Vignettes past and present with esteemed Kansas City jazz drummer and vocalist David Basse.
Part 1 – The Rieger
I am sitting at the bar of 1924 Main in early April 2008 and nursing a glass of Malbec. The bar is situated towards the front of the restaurant near the entrance, leading to the main room where dinner service is in full swing. During the early Nineties, this space used to swing in quite different ways as the Dixie Belle Saloon. For a brief stint under other ownership, this location was also the home of a restaurant and club called The Rieger where I first saw David Basse and his combo perform live.
Unlike 1924 Main’s spacious setting, The Rieger had a long and narrow layout with a shotgun view. The bar was stationed farther into the room as a focal point for a mixed crowd of jazzheads, seedy city dwellers, musicians, well-to-do fans of Basse, and adventurous 20-somethings willing to venture off the beaten path from The Plaza and Westport. Mind you, the Power and Light district didn’t exist nearly twenty years ago. The Crossroads Arts District was a blossoming bohemian stronghold that hadn’t yet been overrun by developers or suburbanites. The Rieger was a rough around the edges nightspot replete with beer, booze, and live music, drawing blacks and whites from up and down the economic spectrum.
In the midst of this urban grit, Basse manned the drum kit and laid down a groove with his combo. He crooned with his smooth voice and caroused with snappy patter. Musically, the band dipped into the blues and scattered jazz throughout the room. Basse made a name for himself with City Light Orchestra during the ’80s and still attracted a following. For some people at The Rieger, the music was a backdrop to the social friction and fusion happening between drinks. For me, it was a sample of live music that veered sharply away from a steady college diet of ’80s New Wave music and roots rock revivalism.
Of course, every native of Kansas City eventually learns a distant fact or two about the city’s jazz history and famous sons like Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Basse was a young gun in this sleepy jazz town trying to invigorate contemporary jazz in KC and make a name for himself. He steeped himself in the tradition, refined his chops, and belted out songs before contemporary audiences. Basse breathed life into our jazz-blues heritage for music lovers like myself.
Over time, we remember moments to savor. I don’t miss The Rieger, but do appreciate its place as a portal to a vibrant experience that the suburbs couldn’t duplicate. Nearly two decades later, a glass of wine at 1924’s bar wets my whistle, but there’s something missing that I long for. It’s the buzz of conversation over a back beat, a sense of being in an ephemeral moment, a patron absorbing the energy that emanates from musicians like Basse who make a scene and are not content to become a social soundtrack for mating rituals.
Part 2 – Looking Back
Later in April 2008, I stroll into Jardine’s and meet Basse for an interview. The jazz club and restaurant is still setting up for the evening, so we walk to the Classic Cup and secure a patio table. We order gin and tonics, settle into our seats as the sun shares its radiant benevolence, and take stock of Basse’s still-evolving career.
David Basse was born in San Jose, California, raised in Nebraska, came to Kansas City when he was 19 years old, and joined Musician’s Union local 41-627. In 1982, he was invited to perform at the City Light Restaurant for a one-night gig that would turn into a seven-year engagement. He led the swingin’ City Light Orchestra, formed with a roster of luminaries such as saxophonist Ahmad Alaadeen and pianist Tim Whitmer. The group released Raised Spirits in 1984, an album that still holds up as a terrific jazz recording. “City Light catapulted us into the spotlight,” says Basse.
In those days, Basse lived on The Plaza in the William Morrow building on Ward Parkway. He sported a pencil-thin mustache, white shirt, tie, and, of course, his signature fedora. The musician did not own a car for seven years and took the bus to get around town. “People began to recognize me and offered me rides across town,” he says.
The drummer-vocalist also kept busy playing gigs at Hotel Phillips with pianist Joe Cartwright as well as dates at Café Lulu, The Rieger, The Point, River City Café, and The Phoenix. At one point, he played nine gigs a week. “We started to come into our own during our late 20s,” says Basse. “We found our voice. It was gigging in the highest sense.”
After recording four albums with City Light during the ’80s, Basse headed to Los Angeles in 1992 where he started collaborating with legendary studio musician Mike Melvoin. Melvoin was awarded a Grammy Nomination in 2004 for his City Light Entertainment release, It’s Always You. Working steady club gigs in L.A. was a challenge because of the abundance of talent. “I played two places regularly, one night a month, for five years,” Basse says.
Eventually, Basse returned to Kansas City to be near family as his parents grew older. Armed with a well-established reputation, Basse immersed himself in the local music scene once again. “I have always been able to come back to Kansas City and work,” he says.
Part 3 – Recordings
“Kansas City is the place where jazz meets the blues,” says Basse about the city’s music scene. Basse backs up this statement with a string of albums that traverse both sides of the blues-and-jazz railroad tracks, exploring these American music forms in traditional and original songs. Kansas City Live, the hipster-meets-sentimental fool of Like Jazz, and the guttural bluesy swagger of Strike While the Iron is Hot represent the broad range of this artist.
