Buried with dignity Finally at rest; Coda Jazz Fund gives late jazz musicians a final measure of pride When last note is played, Coda Jazz Fund is there
The footage is 30 years old, but the decades melt away as you watch the face of Sonny Kenner playing his guitar.
The movie is "The Last of the Blue Devils," the acclaimed documentary about Kansas City jazz . Kenner , 39 at the time, performs on virtually every song behind pianist Jay McShann and blues shouter Big Joe Turner.
Look at Kenner 's face. His eyes are closed. He's smiling. His head bobs with the rhythm.
He looks like a God-struck saint from a Renaissance painting, a soul riding waves of pure bliss.
This was the Sonny Kenner his friends and fans knew best, a man transported by his art, by the music he loved and played so beautifully."I think I would be kind of empty without music," Kenner once told a reporter. "That's all I know."
But music - especially jazz - can be a harsh mistress. In a lifetime of playing, Kenner never found financial success commensurate with his talent. To survive he played all sorts of music - blues and jazz and funk and Latin-inspired rock, even a bit of hip-hop. He gigged at clubs and concerts, school dances and private parties. He gave guitar lessons.
And he worked day jobs. The same hands that coaxed exquisite cascades of notes out of six strings also operated a pants press at a clothing store.
When he died in 2002, Sonny Kenner left behind a wife and five grown children and several self-produced CDs - but not enough money for a proper burial.
Fund provides money
Sadly, Kenner 's story is a common one.
"A lot of these cats, they went out broke" is how Kansas City jazz legend Jay McShann has put it.
"In every city with a large jazz community, you'll find benefit concerts being held to pay the hospital bills or funeral bills of some old player," said Bobby Watson, the veteran saxophonist who runs the jazz program at the UMKC Conservatory of Music. "It's a common thing."
In Kansas City , though, it may be a thing of the past.
Thanks to the Coda Jazz Fund , which began operating shortly after Kenner 's death, the families of Kansas City 's veteran jazz players can pay to bury their loved ones. The single biggest source of money for the fund comes from an annual jazz concert, scheduled this year for May 15.
The Coda Jazz Fund (a coda is a passage formally ending a song or composition) was founded in the spring of 2002 with the intention of raising $100,000 as a permanent source of funding to meet the final expenses of jazz players. Organizers know of only one other outfit in the country - in New Jersey - offering such services.
A volunteer advisory council sets policy. The Greater Kansas City Community Foundation manages the nonprofit effort, investing contributions and disbursing funds.
The Coda Benefit Concert, held each spring in the Gem Theater in the 18th and Vine district, is organized by the American Jazz Museum here. It has emerged as arguably the most important event on Kansas City 's jazz calendar, a gathering of national and local stars. Some of the players get paid at a reduced rate and others volunteer their time.
Local club owners say that the concert has stimulated interest in jazz in Kansas City and that their business has increased because of it.
The first such concert took place at the Gem in May 2002, just weeks after Sonny Kenner's death. The lineup included singers Kevin Mahogany and Ida McBeth, saxophonist Watson and the Jazz Sextet Plus-1. Singer Marilyn Maye stepped in to replace Claude "Fiddler" Williams, who was sidelined by an injury.
It was a sold-out evening.
Last year's second edition offered Kansas City greats Jay McShann and Fiddler Williams (in one of his last public performances), singer Karrin Allyson, horn man Clark Terry, Watson, the Scamps and the Elder Statesmen of Jazz . Another sellout.
This year's lineup
The 2004 edition promises not only a great night of music, but, organizers say, will most certainly push the Coda fund past its $100,000 goal.
"When we started this thing three years ago, we never expected by our third concert to be so close," marveled Lisa Shepard, client accounts executive with the Community Foundation. "The story here is the numbers of people from different walks of life who have come together to make this happen."
Coda was the brainchild of Star columnist Steve Penn. Just a couple of nights after Sonny Kenner's death, Penn visited the Levee, where Kenner used to regularly play. Patrons were dropping cash into a jar on the club's stage, and one of Kenner 's daughters was passing through the audience, selling her father's CDs table to table.
Just to raise money for a funeral.
