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Noticing Neighbors Kansas City Jazz Orchestra



While celebrating their 20th Anniversary season this year, the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra shows it has a long history of bringing people together. The big band offers performances in a variety of ensembles that showcase the talent in different light. This year, they’ve begun the Riff Generation residency, which is a jazz ensemble that is deeply rooted in the spirit of creativity and improvisation. The group has played at the Medallion Theater at Plexpod Westport, which is how we first came to learn about them in a past story. To see smaller groups of the orchestra perform, there is a Summer Series at the Black Box in the West Bottoms. For those who enjoy big band arrangements, the Orchestra offers subscription packages for their performances at the Kauffman Center during the 2022-2023 season. No matter your preference, the musicians offer a way for everyone to enjoy. In a unique sit down conversation, Clint Ashlock shares his perspective on the Kansas City jazz scene. Audiences are coming back together to celebrate the music, and he shares how it makes this season especially meaningful.



Hayley: I'm excited to talk with you today. Could you introduce yourself to our readers?


Clint:

Sure, so we’re the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. We're going into our 20th season as a performing arts group here in Kansas City. Without being too egotistical, I think it's probably safe to say that we are the preeminent big band in Kansas City. Of course, there's The Count Basie Orchestra, which is not really from here. It’s a touring band that uses his name.

We've got a subscription based concert series that's at the Kauffman Center right now. We've been there since 2012, and really have been growing over the last few years. Beyond the concert series, we're getting involved in a lot of education for the community and for students both. Not just for jazz kids, but for anybody who wants to be a jazz kid, whether they play or not. Hayley: How did it start out for you all? Clint: We just started as a second ensemble. Our main stage band at the Kauffman Center is a traditional jazz big band, which is typically 16 plus people, and we have 18 in our group. There's five saxes and four trombones and four trumpets, and we have five people in our rhythm section.


Sometimes we'll feature a guest vocalist or a big name guest artist from elsewhere, but we just started a second ensemble this year called Riff Generation. It is a one year residency that's comprised of well known jazz musicians in town. The applicants this year were truly amazing. Hayley: What makes this second ensemble different? Clint: It's less of the traditionally composed pieces with that orchestral, big band jazz feel—and brings more of the spontaneous, creative, and improvisational jazz to the forefront. It’s that kind of thing. They just had their first concert, the first of this month. I mean, stuff's rolling. We get to do music now that we're in person, and all of that.


Hayley:

Yes, absolutely.


Clint:

It's a really cool organization that is difficult to condense into one sentence, honestly.


Hayley:

It sounds like it. I mean, the group has been around for a long time. With that much history, it’s probably necessary to have deep, trusting relationships so you can play together. What is the community like?


Clint:

In the jazz orchestra, there are a bunch of people in the group that have been in that band since it started 20 years ago. Saxophones, some trumpeters—and then there's also some turnover here and there. But the nature of the Kansas City music scene is pretty indicative of the nature of Kansas City, in that it has these communal, big family vibes. I started as the artistic director in 2013, and before me there were two. The founder, Jim Meyer, who teaches at Kansas City Kansas Community College and is a great saxophonist and educator and dad and cool dude. When Jim stepped down, one of the most legendary big band leaders in Kansas City jazz history, actually, Kerry Strayer, was the artistic director for a while. He took ill with cancer in 2012, and he basically made me take the job. I mean, I wanted to, sure, but I had a band for ten years at Harlings. Do you know Harlings?


Hayley:

Didn’t it used to be in Westport?


Clint:

It did, yeah. It’s this Irish dive bar at the corner of Westport Road in Main Street, right where it crosses. I had this weekly big band every Tuesday night at Harlings for like ten years, and it was all younger people. I mean, at the time, I suppose we were younger—like 30 and under.

Except for this guy, Kerry Strayer, who just wanted to play and kind of be with the younger dudes. He and I became friends, and we're both in that weird kind of zone where we actually wanted to do big band music, which is probably the dumbest thing you can do if you're a jazz musician. He was my predecessor, and then it was me. There have been some executive directors over the years, and our current executive director has been here since right before the pandemic, and some of the long term board members are getting ready to step down. It's a pretty healthy environment, and like I said, I think family probably covers it more than anything.


Hayley:

What have the emotions been like since being able to play for audiences again in person?

Clint:

Oh, my God, are you serious? I'm going to cry just talking about it. It's so great! I don't think there's a person who's decided to play jazz music with their life that hasn't always understood the nature of the relationship between the musician and the audience, because it's really personal music and you get to share that with people very intimately.

When we stopped being able to play for audiences, everybody did the thing where you record your part of the piece and send it and someone who puts all the videos together. I mean, we did that too. It’s up on YouTube, but when we finally started to get back to playing and connecting with audiences, I mean—it was overwhelming. I think that’s probably the best adjective.

It's just beautiful to look out and see people feeling things and enjoying themselves.


Hayley:

That is a beautiful perspective for you all to see people gradually coming together more and more. This last question is really broad, so you can take it wherever you want.


Clint:

I'm super caffeinated, so I'm going to take it really fast!


Hayley:

Do it! (laughs) What goodness and positivity have you seen through your involvement with the orchestra?


Clint:

Oh, my goodness. I'll answer that in two ways: The first way is more internal for musicians. I don't want to speak for everybody, but I think it's pretty universal for musicians that we get to take part in this dialogue that's been happening for over 100 years. There are artists that we learn from who are long since passed on, like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. And here locally, people like Jay McShann and Charlie Parker. There’s also people that are still alive, like Bobby Watson, who's my mentor, and Pat Metheny and these different musicians. I think the nature of learning a craft, like really digging into what an artist was intending and what they meant when they were sharing, is all the same whether you’re seeing it as a performer or an audience observer. Art allows us to share in the perspective of the person that's being vulnerable, and it's offering their feelings and their emotions through their music. Hayley: Right. Clint: When you listen to it, or when you study it—you get to participate in the human experience. And our tiny little perspective is broadened just a bit, if we are open to understanding what Billie Holiday was feeling, or understanding what Louis Armstrong was experiencing.


So to me, that's the greatest part of the music. Whether you're going to a club for a jam session and you're just drinking a couple of milks while hanging out with these musicians and very loosely playing and having a good time—or you really feel something deeply by witnessing a performance on a stage somewhere. It's that collective experience of humanity, I think, that makes this music so beautiful. Hayley: Very well said. Clint: Then there’s the fact that nobody started playing jazz music because they didn't think it was, like, super cool. It's just really fun to play, you get to be creative, improvisational and democratic. Hayley: Democratic, can you explain that? Clint: You're playing with other people, so you have to hear what they're saying and not step over them. Then they do the same for you. It's just the human experience, the collective of being a human being, that's embodied in jazz music the most.


Hayley:

To close us out, do you have a song recommendation? For a summer feel, something that can we go listen to and feel this moment?


Clint:

One song? That's a tougher question than anything! I mean, one obvious choice would be Summertime by Miles Davis, but in my opinion it doesn't sound like summer. Okay, here's what I think. It's Lewis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald: Let's Call the Whole Thing Off. For all people, any season of life—if you're having a great day, this will enhance it. If you're having a bad day, this will uplift it.

Keep up with the latest with Kansas City Jazz Orchestra through their website, Facebook and Instagram. All media originally published by Kansas City Jazz Orchestra via their online platforms.


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