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(Above: Ahmad Alaadeen plays for Charlie Parker at a 2008 graveside memorial service.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

I grew up in a musical household where classical was the genre of choice. Consequently, I was left to discover everything else on my own.

NPR was my gateway to jazz. The car my parents let me drive in high school didn’t have much that worked (including heat or air conditioning, which ensured I wouldn’t venture too far from home). The radio, however, was fine. On evening drives I switched between KCUR and KANU, both of which had long blocks of jazz into the night.

I couldn’t tell you who was playing at any given moment. If the song didn’t reach me, or the announcers started talking too much I’d hit the button for the other station. Although I didn’t know Mingus from Monk, I did know that this stuff was a heck of a lot better than hearing the same Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Metallica songs for the millionth time on commercial rock stations.

The other jazz fact I knew all too well was that everyone I had heard of was no longer living. Like the classical music my parents enjoyed, the genre was confined to corpses, their legacies entombed with Beethoven and Armstrong.

Ahmad Alaadeen was my entry into jazz as a living art form. My sister told me a “guy who played with Billie Holliday” was having a concert in a church near Paseo and Linwood. I convinced a couple of friends to make the trek with me, and we were all blown away. I can’t remember what he played, but I know he played in a trio and the drummer had the tiniest kit I had ever seen. At most he had four pieces, but he did more with those than any of the rock drummers with mega-kits I had seen.

After that show I started paying more attention to jazz shows around town. School prevented me from attending most, but I made it a point to see who had played and check out their music from the library. I also started paying more attention to Kansas City’s role in jazz history. As I did, I realized many of the roads led back to Jay McShann (then still living) and the horn players whom he gave his first jobs: Charlie Parker and Alaadeen. (Both men also shared the same saxophone teacher, Leo Davis.)

It seems strange to say, but I had almost forgotten about that Alaadeen performance until I saw him receive the American Jazz Museum Lifetime Achievement Award last May at the Gem Theater. Clark Terry received the same award that night and, deservedly, most of the attention. Terry, however, only sang two songs and did not play. Alaadeen was right there on the front row of the orchestra, horn in his mouth, blowing several solos during the evening’s tribute to Duke Ellington.

A couple days later, Alaadeen’s neighborhood threw a celebration in his honor. I was able to convince one of my friends who saw Alaadeen with me over a decade before to join our party. As we congratulated Alaadeen on the award, I reminded my friend of that show.

Alaadeen didn’t play that night. He seemed content to sit in his lawn chair, greet fans and take in the neighborhood funk band. We had hoped he would play, but weren’t too disappointed – there would be other opportunities.

None of us could have predicted that in a little more than three months Alaadeen would be gone. Next to the frail Terry on the stage of the Gem, he seemed immortal. Shortly after that weekend he was hospitalized for nearly two weeks. News of his cancer only emerged a few weeks ago before his passing.

In hindsight, this award came at the right time. It was the final show of the 2009-2010 Jammin’ at the Gem series. Who knew he wouldn’t live to see the opening of the next season?

When Alaadeen received another award to honor his work as an educator at the neighborhood party he seemed overwhelmed by the weekend. He stood silently at the mic for a few moments, as if recording everything in his mind. Finally, he spoke.

“I’m at a loss for words,” he admitted. Then he paused. “I will never forget this.”

Me neither.

Keep reading:

Sho’ Nuff: Alaadeen’s blog

Clark Terry’s Last Stand

Remembering Rusty

A tour of KC’s Women in Jazz

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Rusty Tucker pounds the skins with Alaadeen (saxophone) and Jay McShann (piano) at a 2005 Gem Theater performance.

Rusty Tucker was a fixture of the Kansas City jazz scene for more than 50 years. He could be found playing his trumpet with others or sitting behind a drum kit for the Scamps.

Tucker died almost four years ago, but I was priviledged to speak with him in his Independence, Mo. home in 2002 when I was a reporter for The Examiner. Here is Rusty’s story.

