Kelsey Hill and Linda Shell), and decide to call off the 2010 Street Blues Festival.
It started with a photograph.
On September 18, 1999, inspired by Art Kane’s 1958 photograph of famous jazz musicians in Harlem, Gilley organized a group photo of Kansas City jazz and blues musicians on the steps of the Mutual Musicians Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri. Around the same time, Gilley interviewed 90 musicians for a Living Blues magazine issue dedicated to Kansas City.
To celebrate that January 2000 issue of the black-musician-oriented Living Blues (which didn’t include the group photo because white musicians were in the picture), Gilley booked a show at the Gem Theater. It sold out. Soon, Gilley was talking with Marvine McKeithen, the manager of the liveliest juke joint in Kansas City, Kansas, about putting together a street festival outside her Club Paradox.
In an effort to honor local musicians, who in many cases are better known in Europe and Japan than at home, the Street Blues Festival has booked Kansas City legends on the same stage as national heritage acts from around the country.
Jay McShann, Sonny Kenner, Ida McBeth and Myra Taylor have played alongside renowned outside acts such as Henry Townsend, David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Chick Willis, to name a few.
Except for one ill-fated, experimental year, the festival has always been free.
And it has always taken place in the city’s Northeast District, once a hotbed of jazz and blues clubs but now home to vacant lots, ruined buildings and housing projects.
Since starting on the stretch of Third Street near Parallel Avenue outside Club Paradox, the festival has grown. At first it drew an essentially black audience of a few thousand; at its peak, a diverse crowd of 10,000 attended.
It has changed locations three times, but for the last two years, it has been on the grounds of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge at North 13th Street and State Avenue. Gilley says he’s had offers to move his fest out of the inner city, but this 45-year-old white man, who lives in the Maple Hill neighborhood and went to Turner High School, is determined to keep it in the Northeast District.
This part of town has undeniable roots in the music that Kansas City is supposed to be known for. After all, Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas.
Gilley can talk for hours about how, from the 1930s through the ’70s, clubs lined Third and Fifth streets near Quindaro Boulevard. In those days, black musicians lived in rural KCK and commuted to higher-paying gigs at white clubs in KCMO.
Those clubs have been wiped from the landscape, but the Northeast District is home to many musicians who remember that lost era of KCK nightlife. Some, like blues guitarist and songwriter Danny Cox, are still gigging.
Outside of the Street Blues Festival, almost none of those hometown musicians get the chance to perform for their neighbors.
Bigger blues festivals in Chicago, New Orleans and Memphis book national headliners, draw hundreds of thousands of sponsor dollars, and charge patrons steep prices for the privilege of drinking a domestic beer while watching B.B. King wail on Lucille.
The KCK Street Blues Festival is a block party. People bring their own booze, coolers and lawn chairs and dance all weekend. And despite the area’s troubled reputation, there has never been any violence.
The festival has gained a worldwide following, earning a spot alongside the Chicago Blues Festival and the Beale Street Blues Festival in Memphis.
“It’s been written up in national journals,” says Chuck Haddix, local author and host of The Fish Fry on KCUR 89.3.
“One thing that distinguishes it from other festivals is, it’s a grassroots festival put on by people in the community,” he says. “It’s a festival that started out in one of the most depressed areas of Kansas City, and people came down because it’s real.”
On the Missouri side, when Kansas City was a real music city, clubs lined 12th Street and Vine. Now, that corner is a barren park and a housing project.
It’s the same story in KCK’s Northeast District — it’s just not as well-known because Kansas City, Kansas, has worked even harder than KCMO has to deny its musical heritage.
If the Street Blues Festival is shut down, people are asking, how much longer before that heritage is forgotten altogether?
This is not a festival that makes money.
Usually, Gilley raises around $15,000 per festival, give or take a couple of thousand, and makes sure all the musicians get paid. He put it on for as little as $8,000 in the early years.
Raising the money involves collecting lots of checks in the low-hundred-dollar range from local businesses and organizations.
Past sponsors who have given at least $2,000 include O’Reilly Auto Parts, State Farm Insurance and Price Chopper. A couple of years, he had no major sponsors.
And Gilley is adamant about not trying to make money off alcohol sales.
“We don’t have the money to bring in a big national headliner,” he explains, “and people aren’t going to come see artists whose names they’ve never heard of if they’re going to have to pay for beer.”
