Out of Reach

There was a time when local jazz enthusiasts actually complained about festival overload. In the mid-’80s, multiband extravaganzas studded the concert calendar, and fans bitched about how to fit all the shows into their schedules.

Oh, to have that problem again. Outdoor jazz dates have dried up like drought-stricken Kansas farmland, and even the indoor scene suffers in the summer, with the American Jazz Museum’s stellar Jammin’ at the Gem concert series going on hiatus from April to October. There’s Grammy glutton Norah Jones‘ July 14 appearance at the Midland Theater, the Jazz Lovers’ Pub Crawl in June and a potential payoff at July’s Spirit Fest and September’s Blues and Heritage Fest (last year’s debut delivered Los Hombres Calientes and Joe Sample). Other than that, it’s an arid landscape from when Easter baskets hit the clearance racks to when Halloween decorations start spooking supermarkets.

Like a belated Mardi Gras, the Jazz Outreach concert on Sunday, March 16, at the Beaumont Club allows sax-starved fans to gorge themselves before months of forced fasting. Between 3 and 8 p.m., fifty or more artists perform two songs each. The talent level ranges from local luminaries (Gerald Dunn, Duck Warner, Everette DeVan, Millie Edwards) to absolute amateurs, though event organizer and jazz philanthropist Dr. Leslie Becker promises that visitors will not endure karaoke-style caterwauling.

A member of several boards at Swope Health Services, Becker combined his longtime love of jazz with his need to raise funds for Swope’s Outreach program, which offers AIDS education and free health services to low-income and homeless people. In 1997, the Gem Theater hosted the first Outreach event with mixed results. Although the 18th and Vine District was certainly an appropriate area for such a showcase, the Gem’s sit-down setup didn’t allow for much spontaneous choreography.

“People were getting up onstage to dance, and that didn’t seem too appropriate,” Becker recalls. After shopping the gig to several venues, he connected with the Beaumont Club, which reached out to Outreach with an astounding deal: no fee for the facilities, and two free drinks for every patron.

Outreach’s name has become increasingly apt. Since moving to the Beaumont, the gig has been able to lure curious Westport passersby with a lively looking midafternoon display.

Large-scale festivals catalyze many more conversions, though, because attendees pay lower prices (a one-night ticket to last year’s Heritage Fest was $10, compared with Jazz Outreach’s $25) for major touring acts. For now, jazz might have to piggyback on the blues-based Heritage Fest. People who have never gone to the Grand Emporium will go to see B.B. King, but past evidence suggests that the same people who visit the Blue Room are the only people who will support some larger jazz shows.

“That core crowd, which is notoriously small, will be there to support Shirley Horn for an appearance at Starlight Theater as part of the International Jazz Festival [back in 1997], but the Frisbee throwers who say they like jazz couldn’t care less about someone of that stature,” says Mike Metheny, editor of the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors’ Jam magazine. “And the big outdoor jazz festivals in KC need the Frisbee throwers.”

With the International Jazz Festival, the Blues and Jazz Fest and the Kansas City Jazz Festival, all defunct, the burden of attracting the flying-disc crowd falls to the Heritage Fest.

“They have an obligation to include the best of KC jazz at the very least, and at most some name acts that local jazz aficionados will want to support,” Metheny says.

“I don’t know that I agree with the word obli-gation,” counters Heritage Fest Spokesman Jeff Campbell, who adds that he does plan on incorporating jazz into this year’s event. “Ultimately our obligation is to put on a financially successful festival, so events like the Kansas City Blues and Heritage Festival can grow for many years to come.”

With 18th and Vine perking up of late, thanks to a successful Jammin’ at the Gem run and the emergence of the Peach Tree, a grand outdoor jazz event might seem more like an inessential luxury than a much-needed lifeline. But without sufficient jazz representation, Kansas City’s remaining signature annual events will reflect neither its Spirit nor its Heritage.

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