Review: Gil Scott-Heron

(Above: The video for “Me and the Devil,” a track from his 2010 album “I’m New Here.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

WASHINGTON, DC – The “more info” tab on the Blues Alley Website informs the curious that Gil Scott-Heron attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania because it was the alma mater of his hero Langston Hughes and that he has a Master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. Informative, but hardly enlightening.

From the twilight of the ‘60s until the early ‘80s, Heron was a groundbreaking artist, fusing poetry, jazz and soul into militant anti-establishment statements. The first chapter of his career extended from the high point of the Black power movement to its nadir, the height of the Reagan administration.

Heron has only released two studio albums since 1982, appearing more often as a sample in works by Public Enemy, PM Dawn and Kanye West, and making the news for his intermittent stays in prison. Heron responded to both occasions the way he handled everything during the next-to-last show of his summer residency at Blues Alley: with humor.

“The first thing you do when you find out you’ve been sampled,” Heron said “is go someplace private and make sure everything is in the right place. Then you want to want to play the song every once and a while make sure it’s still alright.”

After a shout-out to Common, who sampled the song “We Almost Lost Detroit” for his 2007 single “The People,” Heron proceeded to play the original number without the signature keyboard line that had been lifted. Few seemed to mind.

On prison, Heron poked at critics who said his sentences had made him sound unhappy on his new album “You might be unhappy when you go in, but you’re sure not when you come out.”

Dressed in a dark beret, oversized suit jacket and baggy, untucked white dress shirt, Heron split his time between standing behind the mic and sitting behind a Fender Rhodes. His voice was in fine form, gruff, but not as raw as on “I’m New Here,” his aforementioned new record. Halfway the nearly two-hour performance he was joined by a four-piece ensemble of keyboards, saxophone/flute, congas and harmonica.

Heron opened with 15 minutes of stand-up comedy, riffing on Black History month, cable news experts, meteorology (“I’ll tell you what a high-pressure front is: Three bothers walking toward you smoking a joint.”) and inventing your own “ology.” He joked about the volcano that stymied his – and many other’s – travel plans and the difficulty pronouncing its name.

“Does Norway have a brother who sells consonants?” Heron asked. “It seems like they put every vowel in a row then tell you ‘say that.’”

He was just as chatty when the songs began, opening “Winter in America” with a lengthy retelling of the African folk tale that inspired the metaphor. He recounted the history of jazz, from its brothel-parlor origins to big bands, before “Is it Jazz.”

“Is It Jazz” provided the first explosive moment of the night, igniting the previously silently respectful crowd with the succession of solos. Saxophone and flute player Carl Cornwell was the perfect foil for Heron’s verbose verses, punctuating each phrase with a sharp blast from his horn.

Despite the fierce and sometimes bleak politics of Heron’s lyrics, the night was relentlessly upbeat. “Detroit,” a dark recollection of a near nuclear meltdown in the Motor City flowed seamlessly into the hope-filled refrain of “Work For Peace.”

The night ended with “The Bottle,” one of Heron’s most popular songs that hit No. 15 on the R&B charts in 1974. Buoyed by a funky organ line, the lyrics paint a harrowing portrait of alcoholism in the inner city. It was odd when Heron gave a short designated driver PSA before the song, and even more puzzling when the band moved into a joyous chorus of “Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate.” But for whatever reason, it worked and everyone in the club had smiles on their faces as they sang along.

As the crowd shuffled outside, the line for the 10 p.m. show snaked around the block. For the previous four nights, Heron had played two shows each evening, and the upcoming performance was the 10th and final of his stay at Blues Alley.

It was clear the set wouldn’t start on time, but the fans in line fed off the beaming faces of the emerging crowd and started to whoop and holler in anticipation. They would not be disappointed. Although there was no encore, and Heron omitted his two biggest numbers, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Johannesburg,” the evening felt more than complete.

A note on the venue: Blues Alley is literally tucked away in an alley off Wisconsin Street in the Georgetown district of D.C. The sun was bright outside when I entered, but it was dark as midnight inside. The only illumination came from small candles placed at the center of each circular, formally decorated table. With its old brick walls and thick ceiling timbers, it felt like walking into a colonial cellar. The tiny stage barely had enough room for the grand piano, let alone the emerging quintet. A waitress told me the venue was originally a colonial carriage house that was converted into a jazz club nearly 50 years ago.