A Life Full Of Jazz

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(Above: A somewhat recent performance of Clark Terry’s signature song, “Mumbles.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Perhaps only baseball reveres its heroes of the past as much as jazz. Each year, Stan Musial, Ted Williams or another bygone star is paraded around the field before the All-Star Game. Likewise, the songbooks passed down from Miles, Duke, Satchmo, Monk and others are considered sacrosanct.

Unlike baseball fans, however, jazz traditionalists are loathe to replace their legends with up-and-comers. This makes it frustratingly inconvenient when the links to that halcyon era keep dying.

Fortunately, Clark Terry was up to the task Friday night at the Gem Theater for the American Jazz Museum’s Duke Ellington celebration. The 89-year-old trumpet master played with Ellington for 10 years, led Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show band, and recorded with Oscar Peterson, J.J. Johnson, Thelonious Monk and scores of others throughout his eight-decade career.

Fellow Ellington orchestra alum Barrie Hall, Jr. introduced Terry by reminiscing when he was able to record with his hero on the soundtrack of the “Fabulous Baker Boys.” Stationed in a wheelchair, Terry appears from the backstage recesses of stage right, hidden in the wings.

As the applause built, Terry’s son, standing behind the chair, frantically waves his arms, as if to call the celebration off. The museum’s two-day tribute to Ellington has been building to this moment. Has something gone wrong? Will Terry not be able to appear after all? Killing time, Hall nervously sings a few stanzas of “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me.”

Clark Terry recieves the American Jazz Museum lifetime achievement award from museum CEO Greg Carroll in Kansas City, Mo. on April 30, 2010.

Finally, Terry emerged, slumped in his chair, wearing a dark suit and white yachting cap reminiscent of Count Basie’s favorite headwear. A clear tube of oxygen runs beneath his nose, resting atop his albino moustache. A trumpet case is tantalizingly set next to Terry’s wheelchair, but it’s obvious he won’t be able to play even before the announcement is made.

As the band, led by Hall, kicks into “Full Moon at Midnight,” Terry rests his hands on the cane that stands between his knees. He takes in the saxophone solo by Ahmed Alaadeen. The esteemed Kansas City jazz fixture is another Ellington alumnus who received the museum’s lifetime achievement award earlier that evening.

When the song ended it was time for Terry to receive his own lifetime achievement award. His son pushes the wheelchair near the podium. As chief executive officer Greg Carroll reads a biography, Terry fiddles with his wristwatch, seemingly unsure of where he is. When the award is presented, he looks at the miniature bust of Charlie Parker in wonder as Carroll holds it up. Terry’s grip is too weak to clutch the statue.

While the camera flashes fade, Carroll looks at Terry and suggests a song. Terry looks so frail It seems an imposition to ask this much, but he graciously accepts the mic that has to be placed in his right hand. The band launches into “Squeeze Me,” one of Terry’s signature numbers with the Ellington orchestra. His warm voice starts out thin and strained, but grows stronger with each verse. The years fall away as he starts scatting the final verse, his left knee rocking up and down.

The applause is still strong when Hall looks at the band and blasts the intro to “Mumbles.” Terry joins right in and his nonsense spoof of blue singers brings laughter from the audience. He’s into it now, rocking back and forth and even backing his chair up so he can look Hall in the face as he supplies fills on his trumpet. Hall and Terry trade riffs back and forth from voice to horn and back like a jazz version of an Abbot and Costello routine.

The audience jumps to its feet with the final note, and a broad smile beams from Terry’s face. Wheelchair or not, it is obvious that when Terry is put onstage and given the mic he still knows exactly what to do. He has no difficulty conjuring smiles and making everyone happy. As his son wheels him offstage, Terry blows kisses and doffs his hat. A few songs later, Terry’s son and a nurse escort him quietly out of the building.

(Below: Clark Terry blows his horn on the Tonight Show in 1980.)

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Buck O’Neil: Sweet times, sweet sounds at 18th and Vine

Piano Men: Dave Brubeck, Dr. John and the Jacksonville Jazz Festival

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