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Since 1992 Mike has been a published writer and music journalist in the Kansas City area. From time to time this page will feature selected excerpts and articles, old and new.

HAD TO BE THERE
(from JAM, December 2000/January 2001)




I've debated about whether or not to write about this in JAM, simply because a) it might be misunderstood by the good people who provided some useful work, and b) it could come across as a snooty dig at innocent folks just doing their jobs and/or having a good time.

But the incident in question keeps coming to mind as one of the more bizarre and incongruous things to go down since the many surreal episodes chronicled in "Adventures of a Jobbing Jazzman" (JAM, April/May 2000). Maybe writing about it will serve as a cleansing purge.

When playing a "jazz brunch" in any of the area's casinos, it's a given that the music will be background and merely part of the din. On the bright side it's a chance to shed, play with respected colleagues, and get paid for doing it. But there's also the drone of clanging slots with which to contend (no ballads on these gigs, for sure), the unexpected eruptions of jackpot-induced cheers (that can be coincidentally timed to reward the high point of an inaudible solo), and the overall mysterious "tonality" of the casino itself, making it necessary to play most tunes in D Phrygian in order to harmonize with the room.

On this fateful day, our jazz quartet -- huddled in a protective circle on the mezzanine overlooking the cacophony below -- was sailing through breezy versions of "Desafinado" (a serendipitous title), "What Am I Here For" (the musical question du jour), and "Blues for People Who Shouldn't Be Gambling On a Sunday Morning" (I made that one up). It was a routine job, we were enjoying each other's playing, and few if any were paying attention to the whimpers of a flugelhorn backed by tasty guitar, bass and drums.

However, toward the end of the first set I noticed a nearby security guard giving me the evil eye. "Could he be a former trumpet player?" I worried. "And has he been counting all the clams?" Or worse yet, "Are we about to get busted for playing a tune in a conflicting key? And ruining the concentration of that one guy down below who hasn't moved from his favorite slot for an hour and a half?"

As the guard approached during our break, my heart filled with trepidation. I prepared to be cuffed.

"Hey buddy, do you think you guys could turn down a little? We've had some complaints."

That's right. Our humble jazz combo had become a distraction in a sonic maelstrom where ten trumpeting circus elephants would have gone unnoticed.

But, remembering my years as a "wedding band warrior," I knew The Right Thing To Do.

"No problem, kind sir. Down the volume goes." Friendly nod, warm smile, and (to myself), "I wonder if it's too early for a beer."

And what, you may be asking, was the first tune of our next set? It's all a blur now, but I'm pretty sure it was a jazz rendition of "4:33" by John Cage.

But, I could be making that up, too.

c) 2000 Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors
Reprinted with permission



ANOTHER TWO CENTS
(from JAM, April/May 2001)




One of the most stunning revelations to come from Ken Burns' "Jazz" was how jazz (then swing) once accounted for nearly 70% of record company sales, but less than 3% today.

It's rock's fault, right? Elvis and the Beatles killed jazz.

Well, maybe. But changing consumer aptitudes might have had a hand in the nose dive, too. Another thing the Burns series made clear was that during the bop years, jazz started getting smarter. And more complicated. And more cerebral. And yes, more sophisticated. Talk about a sure-fire way to narrow an audience.

Not that people weren't smart and sophisticated 60-plus years ago. Mencken and Einstein and Orson Welles and FDR and a whole lot of other sharpies you can name were doing some pretty impressive things back then. But that was before the arrival of television. Need a way to describe where a lot of that other 97% resides today? Look no further than Jerry, Jenny, Sally, Maury, Rosie, Ricki, and "reality TV."

("I don't believe this!" you're thinking. "He's insinuating that people who don't buy jazz records are idiots!" Not at all. Just those who are okay with Jerry, Jenny, Sally, Maury, Rosie, Ricki, and "reality TV." And that's not you, of course, because you're hip enough to flip through this magazine. And we thank you for doing that.)

But, we were talking about Ken Burns.