Setlist: Stand-up set, Blue Collar, Winter in America, We Almost Lost Detroit > Work for Peace, Is It Jazz, Pieces of a Man, Three Miles Down, I’ll Take Care of You, The Bottle > Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate.

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Review: “Pops” by Terry Teachout

(Above: Satchmo and his septet rip through the “Tiger Rag.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The beauty of Louis Armstrong’s music was that it could be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone from children to adults and seasoned jazz fans to hardened critics.

Pity then that “Pops,” the new Armstrong biography by Wall Street Journal critic and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout, isn’t as accessible.

Teachout is an exhaustive researcher who leaves few stones unturned. His biography draws not only from the two autobiographies published during Armstrong’s life, but dozens of books, articles, reviews and liner notes. It also boasts access to scores of previously unseen letters and hours of unheard conversations Armstrong recorded.

This unprecedented access allows Teachout to paint an intimate view of Armstrong. He paints a frank view of Armstrong’s daily marijuana use, which led to his 1931 arrest in California. We learn about the murder threats Satchmo received from the Chicago mafia for. When former boxing promoter Joe Glaser promised to make the threats stop, Armstrong rewarded him with a lifetime appointment as his manager. With Glaser taking care of everything else, Armstrong was free to focus on the only thing that matter to him: music.

Ironically, Armstrong’s music was most vital when his life was in the most upheaval. When he cut his classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sides, he was in the middle of a failing marriage, having trouble keeping a steady band together, and running ragged across the country to poorly organized shows. Most of those problems went away when Glaser came on the scene, but Armstrong’s music also reached a plateau.

While the current crop of trumpet stars were heavily and obviously indebted to Armstrong’s trailblazing technique, they were also disappointed by Armstrong’s repetitive repertoire and unashamed desire to entertain (which hewed too close to minstrelsy for the newly empowered African American generation). Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis were among the most vocal of Armstrong’s critics.

Yet even Diz and Miles were forced to reconsider their opinions after Armstrong cancelled a State Department-sponsored trip to Russia in protest President Eisenhower’s tepid steps to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Armstrong later sent Eisenhower a congratulatory telegram when the crisis was resolved.) Armstrong gained with respect with the trio of albums he released on Columbia in the 1950s that showcased a long-dormant vitality and sense of adventure.

Detractors may have been surprised when Armstrong spoke out on segregation, but he’d been fighting it most of his life. The color line is drawn most sharply when Teachout looks at what might have been were Satchmo’s skin lighter by comparing his career with his friend Bing Crosby’s. While Crosby was given his own radio show and starring roles in Hollywood films, Armstrong had to settle for guest appearances on the air and supporting roles in low-budget films.

“Pops” revels in the details of Satchmo’s glory days, but it doesn’t skimp on the leaner parts of his career. The last quarter of Armstrong’s life receive nearly 100 pages. These chapters document Satchmo’s renaissance as not only a premier jazz talent, but showman whose love knew no age or national boundaries. Stories of “Hello Dolly” knocking the Beatles off the top of the chart or recording “(What A) Wonderful World” do not feel like curtain calls, but the natural continuation of a career.

Teachout’s findings are fascinating, but impenetrable at first. It takes several chapters to comfortably negotiate Teachout’s style. His habit of identifying sources in the text instead of footnotes makes for a clunky read. Sometimes the sourcing overwhelms the content. However, after becoming accustomed to Teachout’s style, “Pops” is a pleasant and illuminating read.

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Remembering Rusty

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

A tour of KC’s Women in Jazz

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Janet Kuemmerlein has been interested in jazz even longer than she has been making art. Growing up in Detroit, she had to take two buses to reach her arts-focused high school downtown. While there, members of the Modern Jazz Quartet might stop by and ask to borrow instruments from the school. She also made sure to take in concerts by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Stan Kenton … well, you get the picture.

After high school, Kuemmerlein was invited to study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Upon graduation she moved to Chicago, where she met her husband. Work assignments finally landed the couple and their four children in Kansas City, Mo. in 1960.

