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(Above: The Night Tripper gets “Qualified” back in the day.)

By Joel Francis

While in Jacksonville, Fla. this past weekend for a wedding, I was able to sneak away from my duties as a groomsman long enough to check out the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. On Friday night I arrived in time to catch the last half of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s performance witht St. John’s River City Band. The local big band was well-prepared and sounded great, but their charts didn’t add much to the two songs I heard. “Blue Rondo a la Turk” was perfect the way Brubeck, Paul Desmond and company recorded it 50 years ago. It was interesting to hear the arrangement augmented with a battery of brass, but they certainly didn’t add anything new to the number.

The River City Band’s contribution to set closer “Take Five” fared better, if only because the structure of Brubeck’s signature song is more elastic. Brubeck has been required to end every night with this number for decades, yet he keeps finding new ways to interpret this song and keep it fresh.

Brubeck, who was supported by sax man Bobby Militello, drummer Randy Jones and his son Chris Brubeck on electric bass, reportedly played for about an hour, but we were lucky to even get that much. During his set, the conductor of the St. John’s River City Band announced that Brubeck had been hospitalized in March and put extra time in rehab to be in shape by May and fulfill his date in Jacksonville.

Dr. John took the stage after a short break. Backed by a guitar/bass/drums trio dubbed the Lower 911, his set was considerably louder but no less spirited that Brubeck’s. Opening with “Iko Iko,” John strolled through his catalog, treating the audience to “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Tipitina,” “Junco Man,” “Accentuate the Positive,” “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and several songs off his latest album, “The City that Care Forgot,” an angry diatribe against the government’s treatment of his native New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

As evidenced in the song listing above, John pulled heavily from his early ‘70s stint on Atlantic. The highlight of these tunes was “Qualified,” a lesser-heard, energetic album cut off “In the Right Place.”

Because of the perpetual heavy rains that have peppered Jacksonville for the better part of May, Friday night’s shows were delayed and pushed indoors to the Times-Union building. The facility has two stages; the auditorium Brubeck and John shared was about the size of Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College. Although the balcony was closed, the floor was packed, giving Brubeck a slightly larger audience than the one he played to in Kansas City last fall at the Folly Theater. John must have been pleased with the turnout, which was considerably larger than the crowds he usually plays to at the Beaumont Club.

The explanation for the crowd size lies in the Jacksonville Jazz Festival’s dirty little secret: it’s free. Although the festival featured names like Simone, Chris Botti, Stanley Clark, former Miles Davis drummer Jimmy Cobb, Roberta Flack and Bill Frissel scattered on four outdoor stages throughout downtown, the art, beverage and food vendors were the only people asking for money.

Their demographics don’t pefectly align, and Jacksonville’s metro population of 1.3 million makes it about a half a million people smaller than Kansas City. It is frustrating to see Kansas City unable to support and sustain paid events like the Rhythm and Ribs Festival and Spirt Festival while free shows like Jacksonville’s Jazz Festival flourish. What would it take to see a similar event take root and become an annual highlight in Kansas City? Perhaps we should pick some of Jacksonville’s brightest minds to find out.

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(Above: Joseph Sanders, left, and Carleton Coon.)

By Joel Francis

The music Carleton Coon and Joseph Sanders made for a dozen years together helped put Kansas City jazz on the map. Their Nighthawk Orchestra may have broken up in 1932, but it’s two bandleaders have been silently reunited for 40 years at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Kansas City.

Coon and Sanders first met at a downtown Kansas City music store in 1918. Tall, handsome and quick-tempered Sanders, was an amateur baseball player on leave from the Army. He was practically the antonym of the pudgy, extroverted Coon. Despite their physical and temperamental differences, both men quickly found they shared a love of jazz and complementary tenor voices.