"That scene broke my heart," Penn wrote in a column that week. "No one - not relatives, not friends - should have to struggle financially to bury a career jazz musician. That certainly should be true in this town, home to some of the most brilliant jazz figures of all time."
Kansas City - a town that too often has embraced its jazz heritage in theory while largely ignoring it in practice - responded.
There have been the volunteers. There have been the corporate sponsors such as Sprint and The Star, which from the beginning have thrown their support behind the benefit concert. More recently Gold Bank and DST have come aboard.
It's unusual for newsroom personnel to serve on local boards. But because Penn, a Star Metropolitan columnist, came up with the Coda idea, he's remained on the advisory board. Randall Smith, deputy managing editor, serves as the board chairman. Because of that, this story was written in the Features Department.
There were also the average citizens who wrote checks or stuffed a few bills into the kitty at Coda events.
Some did more than that.
Lisa Poehlman of Smithville donated $4,500 in honor of her uncle, the late big-band leader Jim Lenge. She recalls as a girl accompanying her uncle to the city's jazz clubs; those nights on the town instilled in her a love of the music that has never faded.
Butch Berman, who operates a nonprofit jazz foundation in Lincoln, Neb. ("I turned my inheritance into a tax shelter that turned into a lifelong calling"), pledged $1,000 a year for life.
Then there are the organizations, small businesses and individuals who donate services, from the stonemason who makes grave markers to local cemeteries and a church providing space for services.
"What's amazing is that so many people are offering services that relatively little money is actually being expended from the fund ," Shepard said.
The elder statesmen
The men we now regard as the elder statesmen of Kansas City jazz came of age in an America divided by color. Because they played a form of music the establishment found morally suspect, they were regarded as outlaws of sorts. Some took that designation to heart.
Liquor. Gambling. Women. Drugs. Many a great jazz man burned out at a young age. Kansas City 's Charlie Parker is a textbook case.
But even those who avoided those excesses found survival a struggle, especially in their later years.
"I've been friends with these musicians," said Berman by telephone from Lincoln . "A lot of them, all they know is music. They didn't get rich. Even the ones who were successful and made lots of records saw the record companies end up with all the money."
"Back then, playing jazz meant a lot a bus riding," Watson said. "If you were black, it meant staying in people's houses, because in certain cities you couldn't check into a hotel or eat in a restaurant."
Because they rarely played in clubs affiliated with the musicians' union, these jazzmen didn't have union benefits. Most were too busy living the life to worry about the future.
"They had lots of fun," Watson said. "The money was good, and they were among the highest-paid professionals in the black community. Many of them owned houses."
But relatively few had enough to establish a nest egg. There were no retirement plans then. And because most were paid in cash after every gig, they only contributed to Social Security if they held down full-time jobs.
"A lot of the die-hard musicians consider it an insult to take a day job," said Pam Hider Johnson of the Elder Statesmen of Jazz , an organization that attempts to meet many of the needs of the city's aging players.
Forget about health and life insurance. Relatively few jazz players had the money for such frivolities.
"Nobody wants to think that after being a somewhat famous musician you die not having enough money to be buried," said Gerald Dunn, 37, a player and the director of education at the American Jazz Museum . "But what's happening to these older guys could have happened to me. Because I work at the jazz museum, I'm lucky enough to have insurance. But I never had any insurance before getting this job."
All too often, jazz players delay medical treatment because they cannot afford the expense, Watson said. "They put off going to the hospital as long as they can. They're dying of poverty."
Buried with dignity
On a breezy warm day in April 2002, the Coda Jazz Fund officially went to work. About 40 members of the jazz community gathered in Lincoln Cemetery , east of Interstate 435 and north of Truman Road - just a stone's throw away from the grave of Charlie Parker - to place a headstone on the final resting place of bassist David Daahoud Williams, who died in 1998.
As Penn and Dunn set the stone in place, the musicians in the crowd lifted their instruments and saluted the fallen jazz man with a bopping rendition of Parker's "Now Is the Time."