Kuemmerlien started in painting and sculpture. When she found the chemicals toxic around young children she moved to fabric. Her fabric works are on display across the country in government and office buildings, libraries and hotels, churches and synagogues.

Jazz and art didn’t intersect until Kuemmerlien was asked to contribute to the Johnson County Community College art auction in 2000. Her painting of Miles Davis was purchased by a local attorney and later given to the American Jazz Museum. Last month, Kuemmerlien unveiled her latest project, a series of 11 portraits commissioned by the AJM for their Women in Jazz celebration.

The paintings are on display in the gallery off the museum lobby from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays, until the end of May. There is no charge to view the exhibit.

Kuemmerlien was kind enough to take The Daily Record on a tour of the exhibit and speak about each piece.

Oleta Adams

Oleta Adams – “We actually talked on the phone quite a bit beforehand because she was out of town so much. I wanted to showcase her hands because they’re such an expressive part of her performance. She and her husband are delightful people. God she is funny. She’s just adorable.”

Karrin Allyson

Karrin Allyson – “I made this from a concert photo. When I told her I was doing this she said ‘don’t paint any lines (on my face),’ but she doesn’t have any. She’s too young. She was in town recently, but I don’t know if she’s seen this or not.”

Queen Bey

Queen Bey – “Queen lives in California now, but when we were putting the exhibit together the museum told me she absolutely had to be in it. They supplied me with some photos and this is what I came up with. Although she isn’t in Kansas City any more, Queen Bey has been around for a long time and was an important figure to our jazz and blues scene.”

Deborah Brown

Deborah Brown – “Deborah spends a lot of time in Japan and Amsterdam. It was tricky to schedule the photo shoot, but we finally found a time and she came into my studio. She’s just a wonderful woman. I wanted the large circle in the background to reflect her career in Japan.”

Pearl Thurston Brown

Pearl Thurston Brown – “I did this partly from a photo she gave me, and partly from a photo session in her home. She’s as beautiful as she ever was. Although the painting portrays her at a younger age, she’d make a great portrait today as well.”

Carol Comer

Carol Comer – “Carol is a personal friend of mine. I took her face from one photo, then went to her house and took a bunch of photos of her hands. I made up the trumpet player. Carol teaches many of the other vocalists in this series.”

Angela Hagenbach

Angela Hagenbach – “This is the first one I did. I got photos of her at Jardine’s one night before her set. I was so excited, because I got terrific pictures, except she’s so tall and I’m so short I would accidentally cut the top of her head off. She’s just a beautiful women – and great singer, too.”

Lisa Henry

Lisa Henry – “This is one of the first ones I made. Again, I went to her house to take pictures. I knew she loved red roses, so I made those the background, then took photos of her at the Blue Room. She has such feel and phrasing. I think she’s a wonderful artist.”

Marilyn Maye

Marilyn Maye – “I painted this from photos Marilyn sent me and from album covers. Marilyn lives in New York, but she’s certainly a Kansas City legend. I tried to capture her longevity with the painting. She’s such a dynamo. Johnny Carson referred to her as a singer’s singer. She was his favorite singer.”

Julie Turner

Julie Turner – “I went to her house and photographed her. I used actual jewels to give textual interest to the painting and to have a little fun.”

The Wild Women of Kansas City

Wild Women of Kansas City – “I met with Geneva Price before I did any of the paintings, because she was working on an oral history of women jazz artists. For the painting, I used several group photos and then created a composite. I picked the best poses from each photo.”

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Review: Oleta Adams

Clark Terry’s Last Stand

(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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Review: Oleta Adams

(Above: “Get Here” brought down the house at Oleta Adams’ recent homecoming concert in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Oleta Adams took the stage of Gem Theater on Saturday night with a smile and an apology.

“I’m sorry I’m dressed this way,” she said, wearing a stunning, strapless, turquoise dress. “I thought it was supposed to be spring.”

It would take more than a dumping of out-of-season snow to keep the nearly full house from seeing its hometown girl. For more than two hours, the singer, who was a staple of the local jazz scene in the 1980s, indulged them with stories, a wide selection of songs, and surprises.