From this vantage point, those ten nights on PBS were mostly win-win. Sure, there were celebrated flaws (would there have been a first Basie band without Benny Moten?), as well as conspicuous omissions (a certain guitarist from KC comes to mind) and curious inclusions (no need to name names), most in the final fast-forward installment. (Was Freddie Hubbard ever mentioned? Or was that during the ten seconds it took to get a beer?) And there was also the dichotomous Wynton -- a high profile jazz spokesman and role model for thousands, yet someone whose brilliance remains neutralized by a chronic knack to annoy. (Confession: As my other life as a middling trumpeter will attest, I'm in no position to find fault with one of the most versatile and gifted players ever. But I've had the pleasure over the years of meeting some of the world's finest who were also genuinely gracious and unaffected people. Give me the combination of virtuosity and humility any day.)

Nevertheless, flaws and all, "Jazz" was programming that attracted millions to a treasured yet increasingly marginalized art form. And that's a good thing. Interest in the music enjoyed a spike, sales got a bump (whether Louis, Duke and 'Bird need the royalties now or not), and even the JAM web site got more hits than usual.

But will this burst of attention make jazz more viable for the long run? Probably no more than anything else on PBS will cause people to abandon the aforementioned cavalcade of glorified aberration and curl up with a good book. It just isn't in the cultural cards right now. And that's the bad news. The good news, however, might be more subtle.

When KCIY "Smooth Jazz" 106.5 first went on the air six years ago, I got in some hot water by ribbing them for a questionable use of the word "jazz." (It still only takes half a heartbeat to lunge for the dial when Michael Bolton begins to howl.) Later I had the pleasure of meeting the (then) station director who patiently explained to me that "there are many rooms in the House of Jazz, but we need to get people through the front door first." A provocative angle, I remember thinking. He had a point.

Likewise, there are many shops in the sprawling mega-mall that is Entertainment in America. And if Ken Burns was able to lure a few shoppers away from Dopes 'R Us and toward the House of Jazz, then he has done a valuable service.

(c) 2001 Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors
Reprinted with permission



PEEING INTO THE WIND FOR DISTANCE...
(from JAM, April/May 1999)




When KC Star music writer Timothy Finn called in early February wanting some input for an article on problematic noise in restaurant/jazz clubs, my first reaction was to duck the issue altogether, not for lack of an opinion or two, but because I've learned over the years that no amount of ink about this contentious subject has much of an impact.

As ever, it's a tricky topic to discuss. If restaurant/jazz club managers put a choke hold on chatty customers, revenues will decline and live jazz will get the ax. But if intrusive talking is allowed to run unchecked, musicians suffer to varying degrees and area jazz buffs on hand to support them get bugged and end up avoiding the venues altogether.

To be fair, KC's club managers/owners are mostly innocent victims of this ongoing quagmire. I've had the pleasure of being employed by many of them and can say that they are a hard-working, business-savvy bunch just trying to keep their venues in the black. And the talkers-shouters-laughers, believe it or not, aren't entirely to blame either. They are mostly the product of a culture in which declining sensibilities don't mesh well with an intelligent art form like jazz. A lot of them probably think "jazz" is a basketball team in Utah.

So yes, writing about this Catch-22 is pretty much what the above title implies.
And the beat goes on.

...With Tongue Firmly in Cheek

But that doesn't mean an end to annoyance as a vehicle for satire! Here's an encore of a piece inspired by this discussion that ran here a few years ago. As always, the line between fact and fantasy in the author's warped imagination remains dangerously thin.

How To Tell If a Jazz Club is Too Noisy

* In the sonic confusion of the venue du jour, a well-buzzed patron mistakes a whirring blender for the band's tip jar and loses two fingers while asking the bartender to "play something by Erroneous Merkin."

* Between tunes, band members can only communicate by walkie-talkie and even then are unable to hear comments like, "Incoming!" or "Dug your solo on Happy Birthday, man."

* Ken and Barbie's disruptive mating ritual (at the table directly in front of the band, of course) goes awry when the deafening crowd noise obscures Ken's whispered invitation to "come over to my place and get it on to my new Michael Bolton album."

* On a poignant rendition of "Body and Soul," an amorous couple is inspired to jump up and slow-dance to the music. No dance floor? No problem. The itsy-bitsy space between Ken and Barbie's table and the bandleader's microphone will do just fine. As this couple was once a winner of an Arthur Murray Dance Contest, however, they soon become discouraged by the indifference of the band members who fail to acknowledge their grand dips and staggering pirouettes. Returning to their table in a pouty huff, they soul-kiss, order another round of Kamikazes, and shout incoherent requests for "dancething we can some to."

