Kansas City’s jazz community works to hook the next generation


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A steady thump of bass quiets the wiggling toddlers and preschoolers gathered in the atrium of the American Jazz Museum.

Two-year-old Isaac Newcomer, who’s here from Overland Park with his mom, settles his little legs, too.

From up front, close to the upright bass and drums, jazz singer and storyteller Lisa Henry scans the crowd.

“Raise your hand if it’s your first time,” she says. “Well, here’s what we do... We move and we groove and we scat and we listen to stories.”

A scene like this happens at 10 a.m. on the first Friday of every month, when the museum presents Jazz Storytelling. The events bring parents and kids from city and suburb to Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine district.

It’s one way the jazz community is imparting the city’s unique musical heritage to a new generation. It takes work, because musical tastes have changed.

“Jazz hasn’t been a popular music for quite some time,” said Doug Talley, a local jazz musician and teacher.

“Even many middle-aged people were not part of the population when jazz was popular.”

That’s why Henry and Brother John Anderson are at the museum — to share the beat and bring kids to their feet.

“Hell-o, how-are-ya, pleased to meet-ya. Hell-o, how-are-ya, pleased to meet ya.”

Isaac’s eyes brighten as Henry finds him seated on the floor.

“Are you gonna have fun today?” she asks.

He grasped her hand tightly, awed by his moment with today’s celebrity.

“High-five,” Henry says before reaching for another child.

Isaac and his mom, Beth Newcomer, make the trip often from Johnson County so they can be part of the experience.

“It’s fun to get him out and expose him to something new,” Newcomer says, as she keeps an eye on 8-month-old Simon in his stroller. “He doesn’t go to day care, and this is one way to get him around other kids.”

The next hour includes more songs as bassist Tyrone Clark and drummer Mike Warren steer the background tunes to a jazzy “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and to a regular stomping and clapping rhythm game.

Jazz Storytelling has been around for a dozen years.

It’s easy to feel Kansas City’s jazz history at the museum, connected to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on 18th Street. Its walls are pocked with timelines and portraits of the jazz greats who brought their shows to town.

Outside, dated signs hint at the district’s past, while shuttered buildings keep the spirits inside.

Fans find their way to the Blue Room and the Gem Theater, home to the Kansas City jazz style that includes a mellower blues mixed with the spontaneous jumps known in jazz.

Here, civic officials looked the other way during Prohibition and let the libations flow with the melodies. More than 50 clubs once operated in this neighborhood, where Count Basie and Charlie Parker honed their talents.

The jazz scene today, though smaller, continues to reach out to younger players across the area, aiming to instill a love of the city’s sound.

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