The evening got off to a rocky start. Adams’ piano was initially buried in the mix. The drums, played by her husband John Cushon, and keyboards, played by Kansas City native Everett Freeman, Jr., overshadowed everything. The songs were played at a level reserved for noisy clubs or large theaters, not a respectful group in an acoustically sound room.

Adams’ powerful voice, however, would not be derailed by the sonic disarray. After opening with “Feelin’ Good,” the first of several cuts from her latest album, she led her four-piece band into “New York State of Mind.” By the time she got to the reworked bridge that ushered in a lengthy guitar solo, the song bore little resemblance to Billy Joel’s hit. “I Just Had to Hear Your Voice” displayed Adams’ dynamic range. The lyric-heavy melody found her working the verses in a lower register before opening up and soaring on the chorus.

After 40 minutes, Adams announced a short break. It felt premature, but the timing couldn’t have been better. When the group returned 30 minutes later, the sound issues had been resolved. Balance had been restored and instruments were complementing instead of competing. The always-upbeat Adams seemed happier with the situation, too. During “My Heart Won’t Lie” she held onto a note with a phrasing that recalled Nina Simone and drew big applause.

The biggest cheers of the night, however, didn’t go to Adams. After playfully introducing her band, Adams informed the audience that the mother of her bass player, Jeanne Arland Peterson, was sitting in their midst. With the spotlight focused on Peterson, Adams was able to coax her to come onstage.

Peterson looked fragile making her way up the steps, but spring to life behind Adams’ grand piano. After a breathtaking solo, Peterson launched into “All the Things You Are” with her son, Paul Peterson, and Cushon. The impromptu trio sounded like they’d been playing together for years (and, I suppose, two-thirds of them had). When the 88-year-old pianist wanted to hear a solo, she raised her left hand and shot her index finger at the musician in question as if holding a gun.

Once the massive standing ovation died down, Adams joined the trio for a romp through “More Than You Know.” Peterson’s hands slid across the keyboard with gusto and inspired Adams’ best performance of the night.

Clearly excited to be playing again in her adopted hometown, Adams relished talking with the crowd as much as performing. She sang the praises of the 18th and Vine District, and recalled her days playing at the Signboard Lounge in Crown Center.

“My favorite moment every night,” Adams said, “was waiting to see who got beat up in the bathrooms.”

Fights, Adams remembered, sometimes broke out because someone didn’t applaud the right way. Adams also told of a police detective who frequented her gigs. When someone would start talking too loudly, he would start polishing his badge, hinting at what might happen if the chatter didn’t stop.

“I always had the most dedicated fans,” she said, laughing.

The night ended with what Adams said she called the “fourth set” back in her Signboard days. After hinting at her gospel roots in the first set by prefacing “No Way To Love Me“ with I Corinthians 13, Adams took the assembly to church with a powerful one-two of “If You’re Willing” and “Holy is the Lamb.” Both songs were from Adams’ 1997 gospel collection “Come Walk With Me” and fans voiced their pleasure by clapping along and shouting amen.

The poignant “Long and Lonely Hours” is part of a new collection of prayers set to song that Adams hopes will be her next album. The invocation was written after her mother died after spending five months in the hospital, and deals with the feelings of abandonment, awkwardness and, ultimately, acceptance, one feels alone at night in the hospital.

Adams wouldn’t let the night end on a dark note, so she immediately sprang into “Get Here.” Fans burst into applause at the opening chord of her most famous number and several cried out with excitement. Expectations can be high for homecoming shows, but it was clear from the closing ovation that Adams had met them all.

“Tonight,” the woman sitting next to me said, “we got our own jewel, right here at the Gem.”

Setlist: Feelin’ Good; New York State of Mind; I Just Had To Hear Your Voice; I Hope You Dance; Picture You the Way That I Do; Circle of One. Intermission. The Power of Sacrifice; Let’s Stay Here; My Heart Won’t Lie; All The Things You Are (ft. Jeanne Arland Peterson); More Than You Know; If You’re Willing; Holy is the Lamb; Long and Lonely Hours (solo); Get Here.

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Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

(Above:  “The Sixth Sense”  – A classic joint from a classic album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Trumpet player Hermon Mehari of Diverse kept a copy of Common’s landmark hip hop album “Like Water for Chocolate” in his car for two years, but it wasn’t until he saw Les Izmore at the Czar Bar in January that he knew what he wanted to do with it.