He has been fortunate to record with some of the finest local talent around town––Joe Cartwright, Pat Morrissey, Gerald Dunn, Phil Woods, and many others. Old Friends New Point is a prime example of Basse mixing it up with accomplished vocalist Angela Hagenbach, the supreme Bobby Watson on saxophone; drummer Sam Johnson, Jr. (a cofounder of Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz Inc.), Greg Richter on keys, and bassist Matt Pittman. Old Friends New Point was recorded live on a Sunday afternoon on September 9, 2001 at the New Point Grille. The recorded sound is crisp and warm, sizzling and swinging and serenading as the moment dictated during this intimate recording session. Two days later, the world would change on a bright blue-sky morning. Old Friends New Point nailed an enthusiasm and optimism that enlivens the dozen tracks and still sounds refreshing post 9/11. “Moanin” is a showcase for Basse’s bluesy charm, Watson’s feisty sax, and a truly swingin’ rhythm section.
Part 4 -Touchstones
Basse has seen the livelihood of jazz rise and fall like a tide during his time in Kansas City. “A change is coming. You can see the cycle happening,” he says. “The Power and Light District brings a different crowd of folks that weren’t there two years ago. I have met people staying here from Cleveland, St. Louis, and Illinois who have said there’s so much going on.”
The influx of tourists and locals flocking into urban venues is desirable, no doubt, but it is difficult to attract and retain audiences for the satisfying pleasures of live jazz and blues. Modern technology and abundant entertainment options tug on the attention span of younger generations. Hundreds of jazz clubs that thrived in Kansas City’s yesteryear have dwindled to a few dozen like the Blue Room and Jardine’s or other non-traditional venues like Unity Temple. “Needs and lifestyles have changed. Ten to fifteen years ago, we didn’t have Direct TV, Sirius Radio, and iPods to listen to all day,” says Basse. “It’s a fragmented crowd. The musicians have to be crafty.”
Basse leans back in his chair at Classic Cup, stirs his gin and tonic, and does not seem to fret. The shifting terrain for local music will always be subject to availability at clubs, the fickleness of audiences, and an upcoming crop of young musicians that hustle for gigs. Jazz and blues will reach the ears of those who seek it out. “Musicians are going to play and make music,” he says.
Live performance is the preferred showcase for David Basse and so many other working musicians and vocalists––Luqman Hamza, Mark Lowrey, Carol Comer, Brandon Draper, Shay Estes, Mark Southerland’s Snuff Jazz, Angela Hagenbach, Bram Wijnands, John Brewer, Ida McBeth, Megan Birdsall, and others––to excel at entertaining.
For the veteran musician, Basse now focuses less on playing numerous gigs and concentrates instead on performing at events that highlight his talents before particular audiences. At the 2008 Forks and Corks fundraiser for Harvesters, Basse’s warm voice and the sounds of the esteemed City Light Orchestra floated across the Grand Ballroom of Bartle Hall to reach thousands of people noodling for a bite to eat and a sip of wine. When that audience crosses paths with Basse at a smaller venue, then perhaps his distinctive voice and style will register and command full attention.
In one of his many roles in the music business, David presents an oral history of Kansas City music to Elderhostel groups from the University of Texas. An older group of tourists blended with local jazz fans and musicians on an April afternoon upstairs at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Basse knocked out a set and dazzled this crowd with Joe Straws humbly laying down a foundation on bass and Joe Cartwright killing on piano. The combo wisecracked and shared tidbits of local jazz lore with the audience. Different audiences, different motives.
“You find your touchstone. What can I grab and work with?” Basse proposes. “What shows who I am? There are more choices for audiences, so you have to be more focused. State what you do quicker. It’s an interesting challenge for artists. Style is important for an artist.”
Part 5 – 21st Century Music
Basse has expanded his role from a jazz performer to jazz ambassador through the award-winning radio program, “The Jazz Scene,” that airs on Kansas Public Radio on Saturdays, 1-4 PM. On air, Basse reaches 20-30,000 listeners over three hours or, as he puts it, “his closest friends. Radio is a personal medium. This program took away the need to be in a bar every night.”
The program features classic jazz, new releases, information on area performances, and interviews with marquee names in jazz music like Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. “I never play jazz that I don’t like,” says Basse. “I’m not a scholar, but an observer, drummer, and singer. I try to bring jazz music into the 21st century.”
He pairs songs and albums that have a correlation and explains the connection to listeners. For example, he recently matched Miles Davis’ 1960 album Sketches of Spain with the 1986 release Tutu and showed the evolutionary ties. “Miles Davis is someone who stuck with it to the nth degree,” says Basse. “As a musician, he evolves.”
Part 6 – Paying Dues
As a skilled practitioner of jazz blended with the blues, Basse’s style and sound is part of a greater pulse, a magnificent collective heartbeat that thrummed in the chest of men like Charlie Parker and Jay McShann. The old guard of musicians, both famed and forgotten, crafted a Kansas City sound that resonates today. “That strong blues base can be heard in the music of Kevin Mahogany and Bobby Watson,” says Basse. At the same time, he emphasizes that performing jazz and blues goes beyond upholding tradition. “Music has to breathe, flow, and change.”
When Basse takes the stage with longtime peers and friends like Joe Cartwright and Alaadeen, these veterans have no desire to grind familiar tunes into a deeper rut. “We don’t want to play the same old stuff. You don’t want to paint the same painting,” says Basse. “I think about what I want to do and make it better.”
When asked about advice for young musicians, Basse offers a stream of suggestions. “Follow your heart, especially jazz musicians. Pay attention to what is going on. Play your music,” he says. “Why get a job at the telephone company? Once you do, you sell yourself short. Lots of musicians in this town have paid their dues. The Elders, The Rainmakers, BR549, Iris Dement, Connie Dover. If you got talent, then go for it.”
Originally published in Present Magazine, May 2008.
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