The following year, when Sanders got out of the Army, the two teamed up, formed a jazz combo and started booking gigs around Kansas City. With Coon handling business, Sanders writing songs and city boss Tom Pendergast ignoring prohibition with his “wide open” bars, clubs and brothels, the Coon-Sanders Novelty Orchestra was soon one of town’s in-demand outfits.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, 1922, the orchestra was booked to play on radio station WDAF. The success of that performance helped launch their weekly show, broadcast from 11:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. When the announcer let slip that “anyone who’d stay up this late to hear us would have to be a real night hawk,” thousands of listeners spread across Canada, Mexico and most of the United States let him know that they were proud to be “night hawks.”

Sanders quickly penned a theme song “Night Hawks Blues” and the pair rechristened their ensemble the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra. In 1924, they recorded for the Victor record label in Chicago and agreed to let burgeoning Chicago promoter Jules Stein book a four-week tour. Stein parlayed his profits from that tour into his own booking company, which he called Music Corporation of America, or MCA.

On the strength of that tour, the Night Hawk Orchestra relocated to Chicago where their performance opening the Balloon Ballroom of the Congress Hotel was broadcast on KYW. Two years later, they moved to the Blackhawk Restaurant where fan Al Capone frequently left $100 tips for the band. On the strength of WGN radio broadcasts and reputation built playing around Chicago (including Capone’s Dells supper club in Morton Grove, Ill.), the Coon-Sanders Orchestra relocated once again in 1931.

Broadcasting weekly from Terrace Room in the Hotel New Yorker on CBS radio, Coon and Sanders found themselves in the same Big Apple circles as Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo. Coon loved the night life, frequenting the Cotton Club and other Harlem jazz clubs, and making friends with Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.

Sanders, on the other hand, was less enamored. He longed for the Midwest and made his sentiment plain the final number recorded by the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra, “I Want to Go Home.”

Unfortunately, circumstances forced the bandleaders’ hands. Popular taste was shifting away from the Caucasian stylings of Coon and Sanders and toward all-black ensembles like the Ellington, Calloway and Kansas City’s Bennie Moten orchestras.

These circumstances, coupled with the Great Depression, forced the Night Hawks back to Chicago in April, 1932, for an engagement at the College Inn. Sander’s delight to be back in familiar territory was tempered when Coon was admitted to the hospital in critical condition. He died a few weeks later from blood poisoning from an abscessed tooth.

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Coon’s 1932 funeral was one of the largest Kansas City had seen. Although his procession carried on for miles, his band’s legacy did not stretch so far. Less than a year after Coon’s death, Sanders dissolved the group and moved to Hollywood to write movie scores. Although Sanders was active in music for the rest of his life, he never regained the popularity he found with the Nighthawk Orchestra. In 1965, he died after having a stroke and was buried about 200 yards sound of his friend, Carleton Coon, at Mt. Moriah Cemetery.

Today, the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra is a footnote in the Kansas City jazz story that includes big bands lead by Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Andy Kirk and Jay McShann, and soloists like Big Joe Turner, Mary Lou Williams, Walter Page and, of course, Charlie Parker. But Coon and Sander’s early triumphs helped paved the way for all who followed them out of Kansas City.

Ironically, the Night Hawks are most celebrated in Huntington, West Virginia, where the Coon Sanders Nighthawks Fans’ Bash has been held on the weekend after Mother’s Day for 39 years.sanders

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Above: “Comfortably Numb” from the 1994 tour.

By Joel Francis

Seven a.m. Saturday morning, is a brutal time to be awake, particularly when you’re 16. It was even worse in the cold weather we faced that day, standing in line outside the Hy-Vee grocery store. But no one among the 300 or so of us lined up where complaining: Pink Floyd was coming to Kansas City.

It was the biggest crowd I’d seen at Hy-Vee. Guys were walking inside to buy six-packs of liquid warmth, passing cans along the line and relieving themselves against the wall. Elderly, crack-of-dawn shoppers paused in front of the assembly and asked if they could go right in. One old lady asked why we were all waiting in the cold. One guy responded we were hoping for a sale on melons. That drew a big laugh.