Besides, Gilley says, not letting people bring their own refreshments will compromise the fest’s small-town feel.
“To be successful,” he says, “we must have that carefreeness and be open.”
The biggest budget he has ever had was $32,000 in 2003, thanks to the first of two $10,000 grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (the other was in 2005). And 2003 was the only year the festival had a significant amount of money left over: $4,000. Each year, Gilley says, any leftover money goes to the artists.
In 2006, the festival moved to Kaw Point Riverfront Park — a lovely but hard-to-find sanctuary behind an industrial parking lot at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers.
One factor in the move from Third Street was the death of John Wilson, a Northeast District community leader of the unofficial variety. After Wilson’s death, Gilley heard murmurs that things might not go well for the festival if it remained on Third Street.
That same year, the festival was fully funded by the nonprofit Kaw Valley Arts and Humanities Inc., which, under Executive Director Chris Wright, had raised money for the event every year between 2000 and 2006. For the ’05 and ’06 fests, Wright acted as president of the festival with Gilley stepping back to board member.
The festival had seen its biggest attendance in 2005. In 2006, when it moved to Kaw Point, Kaw Valley Arts decided to charge a $5 admission, sell beer and not allow people to bring their own beverages.
It was a disaster.
Attendance dropped tenfold, to fewer than 1,000 for a three-day fest. Intermittent rain dampened spirits, even though Kaw Valley Arts had shelled out money to pay for one of the best lineups that the festival had ever seen.
“Our vendors did terrible,” Gilley recalls.
He resumed presidency of the festival. (Wright died in 2008.) Though Kaw Valley Arts covered the festival’s loss, which Gilley estimates at $25,000, the setback, combined with the need for a new location, prompted Gilley to give the festival a year off in ’07.
By ’08, he had convinced the elderly black Masons running the lodge hall at 13th and State to let him throw his festival on their grounds.
The lodge’s elevated, covered carport would serve as the stage; its parking lot and an adjacent vacant lot would be the festival grounds.
More than 5,000 people showed up. Last year, it was up to 7,000.
Myra Taylor was crowned Queen of the Festival in 2008; last year, the honor went to Diane “Mama” Ray. The two Kansas City blues matriarchs were bedecked in costumes donated by Have Guns Will Rent Costumes and Props, across the street at 1313 State Avenue.
People took their lawn chairs and coolers and partied peacefully and on their own terms.
Gilley’s festival has been breaking the law since its inception.
When he found this out at the end of April, Gilley was stunned.
Every year, he says, police have been at his festival — some even request to work it so they can enjoy the music.
“These guys tell me, ‘Can’t you do this more often?'” Gilley says of the cops, who have told him that crime tends to go down during the weekend of the festival.
On March 23, 2010, George Sooter, Right-of-Way manager in the Unified Government’s Public Works Department, e-mailed Gilley requesting the dates and location for the upcoming Street Blues Festival. Sooter added that he was planning to have a meeting “to discuss the mandatory laws, rules and requirements for the event.”
Gilley had scheduled this year’s festival June 25–June 26.
Gilley had dealt with Sooter in previous years but never had conflict. In the months after the 2009 fest, when he heard rumors about some kind of alcohol violation, Gilley says he tried numerous times to reach Sooter by phone and failed.
Now, a meeting was set for April 29.
Walking into City Hall that afternoon, Gilley had no idea what, if any, alcohol laws the festival had broken. One thing he did know: If he needed to make significant changes, he would have little time. The festival was less than two months away.
He took the elevator to the seventh floor and walked into a small conference room. Waiting there were Sooter, Deputy Chief Counsel Delia York, Director Tom Groneman of the Kansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, a representative from the Downtown Shareholders organization, Maj. Kevin Steele and a few other officers from the police department, and a few other city officials.
Also there was Brandi Severson, marketing director for the 7th Street Casino.
Owned by the Wyandotte Nation, the metro’s smallest casino occupies a red-brick former Scottish Rite Temple located practically next door to City Hall.
The purpose of the meeting was to address changes to the Kansas alcohol law that went into effect July 1, 2009, just days after last year’s festival. The new rules might affect Gilley’s blues festival and the Downtown Shareholders’ second annual June Fest, set for June 11.
Severson’s presence on behalf of the casino was intriguing.