* An argument erupts between the bass player and the drummer. A stick bag becomes a club, a bow becomes a sword. Eventually weapons are pulled and shots are exchanged. Oblivious customers do not notice and do not care.

* At the end of the evening, the bandleader's vocal cords are so raw from shouting over the din, he accidentally coughs blood onto the shirt of a well-meaning patron who wants to engage in slurred conversation about the music that he, the patron, has talked over most of the night. The bandleader excuses himself, drills a hole in the top of his head and empties an entire fifth of bourbon into the funnel. "I am an artist!" he triumphantly declares to startled onlookers. "Would anyone like to buy a CD?"

(c) 1999 Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors
Reprinted with permission



ON ANNIVERSARIES & EXTRATERRESTRIALS
(from JAM, August/September 2002)




As a grade school kid growing up in (then rural) Lee's Summit 40 years ago, my young imagination was captured by a book called Flying Saucers Have Landed by George Adamski. I haven't seen it since and have a feeling that, by current standards, it probably wouldn't measure up to more credible literary works.

Still, I will never forget how it first caused me to consider the possibility that we weren't alone in the cosmos, especially on those warm summer nights when I'd look up at the stars through the bedroom window screen and wonder what kind of truth might be "out there."

Today, years of sightings, unexplainable phenomena and tantalizing "X-Files" later, it's tempting to believe that we have indeed been visited, even though the chances of such contact still seem remote. Call me a hopeful agnostic, with an eye toward the infinite sky.

There is one thing, however, that seems certain. If we have been observed by beings smart enough to get here from there, once they had a chance to look us over and see how we seem hell-bent on self-annihilation, they would surely sigh a collective sigh, shrug a collective shrug, and say something like, "We have nothing to learn from these people. Let's move on." (And how fortunate for Gort, Klaatu, and E.T. that they have that option!)

We, on the other hand, remain faced with the daily challenges of earthbound survival as the variety of ways to destroy each other continues to advance beyond limited gray matter and combined common sense.

History doesn't lie. There are the dates we all know "that live on in infamy," when humanity showed its uglier side and took things another step closer to the edge. No matter your age, they are the milestones that shaped generations and forged new destinies.

December 7 remains an anniversary that has been rightfully acknowledged since 1941, when a surprise attack drew the U.S. into World War II. The first nukes brought that bloody battle to an abrupt end, albeit with foreboding results.

Late October of 1962 is forever stained into the memories of those who recall when "the other side blinked." For a period of several days that autumn we were closer to World War III than anyone could have imagined.

And November 22 has been giving pause since 1963. It was on that sunny afternoon in Dallas, also nearly 40 years ago, that the murder of one man literally changed the mood - and direction - of an entire country.

September 11, however, is something altogether different. On a clear Tuesday morning, nearly one year ago, ordinary civilians just trying to do good work and take care of their families were suddenly thrust onto the front lines of an unwanted war, a war that would begin with thousands of innocent, defenseless people brutally crushed and incinerated as a disbelieving world looked on.

And so, now we have a new date for the history books.

How will present and future generations mark this somber anniversary? On 9/11/02, we will begin to find out.

Will there be more tawdry football halftime shows? Will there be slick theatrical releases that trivialize the horror by reducing it to a profitable "entertainment vehicle?" Will frowny-faced talking heads temporarily give up the guffaws before returning to rim shots and "happy talk" on 9/12?

Maybe an entire day of nothing but total silence would be best. A Day When the Earth Stands Still. A day of contemplation, and a day when the value of a deep breath of clean, crisp air is fully appreciated. And, yes, a day when every occupant of this tiny dot in the void gives serious thought to longterm consequences.

Because, like it or not, the approaching 9/11 will also be a day when we will again be forced to wonder not if, but when and where the next shoe will surely drop, as we savor each and every moment of a finite existence. And, as the millennium of our new discontent continues to unfold.

I don't know about you, but the next time one of those saucers lands, I think I'll be thumbing a ride.

(c) 2002 Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors
Reprinted with permission

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