The idea was as ambitious as the album Mehari wanted to celebrate: to combine the jazz chops of Diverse with Izmore’s hip hop style. Both outfits are staples of the local music scenes that rarely overlap.

“The people in the jazz scene often worry why people don’t go out, but the truth is some people don’t have a reason to go to Jardine’s or the Blue Room,” Mehari said. “Likewise, a lot of people may never have been to a hip hop show before. Hopefully this will give everyone a reason to get out more.”

Izmore frequently performs both on his own and with the Afro-beat collective Hearts of Darkness. Diverse made a big splash on the jazz scene when Bobby Watson unveiled the combo in 2008. They kept the momentum alive with a self-titled debut the following year and several high-profile shows and collaborations.

“Diverse has wanted to do a cross-genre collaboration for a while,” Melhari said. “I heard Les that night and was impressed. Could to tell from Les’ rhythms he liked all of that.”

By “all of that” Mehari means Common, Black Star, the Roots and the other members of the late-‘90s New Native Tongues movement in hip hop. The low-key faction turned their backs on the hard, gangsta stance of the moment to focus on socially conscious lyrics backed with soulful or jazz-influenced production.

“Hermon pretty much said he want to link up in the future,” Izmore said. “I was definitely interested, but I didn’t know he already had an idea. When he brought up ‘Like Water For Chocolate’ I was like hell yeah. That’s one of my favorite albums ever.”

On Friday, March 19, Izmore and Diverse will collaborate and celebrate the 10th anniversary of “Like Water For Chocolate” at the Czar Bar.

That album’s music, there’s no album with the sound like they have,” Izmore said. “That was my way into (Afro-beat legend) Fela (Kuti) because (his son) Femi is on there. That album can get you into so much stuff. You have the jazz guys, the hip hop, DJ Premier, Jill Scott. It’s a who’s who of that time. These are some of the best artists of their time.”

The “Like Water for Chocolate” roster also includes jazz trumpet player Roy Hargrove, rappers Mos Def and Slum Village, DJ Premier, Black Thought, Rahzel and Questlove from the Roots, soul singers D’Angelo, Macy Gray and Bilal and future Gnarls Barkley singer Cee-Lo. Producer James Yancey, or J Dilla, a longtime friend of Common’s who had worked with A Tribe Called Quest, tied all the elements together.

In keeping with the spirit of the album, Izmore and Diverse will have a few friends on hand to help them out as well. Hearts of Darkness singer Brandy Gordon will take on all the female vocal parts, and Lee Langston will stand in for D’Angelo, Bilal and Cee-Lo. Local MCs Reach and Vertigone also help out.

“We will definitely keep the jazz tradition and hip hop tradition of improve and freestyle alive,” Izmore said. “We’re not going to do the album straight through, and we might even skip a song or two. We want to leave a lot of room for improv.”

As an MC who grew up with the album, Izmore said he needed little preparation for the show. Diverse had the tougher job translating and arranging the record’s sounds and textures.

“We all expected this show to be harder than jazz shows because of a lot of the intricacies,” Mehari said. “Some of the things you have to do goes against the nature of a jazz musician. Like in jazz there are usually a lot of changes, but here because of the loops you have to find ways to be creative within that repetition.”

Izmore and Diverse worked out their parts separately, then rehearsed together in the weeks leading up to the performance.

“When I first heard them I was ecstatic,” Izmore said. “I knew it was going to be a fun night, because they got it down. It doesn’t sound like jazz players doing hip hop.”

Mehari said he was pleasantly surprised by the reaction in the jazz community.

“When Diverse played a house party at 57th and Ward Parkway, people there asked me what we had coming up,” Mehari said. “I wouldn’t have expected them to get excited, but they did.”

With its socially conscious poetry, innovative rhythms and intricate rhymes, Mehari said “Like Water For Chocolate” forced him to grow as an artist. Now he’s hoping to use the album to expand the horizon’s of Kansas City’s music community.

“This is how the scene grows,” Mehari continued. “I think people are too reliant on fans. I think it’s our job as artists to take things higher.”