Since then the ritual has been repeated nearly a dozen times. The Coda fund has provided monuments or full funerals for such players as trumpeter Oliver Todd, singer/dancer Speedy Huggins, pianist Elbert "Coots" Dye, pianist Lonnie V. Newton, bandleader Lawrence Wright Jr. and saxophonist Rudolph "School Boy" Dennis, who replaced Charlie Parker in Jay McShann's band.
Who qualifies for assistance from the Coda fund ? Career local jazz musicians whose estates were insufficient to pay funeral expenses or buy a grave marker. Their families must prove financial need. And there's a $2,000 cap on the money given for an individual.
The support for the Coda fund took even its organizers by surprise, and it has set people to thinking about the fund 's long-term function.
Some would like to see an emphasis on educating the young so that there continues to be an audience here for jazz . Others believe the fund should address the health of the players still out there, perhaps by offering group health insurance.
Still others envision the fund as an umbrella or clearinghouse for the organizations and agencies in Kansas City that work to meet the needs of the aging musicians.
All agree that the fund 's original purpose - to bury the dead - isn't going to go away. Many a player now in his 50s or 60s will check out broke, they say.
Now, at least, they'll be buried with dignity.
Robert W. Butler is a writer for The Star. To comment on this story, call
(816) 234-4760 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here's the lineup of the 2004 Coda Jazz Fund Benefit Concert scheduled for 7:30 May 15 at the Gem Theater. Ticket prices range from $50 to $125 and are available from Ticketmaster. (816) 931-3330.
Jay "Hootie" McShann returns to the Coda Jazz Fund Concert after his triumph last year.
The undisputed king of living Kansas City jazz , this self-taught pianist has played professionally for more than 70 years. A Kansas City resident since 1936, McShann filled the void left by the departure of Count Basie's band in the late '30s by forming his own ensemble featuring such players as bassist Gene Ramey, drummer Gus Johnson, singer Walter Brown and, briefly, the young alto saxophone player Charlie Parker.
Following World War II, McShann moved to Los Angeles for a few years, leading small combos behind singer Jimmy Witherspoon. He then returned to Kansas City , which became his home base; for nearly two decades he played local clubs, toured the Midwest and raised two daughters. Forced by financial constraints to perform with small groups or as a solo act, McShann developed his singing voice, a reedy tenor that perfectly complemented the blues-based piano jazz that has become his signature style.
Rediscovered by jazz enthusiasts in the late '60s, the Muskogee , Okla. , native began nearly 20 years of nonstop touring in the United States and overseas. His reputation increased with the release in 1979 of Bruce Ricker's documentary "The Last of the Blue Devils," in which he was teamed with blues singer Big Joe Turner for a series of memorable performances. He has continued to record over the years. Amazon.
com makes available more than 40 McShann albums.
Most recently McShann was featured in the Clint Eastwood-directed "Piano Blues" segment of last fall's PBS series "The Blues."
Like J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, bop great Curtis Fuller has made the trombone a superb lead instrument, capable of leaping between octaves and firing off phrases while maintaining a sense of fluid lyricism and impeccable rhythm.
Fuller cut his musical teeth in an Army band alongside Cannonball Adderley. After gigs in Detroit with Kenny Burrell and Yusef Lateef, he moved to New York and made his recording debut. During the years, Fuller has cut albums for the Blue Note, Prestige, United Artists, Warwick, Smash, Epic, Impulse!, Mainstream, Timeless, Beehive and Savoy labels.
A charter member of the Jazztet with Benny Golson and Art Farmer, Fuller played with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers from 1961 to '65. He toured Europe with Dizzy Gillespie and during the '70s experimented with hard bop played in part on electronic instruments. He later toured with the Count Basie Band, co-led the quintet Giant Bones and played with groups led by Blakey, Cedar Walton and Golson. During the '80s, he toured Europe with the Timeless All-Stars.
Singer Jon Hendricks is acclaimed for his uncanny ability to write lyrics to complex jazz improvisations.
The Toledo , Ohio , native spent several years after World War II studying law before concluding that his future was in music. He became a founding member of the classic jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, which first gained acclaim by re-creating vocal versions of famous Count Basie tunes. Lambert, Hendricks & Ross influenced a generation of jazz vocalists, especially Manhattan Transfer.
