Friday, July 03, 2009

A Night at the Blue Room

In this case, the Blue Room refers to the jazz club that's attached to the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. It's part of the historic "18th and Vine" area, host to many of the great names in American Jazz in the 30's and 4o's.

I wandered up there last night for an evening's worth of free entertainment. The parking was free (and easy, with the public lot having a few spots when I arrived), admission was free, and the conversation was free. I did end up buying a glass of the house Cabernet, which was not free (though it was tasty).

Walking across the street from where I parked, I listened for the currently playing band. Often, the sounds of the group are piped outside as an enticement to passersby. But tonight, all I heard was Michael Jackson. One of the other buildings seemed to be broadcasting an MJ album to the street, obscuring any live jazz. Only as I approached the door to the club did I hear the faintest hints of the jazz rhythms from the drums.

As one enters the blue room, a wall to the right actually obscures the stage from the door. So the first thing one sees are people sitting at tables with eyes fixed at a spot 20 feet to my right. Nearest to the door was a face I recognize, belonging to a trumpet professor from one of the local universities and former brass band member. We nod in recognition.

I creep my way along the left wall until I can see most of the room and a bit of the stage. Coming from a formal concert etiquette background (where it is the height of rudeness to arrive with music in progress and expect to be seated), I stand to the wall. The man I came to see is currently playing the melody on fluegelhorn. Called the "head" of the tune, it immediately tells me where we are in the form of the current song.

The aforementioned man of the evening is Joe Parisi. In addition to being an ensemble director at UM-KC, he's also chair of the Music Education department. He also happens to be director of the brass band. In addition, he's one of the most passionate and careful musicians (in the "full of care" sense) I know. Well, it turns out he's something of a trumpet player.

It's not really a surprise. He's been involved with the faculty brass quintet whenever they meet, I've performed with him for years at the graduation ceremonies, and he plays here and there with the brass band. But tonight, he was playing as the "guest" artist with a local jazz quartet. And in the course of my narrative, he's currently playing that melody I mentioned earlier.

After Joe finishes his bit and the rhythm carries the ensemble into the first solo section, he turns to me (still against the darkened wall), smiles in recognition, and deliberately nods. I return the gesture and feel many of the eyes in the room slide over to me. "Who's that fellow who got recognized from the stage?" It makes me feel like someone important, even though I am precisely a nobody in the KC jazz scene. My last formal jazz concert was four years ago, and even then I was a last-minute sub on a non-soloing instrument.

I make my way over to a round-top table and high stools one finds at such clubs. With me, I brought a dark notebook. My idea was that while I may know people who might join me later, in the beginning I was just going to be a guy by himself. And as a minor protection against the opinions of the outside world, I brought along a notebook, which I could be seen writing in and assumed to be thinking great thoughts.

Turns out that when a single individual of a certain "scholarly" look enters a jazz club alone, confidently sits at a table by himself, and begins to write in a notebook while watching the stage, people assume he's a music critic. That's certainly a credible assumption, though not the image I was intentionally trying to create. As other friends arrived, they were known to people in the area around me, and several mentioned later that people had been curious who I was and what publication I wrote for. Another fun bonus for me. When friends asked what I was writing, I merely pointed out that Professor Joe was on stage, so there would no doubt be a quiz tomorrow.

One of the great things I appreciate about live jazz is the spontaneity. I love the way live performers are able to react to the world around them. I've seen jazz artists incorporate the sounds of cell phone rings, falling glass, chairs breaking, and other environmental occurrences into the solos. It's one area where jazz excels over other "studied" musical forms.

For example: last night, Joe inserted the opening bassoon solo from Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" into one of his solos. The saxophone soloist picked it up and turned it into a long-form background figure later. It reappeared in a solo in the second set, a full forty minutes after the initial presentation. I love that about jazz; one little ripple can be felt all the way through the evening.

On the conversation side, it was a wide-ranging night. I talked about trombone, auditions, Kansas City band politics, the quality of Missouri bands, mortgages in Michigan, suicide, speed-eating, who's still dating who, and money. At some point, I think I uttered the phrase "chewing is not a luxury," which wasn't the greatest pickup line, I'll admit.

I saw people who are still early in the dating phase, where it's still "weird" to be in public... together. Other friends were very into their significant others. Still others were of the "separate and conquer" theory, finally escaping the house and each other's company and getting some new society. Shouting to each other across the knot of friends: "Need another drink, honey?" "No, I'm fine!" "Okay! -- Now, what were you saying about humidity?"

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