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A Gennett Records photo gallery

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

I visited the historic Gennett Records recording studio and the Gennett Walk of Fame in Richmond, Ind. on March 2, 2010. Here are my photos from the trip. (Don’t miss The Daily Record feature “Remembering Gennett Records.”)

This is all that remains of the Gennett building today. Most of the structure was torn down in the 1960s and '70s.
This sign points the way to the Gennett building, but it's easy to miss if you're not looking for it.
Close-up of the Gennett parrot still visible on the tower today.
This plaque is mounted on the Gennett building to the left of what appears to be the former main entrance.
There isn't much to see inside the building. The structure has been gutted.
Detail work of the marker celebrating Jelly Roll Morton on the Gennett Walk of Fame.
Hoagy Carmichel's plaque on the Gennett Walk of Fame.
Blues legend Charlie Patton's marker on the Gennett Walk of Fame.
Duke Ellington is also honored on the Gennett Walk of Fame.
Jelly Roll Morton's plaque on the Gennett Walk of Fame.
Close-up of the mosaic honoring Charlie Patton on his plaque on the Gennett Walk of Fame.

Remembering Gennett Records

(Above: A rare Gennett Records 78 featuring Edna Hicks singing “Satisfied Blues.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

From the highway, Richmond, Ind. looks like any other blip on the highway between Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio. It’s not quite blink-and-you’ll-miss it – the town does have five exits from I-70 – but there’s nothing enticing about it, either.

The music made in this unassuming locale eighty years ago, however, is still captivating. Thanks to the efforts of Henry Gennett and his label, Gennett Records, this blip on the Indiana-Ohio border is known as the “cradle of recorded jazz.”

Like most label heads, Gennett was not a music man. The Nashville businessman bought the highly successful Starr Piano Company from a trio of Richmond entrepreneurs who started the business 20 years ago.

By 1915, Starr Pianos were one of the most prestigious brands in the country and Gennett was selling 15,000 instruments a year. The winds of change were blowing, however, and Gennett sensed the piano paradigm was about to be usurped by the phonograph.

Charlie Patton was one of many then-unknown musicians to record for Gennett.

By the end of the decade, Gennett was not only manufacturing his own brand of phonograph, but cutting original material for prospective customers to play on their new appliance. Since Victor and Columbia had snatched up the biggest names in music to exclusive contracts, Gennett grabbed lesser-known musicians passing through town on their way to gigs.

The artists Gennett recorded in the ‘20s were unfamiliar at the time, but read like a jazz hall of fame today: Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, the King Oliver band – which included a bottle green Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and Hoagy Carmichael. Gennett also recorded bluesmen Big Bill Broonzy, Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and future country legend Gene Autry and other hillbilly pioneers Fiddlin’ Doc Roberts, Vernon Dalhart and Bradley Kincaid.

Ironically, at the same time Gennett was recording many of the biggest names in African-American music, Richmond was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. At one point, 45 percent of the white men in Wayne County, which includes Richmond, were Klan members. This market was too lucrative for Gennett to ignore, who secretly recorded these bigots in the Gennett Records studios and released them on private labels.

Gennett paid his artists a flat fee of $15 to $50 per session and sold the records for $1. The label’s slogan, “The Difference is in the Tone,” was something of a joke. Heavy drapes hung on the walls could not hide the sounds of passing trains, and purists noted Gennett platters did not sound as good as singles cut on the coasts. For a while, though, the Gennett parrot was ubiquitous. In 1920, the label sold three million records.

Just when it looked like Henry Gennett had successfully stayed ahead of the technology curve, radio came along. Suddenly, fans didn’t have to own every song they wanted to hear. The coupling of radio and the Great Depression buckled Gennett Records and the Starr Piano Company. In 1935, the label was sold to Decca; in 1952 the largely inactive Starr Piano Company was sold at auction and the Richmond factory was shut down.

The Gennett studio is partially intact today. Although the building was once five stories tall, all that remains is part of

Ths tower is all that remains of the Gennett building today.

the façade – still proudly sporting the Gennett Records logo – and the gutted first floor. The Starr Piano Company’s 60-foot smokestack stands defiantly several yards away from the remains of the studio.

