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Crawl Space

Westport overflows with jazz -- for one night.


With a room whose acoustics magnify every percussive pound and gargantuan riff, the Hurricane might be the perfect venue for loud bands. Jazz, however, seems like an unexpected fit. High volume isn't exactly key in this improvisational art form, which encourages the use of mutes on trumpets and wispy brushes on drums. And unlike the smoke-free Blue Room, the Hurricane doesn't do players' lungs any favors -- they might trade their saxophones for foghorns.

On Thursday, June 19, though, the Hurricane hosts the Oscar Polk Band, known for its brassy covers of everything from Wilson Pickett to Steely Dan. This isn't the oddest venue ever played by Polk's crew, which has a standing gig at Ameristar Casino's Depot No. 9. And it's not the first time the Hurricane has hosted a horny ensemble -- swingmaster Dave Stephens has packed the place. But seeing Westport's signature rock house devote an almost-weekend evening to jazz should raise some eyebrows. And if shocked spectators take shelter at the reliably retro Have a Nice Day Café in search of normalcy -- only to find jazz guru Bobby Watson holding court with the Bram Wijnands Trio -- they might inspect their fishbowls for wormholes, thinking that they've stumbled into a seismic shift in time that has restored Kansas City to its jazz era.

Actually, these unorthodox offerings are the result of the Jazz Lovers Pub Crawl. After years of using buses to move commuting crawlers to clubs, the event's organizers have decided to set up shop in Westport. The Crawl includes familiar jazz havens (McCoys serves up Greg Meise, Blayney's delivers Duck Warner) and other area institutions, tapping Kelly's for the Scamps and Harpo's for the 12th Street Revue. With the exception of Have a Nice Day, all of the participating venues present live music regularly, and several of them even incorporate some element of jazz occasionally. However, Westport isn't exactly known as a jazz neighborhood.

"The Pub Crawl is turning Westport into a jazz mecca for one night," explains Jazz Ambassadors President Hal Melia. "We consider this a tremendous outreach opportunity, and we hope that patrons will embrace this historic American art form."

If they don't, the Jazz Ambassadors will try again in a different part of town. The Plaza, home of the Club at Plaza III and Jardine's -- where the sax-playing, scat-singing Melia's own UMKC Faculty Trio, with pianist Wijnands and drummer Tommy Ruskin, plays on June 23 -- figures to be the next lucky locale. Regardless of how the Westport walkabout goes, Melia says the old far-flung format is finished. This contradicts the Ambassadors' Web site (, which promises the traditional citywide Crawl "will return this fall or next summer."

"We have dumped the buses," Melia confirms. "The old way is dead."

In his "President's Corner" column in the current issue of Jam, Melia lists several reasons for that decision -- number one is the financial shortcomings of the past two Crawls. But eliminating the event's geographic sprawl isn't just a cost-cutting move. Before, the Crawl resembled the CMJ Music Marathon in New York, a frustrating festival that offers hundreds of bands playing simultaneously in a massive metropolis. Now, it approximates Austin's South by Southwest, a buffet-style presentation of dozens of outlets along a single strip.

With its high club concentration, Westport was a logical choice for the first installment. But 18th and Vine seems like a more natural setting. It looks like it, too -- if only those fake Kansas City nightspots could actually open their doors. There's a sign that the Red Vine might join the Gem Theater, the Peach Tree and the American Jazz Museum's Blue Room as an option within the next couple of years. (A poster announcing the club's name recently appeared in the window of its proposed location.) When that happens, it might be tempting to make this neighborhood the Pub Crawl's permanent home.

However, we favor a regional rotation. At least for one night, jazz belongs in Neiner's up north, in Kabal at the River Market, in the Bunker in Independence and in the Brick downtown. It should get a shot in all the clustered clubs in Mission, Overland Park and Olathe. Jazz still thrives close to its birthplace, but it's time to leave the nest. That's why the Pub Crawl works. There, jazz can act like a just-turned-21 party hound: hitting the Hurricane and Have a Nice Day, flirting with strangers and bringing a few folks home.

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