In 1960, Hendricks wrote and directed the production "Evolution of the Blues" for the Monterey Jazz Festival; that show has been revived several times over the decades. He spent several years playing in Europe, then moved to San Francisco, where he wrote about jazz for the San Francisco Chronicle, taught and formed the Hendricks Family, a musical group featuring his wife, Judith, and children Michelle and Eric, as well as other singers, among them Bobby McFerrin.
James W. "Red" Holloway has been playing music since the age of 12, when his stepfather presented him with a tenor saxophone. Over the years he has become proficient on the banjo, harmonica, clarinet, flute, piccolo, piano, bass, drums and violin.
Born in Arkansas , Holloway grew up in Chicago . At age 16 he was hired as a professional musician by bassist Gene Wright (later of the Dave Brubeck Quartet); for three years he played with Wright's big band at Chicago 's Parkway Ballroom. At age 19, Holloway enlisted and became bandmaster for the U.S. Fifth Army Band.
After his discharge, Holloway returned to the Windy City to work with Yusef Lateef and Dexter Gordon; in the late '40s he toured with blues vocalist Roosevelt Sykes. His work so impressed other bluesman that he soon found himself playing and recording with legends like Willie Dixon, Junior Parker, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Lloyd Price, John Mayall, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Aretha Franklin, Arthur Prysock and B.B. King.
Though he often is described as a bluesman, Holloway has impeccable jazz credentials, having worked with Ben Webster, Jimmy Rushing, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Sonny Rollins, Red Rodney, Lester Young, Sonny Stitt and Lionel Hampton.
In the early '60s, he was an essential member (with guitarist George Benson) of Brother, Jack McDuff's ensemble. For 15 years he was the talent coordinator for L.A. 's hotbed of jazz and blues, the Parisian Room.
In recent years Holloway has maintained a musical partnership with Clark Terry, who was a guest at last year's Coda Jazz Fund Benefit Concert.
The McFadden Brothers
Kansas City natives Ronnie and Lonnie McFadden grew up hearing great music - their father was local bandleader and hoofer Smilin' Jimmy McFadden. Small wonder the brothers ended up singing, playing and, especially, dancing.
Lonnie McFadden quit Lincoln High School at 16 to go on the road with his first band, the pop-rock ensemble Clyde N'em & Her. Six months later, after a stint in Las Vegas , he returned to KC and recruited younger brother Ronnie for a new group.
The siblings have performed together ever since, touring in the United States and abroad. Ronnie plays alto sax and choreographs; Lonnie specializes in trumpet and provides the musical arrangements. Both are accomplished tap dancers whose routines have been compared to those of the Nicholas Brothers.
Their talents were showcased in "After Hours," a long-running show at Union Station that re-created life in a KC jazz club in the 1930s; they also displayed their acting chops in the Coterie children's theater production "The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show." For years they were regulars at Branson's Wayne Newton Theatre.
The Wild Women
of Kansas City
These four local singers offer a world of experience, emotion and talent. They are:
Geneva Price: This versatile performer sings with grace, style and "a kind of clarity and conviction that elevates the music above the level of mere ` jazz ,'" according to Ingram's magazine.
Myra Taylor : Her career began in the '30s at the Sunset Club on 12th Street and she had a big hit with "Spider and the Fly." At 87, she's as spunky as ever.
Lori Tucker: Her musical tastes range from jazz to R&B, blues and gospel. A featured guest with the famous Ink Spots, she has performed locally with Everette DeVan and the late Richard "Groove" Holmes.
Millie Edwards Nottingham : She's the tiny woman with the big voice that has made her a regular on the local jazz and blues circuit. She's also frequently heard on radio and television spots. One of the KC's best-kept secrets.
- Robert W. Butler
Before the concert on May 15, three free noontime performances have been planned for the food court at One Kansas City Place, 12th and Main streets.
The shows feature the Elder Statesmen of Jazz and high-school musicians between 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
May 12: Leon Brady's KC Jazz Band
May 13: The Lincoln High School Jazz Band
May 14: The Olathe East High School Jazz Band