Across the street lies the Gennett Walk of Fame. It was snowy on the day we visited, but someone had taken the time to clear off the markers of several celebrated musicians. The round plaques are meant to resemble a 78 record, and sport a tile mosaic of the artist. A bronze plaque below the 78 contains a brief biography.

It seems most of the Richmond’s current 40,000 residents have forgotten about Gennett Records. The first person we asked for directions had never heard of it, and the only nod to the label outside of the old building and walk of fame was mural on the side of a the 4th Floor Blues Club on the way out of town.

It’s easy to miss the sign for the Gennett memorial. The narrow road is hidden behind a railroad bridge and tucked next to row of businesses. But if you’ve ventured far enough off the beaten path to stumble into Richmond, go a little further and rediscover some great music.

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Key King Artists

 (Above: The groundbreaking “Working on a Building,” which the Swan Silvertones cut for King Records.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

James Brown is certainly the best-known artist to record for Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati-based label, but King Records had forged a reputation long before Brown emerged. For a quarter century, from 1943 to 1968, King recorded some of the top performers in not only R&B, but gospel, jazz, bluegrass, rockabilly, blues and early rock and roll.

Here are some other King artists worth checking out.

Bill Doggett
Organist Bill Doggett was the biggest-selling instrumentalist on King. He joined the label after leaving Louis Jordan’s band in 1951, and recorded several sides with a trio. When the results weren’t what he’d hoped, Doggett added saxophone and guitar to the lineup and scored big hits with “Ding Dong, “Hammer Head” and “Shindig.” Doggett’s biggest success, though, was the 1956 smash “Honky Tonk.” The record sold 1.5 million copies that year, spent seven months on the chart and won several awards Doggett left King for Warner Bros. in 1960 when King owner Syd Nathan refused to increase Doggett’s royalty rate.

Swan Silvertones
Claude Jeter’s Swan Silvertone’s were the biggest gospel act to record for King. They were only with the label for five years, from 1946 to 1951. The 45 songs cut for King bridged the transition from the traditional barbershop-based style of gospel singing to a more spontaneous, emotional approach. Jeter’s duet with co-lead singer Solomon Womack on “Working on a Building” epitomized the potential of the new method and influenced future stars Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke. The Slivertone’s later recordings on Specialty and Vee-Jay receive more attention, but the half-decade at King cemented the group’s sound and reputation.

Charlie Feathers
Rockabilly guitarist Charlie Feathers is one of those criminally forgotten musicians whose talent outshines his reputation. Feathers grew up in Mississippi listening to the Grand Ol Opry, but learned guitar from bluesman Junior Kimbrough. Feathers briefly recorded for Sun before coming to King in 1956. After cutting several raw, visceral rockabilly numbers that went nowhere, commercially speaking, Feathers decided to model himself after Elvis Presley. When the sanitized new records also refused to budge, a frustrated Feathers left King. He bounced around from label to label, continuing to perform until his death in 1998. In 2003, director Quentin Tarantino resurrected a couple Feathers songs for his “Kill Bill” films.

Stanley Brothers
Bluegrass legends Carter and Ralph Stanley were already stars when they signed to King in 1958. That fall, the duo released one of the genre’s landmark albums, an untitled recorded nicknamed after its catalog number, King 615. Along with old-timey mountain music, the Brothers recorded gospel and even R&B numbers, putting their stamp on Hank Ballard’s “Finger Poppin’ Time.” The Stanley Brothers reached new audiences during the folk revival of the early ‘60s, and cut their final album for King in 1965. Carter Stanley died the following year, but his Ralph kept the flame alive. In 2006, Ralph Stanley found improbable acclaim for his a cappella reading of “O Death” on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.

Little Willie John
Soul singer Little Willie John had one of the longer tenures at King, spending one third of his life on the label. Unfortunately, John only lived to 30 and all his success came early. The Detroit native was just 18 when he landed his first big hit, “All Around the World.” In the next few years, John racked up 10 more To 20 R&B hits, including his signature number, “Fever.” A has-been at 25, John struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. He was charged with manslaughter after stabbing a man to death following a concert in Seattle. In 1968, John died in prison.

(Below: “Can’t Hardly Stand It” was one of several great rockabilly songs Charlie Feathers cut for King in the 1950s.)

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