On a small, dimly lit stage in one of Kansas City’s oldest live jazz venues, singer-songwriter, producer and jazz vocalist Lee Langston serenades a packed audience.
Fans and aspiring artists have flocked to The Phoenix every Friday night for more than two decades. There, Langston wraps them in sultry covers of funk, pop, R&B and jazz hits on the first floor of the old hotel in the former clothing district.
Langston says he has remained a mainstay of the local jazz scene due to his willingness to lead the next generation of musicians.
“I made sure to provide a platform for other musicians or singers or spoken word artists,” he says, “by giving them a place where they can come and hone their craft, you know, every single week.”
That commitment means Langston sometimes gets to share the stage with musicians he says he’s “flowed into since they were kids.”
“Now they walk in the door and perform the same nights,” Langston says.
Langston has reaped the benefits of being a jazz artist from and in Kansas City. But many others didn’t gain prominence until they left town, and some gained worldwide fame faster than they could have close to home. This includes such luminaries as Hermon Mehari, Logan Richardson and Oleta Adams.
“Eric Lynn who is (another) artist from here who moved,” says Langston. “When they wrote some stuff about him a few years ago, it gave me joy to see him say…there are people like Lee Langston who have paved the way.”
This pattern of leaving the area, or instead making it elsewhere, is why Langston and others are now partnering with the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. In an effort to help nurture the next generation of musicians, the ensemble hosts masterclass programs, quarterly seminars, and other clinics.
A concert on Friday called The Future is part of that effort. It will pair Langston with the orchestra’s 18-piece big band and give students at Kansas City Kansas Community College and Soundwave Academy a chance to perform alongside the pros.
“Kansas City and jazz, you know what I mean?” says Langston. “To say you’re out of Kansas City and even say the word ‘jazz,’ people get it right away — and if they don’t get it, they have to sit down and do a little bit of research.”
Bringing jazz to the cafeteria
Jazz Orchestra Executive Director Leah Petri is the architect of the concert and many of the organization’s educational efforts.
His inspiration for one such program came from a childhood memory at Boone Elementary when Kansas City jazz legend Sonny Kenner came to play for an assembly.
“I was probably 7, 8, I think, and I thought that was the coolest thing,” Petri says. “The funny thing is, she never left me.”
Thirty years later, Petri updated that idea for a pilot program called the Jazz Café.
“We send out a trio, they play during lunch hours, and it’s generally not a cost to schools. The kids enjoyed it and the teachers said they really had a better afternoon afterwards,” she says.
“My goal — and I don’t care if anyone knows or if anyone imitates it — is to really focus on educating Kansas City kids about what jazz is in a fun way,” adds Petri.
Educating for the future
This weekend, some of Alyssa Bell’s students will be the opening act for the Orchestra in one of the most glitzy venues in town.
“It’s a really great experience,” says the co-founder of Soundwave Academy. “Being at the Kauffman Center and performing with the singers — which doesn’t happen very often — is just a lot of new and exciting stuff for the students.”
Bell’s nonprofit offers six-week sessions teaching ear training, music theory, and chamber music. Since 2019, they have built a teen-led ensemble of classically and contemporary trained musicians who hail from all over the city.
“We have 12 string players, two saxophonists and a pianist,” he says, some of whom are led by members of the orchestra.
“I am happy to have this relationship with the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra and to be able to help provide this opportunity for children,” Bell says. “Putting these professionals on a more human level with these guys makes it easier to relate to them and makes their dream seem like something more attainable.”
Bell admits that not every student who attends the nonprofit program will end up pursuing music, but says that’s not the only goal.
“They’re not trying to create conservatory-level players, necessarily,” he says. “They’re just trying to help these kids get out, get into college and have a safe place, where they can use their minds.”
If just a few of those young minds can make a career in jazz in Kansas City, this art form could have a bright future in one of its original birthplaces.