The casino had been a savior of the Street Blues Festival for the past two years, donating $3,000 and giving away free soft drinks in 2008, then doubling down last year with a $6,000 contribution — and a twist: Casino officials apparently thought that they could make a little money by getting a temporary permit to sell 3.2 percent beer and setting up their own tent to the right of the stage.
Meanwhile, across the festival grounds, Frank Gabel, owner of the Hideout Bar and Grill in Gladstone, Missouri, also had a temporary permit and was selling 3.2 percent beer, just as he had done the year before.
Despite Gilley’s assurances that with people bringing coolers, no one was going to make money off beer sales, the Masons in the lodge also sold beer last year.
Gilley’s insistence on keeping the Street Blues Festival a BYOB event has kept customers happy, but it’s now the root of his legal trouble.
In 2009, the Kansas Legislature amended the Kansas liquor law to allow local governing bodies, such as the Unified Government, to issue ordinances granting temporary permits to sell alcohol for consumption on unlicensed premises at approved special events. (Wichita had proposed the amendment so it could hold festivals, such as the annual Wichita River Festival, where people are likely to buy a drink and then cross a street or walk down a sidewalk within the festival grounds.)
Before the amendment, it was illegal to drink on a sidewalk, street, alley or other public right-of-way, festival or no festival.
Despite Gilley’s block-party permits for his years on Third Street, no one had been legally permitted to drink on public property. But drink they did.
As for the years at 13th Street and State, when Gilley had temporary permits, people could legally bring their own alcohol, but they couldn’t drink on the street. But drink they did. As the holder of the permit, Gilley had been responsible for any violations. Fortunately, no one had ever been arrested at a Street Blues Festival.
In fact, the extent to which city enforcers have ignored the Street Blues Festival is almost absurd.
At the April 29 meeting, Gilley explained that each year, he bought a block-party permit to close off the necessary streets. Each year, he called the Mayor’s Office, the Police Department, the Fire Department and Public Works before and after the festival to make sure no one had any complaints.
In 2000, Gilley said, he went to the city license office at Indian Springs Mall to inquire about what permits he would need to put on his music fest in the street. He was told that a block-party permit would cover it.
“I find that hard to believe,” said Deputy Chief Counsel York.
Gilley was shocked when informed that his festival had been on shaky legal ground except for the Kaw Point Riverfront Park year (because alcohol laws are different for events in parks).
“These aren’t new laws,” York said. “They just haven’t been enforced.”
City officials suggested that Gilley had options, but all of them were weak: Move the festival back to the park, where it tanked in 2006. Have it at 13th Street and State, but keep people off the street and buy event insurance, which would probably exceed the entire festival’s budget.
Gilley complained that the task of keeping everyone who was holding a drink out of the street and the alley would be “the biggest baby-sitting job.”
The hourlong meeting ended with no solution in sight.
“To me, that was them saying ‘no,'” Gilley said as he left City Hall.
Even if he could find a way to plan a festival that would comply with the laws, Gilley would have very little time to raise enough money to make it happen.
And this time, the 7th Street Casino didn’t appear willing to help.
Gilley’s supporters suspected that the casino didn’t want to play if it couldn’t be the sole source of beverage sales.
A few days later, The Pitch asked Severson whether the casino had decided not to sponsor the festival. “No comment,” she replied.
In the weeks that followed the April 29 meeting, Gilley was reluctant to cancel this year’s festival.
He counted the money that had been offered by supporters, including Brotherhood Bank & Trust; Scott Mackey of the Wyandotte Democrats; Johnson County Community College and Kansas City, Kansas, Community College; a couple of local liquor stores; and Mad Jack’s Fresh Fish.
He nurtured hopes that the casino might come around, but he says Severson has not returned his calls.
Word of the festival’s imminent cancellation got around.
One of the people who heard was a 66-year-old Kansas City, Kansas, native whom All Music Guide has described as “one of the rawest, brassiest, most powerful divas [that funk music has] ever produced.”
Marva Whitney’s career is too illustrious to sum up here. Highlights: She was a member of the James Brown Soul Revue from 1967 to 1970. During that time, she traveled with Brown on a tour of the Far East, including a perilous visit to Vietnam, and she recorded the Top 20 R&B hit “It’s My Thing (You Can’t Tell Me Who to Sock It to).” She released other noteworthy singles and a full-length album, appeared with Brown, and had six of her songs featured on the 1997 Universal retrospective James Brown’s Original Funky Divas. Hip-hop musicians have sampled her recordings.
