I Am the Giant Head of Charlie Parker! Photo by Alan Watt.
“Oakland? That hellhole!”
This was the reaction of the bass player after I answered his middle-of-the-tune question of where I was from, as we slugged through “Confirmation” at 3:20 a.m. But let me back up a moment.
My girlfriend and I were in Kansas City last week for a friend’s wedding, but since we were in the town which produced so many jazz giants–Charlie Parker (of the giant green head above), Jay McShann, Count Basie, and many others–I decided to throw in a pilrgimage to what’s believed to be the oldest jam session in the country: the Mutual Musician’s Foundation, which has been hosting late-night sessions since 1930, give or take a few years for renovations. The session was listed as beginning at 11 p.m., but when we arrived after midnight the man behind the bar said, “music starts at one.” So we sat in the arctic air-conditioned chill, surrounded by framed photos of Kansas City legends past, and waited.
A trio began to play a little after 2 a.m.–unfortunately I didn’t get anyone’s names, but they were very good, playing mostly standards. I was wondering if they played a set before opening up the session, but there didn’t seem to be anyone else waiting to sit in, and after listening for five or six tunes and hearing some ruckus coming through the ceiling, I finally asked someone, and was told that the session was upstairs, and downstairs was for performances. But it worked out well, since I would’ve missed out on hearing the good music downstairs if I’d gone straight up to the session.
Downstairs at the M.M.F. Photo by Alan Watt.
We made our way upstairs, and found three musicians playing in a much larger (and less freezing) room, surrounded by oblivious drinkers. I played three or four tunes with the group, which featured a great pianist named Oscar Williams II (who according to a Google search studied with Bobby Watson at UMKC), the aforementioned bassist with the anti-Oakland bent, and a pair of drummers including a nice guy who told us he’d toured with the Ojays. (Linda said he approached her while I was playing and politely said, “Excuse me miss, are you waitin’ on someone?”) Unfortunately we had to split around 3:30 a.m., though a lot of drinkers were starting to show up as the bars closed. I don’t know whether more musicians joined them, although I’ve since heard that the session really only picks up after 3–next time, I guess.
We also made it to the American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which are in opposite sides of the same building, but could not be further apart in terms of content and execution.
The baseball museum had a ton of material, but seemed to think it needed everything to be visible at once. The result was overwhelming, and not in a good way. Overall, I’d recommend it, however, since the exhibits managed to present many of the compelling stories of the Negro Leauges days (even if in a somewhat cluttered way). Unfortunately they didn’t have the throwback-N.Y. Cubans hat that I wanted to buy, but I suppose I have enough hats as it is.
The jazz museum was another story, unfortunately. The space was set up well, and it’s connected to what looks like a nice jazz club called the Blue Room (where a saxophonist was just finishing up a little improvisation demonstration on “When the Saints”–too bad he wasn’t around when that tune was requested at the House of Shields)–but the exhibit was pretty short on substance. Other than Charlie Parker’s plastic alto (as used for the famous Massey Hall concert where Mingus had to redub his bass lines) and a few contracts, there wasn’t much to look at: lots of record sleeves which could’ve been seen at a record store, some photocopied gig contracts, and a late-model trumpet with the label “A Trumpet and Mouthpiece. Louis Armstrong was a famous trumpeter” or something like that. They also had a listening library with a couple of hundred in-print CDs–nice, I suppose, but probably no better than the average university or library collection. In fact, the most interesting thing I saw was a container of “Louis Armstrong Lip Salve,” which Linda suggested would probably sell pretty well today. Hell, I’d buy some (although God knows what people rubbed on their chops in the thirties).
Although the museum was a little bit sad, it was luckily only a few blocks from the world-famous Arthur Bryant’s, where we were able to smother our disappointment with ribs, “burnt end” sandwiches, and cole slaw the color of lime jello. (We also made it to Gates Barbecue but preferred Bryant’s in pretty much every way). Other highlights included catching an entertaining K.C. T-Bones baseball game–the T-Bones’ mascot is a bull named “Sizzle,” who is, as far as I know, the only mascot in professional sports whose name celebrates his own death. (We also made multiple trips to Sheridan’s Frozen Custard, which is so damn good that I can’t believe it hasn’t yet made its way to the Bay Area.)
Anyway, it was a nice short visit, and I’d like to go back and meet some more of the local musicians, since it seems like there’s still a pretty vibrant scene for such an otherwise economically-depressed town. We kept thinking that any moment thousands of Bay Area refugees were going to come over the hill hungry for lower rent, backyards, and custard. It could happen any day, so you better snatch up one of those $50,000 houses fast.