In the days before the Internet, you had to buy tickets in person. Although the gonzo days of camping out at the box office were long past, it still paid to show up somewhat early. At some point management would pass out line numbers to the assembly, then draw a number at random. The person holding that number was first and the line started from there. If you showed up after line numbers were distributed you (hopefully) got bad seats or heard those two dreaded words – sold out.

Finally our effort was rewarded. Upper deck, 40-yard line. Not the greatest seats, but we were in. The remaining tickets were long gone by dinnertime. Even though the band was playing Arrowhead Stadium, the largest venue in town, it was one of the fastest sell-outs in local history.

Winter gave way to spring and the excitement built. At long last the tour commenced at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami. As the psychedelic trio snaked their way across America I was inadvertently trailing them. A church trip found us in Columbus, Ohio the night of the show. I remember the drunken revelry waking me in our motel room as the joyous throng returned. It was hard falling back asleep with that much energy flowing just outside the door. My summer job took me to Minnesota the day after the band played Minneapolis. Everywhere I went people were talking Pink. It was the summer of Floyd.

On June 20 the Pink Floyd descended on Kansas City. Our newspaper, The Star, ran a two-page chronicle of the band’s history. One fan interviewed for the story bragged about the line of dates he had tattooed on his arm – one for each time he’d seen the band. Some lucky, longtime fans had seen them play Kemper Arena on the Animals Tour in 1977. A lot more had seen them play Arrowhead just seven years earlier on the Delicate Sound of Thunder tour. I had never seen them before, but I didn’t care. I was getting to experience them now.

As the sun lowered over Interstate-70, Stadium Drive was gridlocked. People were openly smoking weed and drinking in their cars. They hopped out to take a leak behind trees and bushes in lawns along the way. One large bush was particularly popular, but when an overweight woman decided to use it about a dozen guys hurriedly scattered back to their vehicles.

There was a popular grocery store commercial where Arrowhead Stadium was transformed into a BBQ grill and smoke rose from the bowl as meat sizzled on its field. I imagine passing cars were treated to a similar spectacle as everyone inside lit whatever they brought to mellow out before the show. The band opened with “Astronomy Domine,” but thanks to The Star we already knew that. They didn’t do the complete “Dark Side of the Moon,” but we got several of its stronger tracks, including “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Breathe.” Two vicious pigs emerged from the speaker towers during “One of These Days.”

The most powerful moment for me was “Comfortably Numb.” During “Numb” a huge mirror ball emerged from the soundboard and effects area near the back of the field. At the point where the song fades out on record, David Gilmour was just getting started. He laid into a ferocious solo as the mirror ball opened and slowly rotated. The 80,000-seat stadium was transformed into an intimate campfire as Gilmour, keyboard player Rick Wright, drummer Nick Mason and their accompanying musicians kept building and building. After what seemed like a rapturous eternity, the song thundered to an end and the band said left the stage. The encore set of “Hey You” and a searing version of “Run Like Hell” was a great coda to a spectacular evening.

Preserved for nearly 15 years, these memories came flooding back to me when I learned that Rick Wright lost his battle to cancer today. I saw Roger Waters on his solo tour at Kemper Arena in 1999 – he premiered the song “Each Small Candle” at our concert. I was surprised at how excited I got watching the quartet finally reunite on live TV in London just hours before the Get Up Kids final show at the Uptown Theater in 2005. Honestly, though, the Floyd haven’t been a major part of my listening diet for a long time. I guess the same thing that kept me away from their records for so long brought me closer to Rick Wright today – I can cue up any of his notes from any of their albums any time I want in my head.

Set list: (opening set) Astronomy Domine, Learning To Fly, Whad Do You Want From Me, On the Turning Away, Poles Apart, Take It Back, Sorrow, Keep Talking, One Of These Days //(second set) Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Breathe, Time, Breathe Rep, High Hopes, The Great Gig In the Sky, Wish You Were Here, Us and Them, Money, Another Brick in the Wall (part two), Comfortably Numb//(encores) Hey You, Run Like Hell

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