Whitney’s response to the festival’s cancellation could stand for a whole city of artists.
“It’s like telling somebody you can’t come back to where you were born,” she says.
When she was starting out in her career, she says, community performances validated artists like her: “You could invite people to come see that you were about something.
“I’ve stayed in Wyandotte County all my life,” she adds. “It leaves something more to be desired, but those of us who are here, when we have the blues festival, it’s a very happy time for us.
“We don’t have anything else, so why would you take that away?”
“Dawayne’s one of the good guys,” says another KCK diva, blues singer Linda Shell.
She portrays Gilley as a unifying agent who doesn’t usually broadcast his struggles to put on the festival.
“Musicians would be outraged if they knew the little things he has to do to put on this little festival,” she says.
Shell says she and her fellow musicians will be ready for 2011.
“I hope this doesn’t discourage him,” she says. “If we lose him, we won’t have anybody else.”
After Gilley gave his acceptance speech at the May 13 tourism awards ceremony, people made overtures of support. Kansas state Rep. Stan Frownfelter of District 31 handed Gilley his card and said he would personally look into the problem.
The next day, Gilley heard of a Public Works committee meeting with the Wyandotte County Commissioners. York had drafted a request that the commissioners update the Unified Government’s Code of Ordinances to reflect the 2009 amendment to the Kansas alcohol laws — the temporary permit laws that were discussed at the April 29 meeting.
Not knowing whether the new meeting had been called to deal with the Street Blues Festival, Gilley invited several of his supporters to help raise awareness of the festival’s situation.
It turned out that the meeting had nothing to do with the festival — at least, not explicitly.
Sounding concerned about people drinking in the streets, five commissioners asked questions about the amendment. They mentioned several other street festivals — St. Patrick’s Day, Polski Day and Cinco de Mayo — before one of them finally brought up what he incorrectly referred to as the “Third Street Jazz Festival.”
When it was time for the public to speak, Gilley sat down in front of the microphone and outlined the trouble he had been facing.
“It’s always been free and peaceful,” he said, receiving nods from friends.
Next, Kansas City (Missouri) Blues Society President Jerry Thompson tried to convey the festival’s importance.
“I’d like to make sure you guys realize it brings a lot of tourism to your area,” he said, looking nervous at having to address a governing body.
The commissioners voted to take no action but to forward the proposal on to the full commission. “The buck has effectively been passed,” Commissioner Mark Holland said.
Afterward, Gilley’s people, including his girlfriend, blues festival board member Cathy Ramirez, showed Sooter pictures from previous festivals.
The Pitch asked Sooter what it would take to keep the Street Blues Festival going.
“Just follow what we’ve suggested,” Sooter said. He produced a color satellite printout of the site at 13th Street and State, and talked about fencing off the grounds, having a licensed beverage vendor and not allowing people to bring their own drinks. Or moving it back to Kaw Point Riverfront Park.
“We’re trying to get him squared away,” Sooter said of Gilley.
Gilley told Sooter that he wished the city would have let him know sooner that his festival had been violating the law. Sooter equivocated, saying that Gilley had come to Sooter’s office in the fall but they had never arranged a proper meeting with the Kansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Division. (Gilley claims that he never met with Sooter.)
Gilley and Thompson left City Hall and drove to the Street Blues Festival’s original grounds at Third and Parallel.
They parked alongside a vacant lot just north of the former Club Paradox, now a juke joint called the Hole in the Wall that’s looking to reopen for special events.
A few people milled about or sat in chairs on the patios of small row houses in the housing project across the street. Farther down the street, a woman talked on her cell phone as she entered the neighborhood’s dilapidated liquor store, its dim neon sign glowing behind a thick window screen the only indication that it’s a place of business.
The people watched as Gilley stood on the double yellow lines in the middle of the street, spreading his arms to show where the stage had been set up those first five years.
From a chair on a porch across the street, a woman called out to Gilley, “When are you gonna bring the festival back down here?”
Two young women were standing beside her. By her foot, on the ground, were a low-ball glass and a can of cheap beer.
“I don’t know, baby,” he answered. “We’re trying to work that out with the city.”