By Kim Mueller
Lonnie McFadden stood smiling beside the piano inspecting his trumpet before beginning his regular gig at The Phoenix where he entertains the Friday night crowd by playing his horn, tap dancing on the bar or singing a variety of songs.
“What you have here is a music venue,” McFadden said before beginning his regular gig at the downtown restaurant and bar that also serves a variety of live music.
“But you definitely are going to hear some jazz tonight right out of the box.”
In fact, every night of the week, 365 days a year, Kansas City jazz can be heard playing somewhere downtown.
When the the Black Dolphin opened last year, became just one of 18 downtown venues offering the distinctive riff-based music along with signature cocktails.
Local musicians routinely rotate among these clubs, often changing their outfits and bands to fit the distinct style of each club and booking. Many of these venues offer a variety of live music, but only a few dedicate their stages just to jazz.
The Blue Room located in the historic jazz district at the corner of 18th and Vine streets, the Blue Room jazz club is attached to an outside corner of the American Jazz Museum at 1616 E. 18th Street.
By day, the Blue Room is a working exhibit where visitors enter through the club’s interior backdoor. By night, the club is filled with jazz lovers.
The atmosphere is friendly and energetic. And the music is free except after 8:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays when patrons pay a $10 cover charge.
“It’s a listening room,” said Andre Tyler, manager at the Blue Room where patrons can buy a drink but not any food.
“Cocktails and live jazz is our focus. There is not a distraction because of food. And the musicians really like that.”
Patrons who forgot to eat before leaving home can buy an $8 Louisiana alligator sausage from Jimmy McCauley’s street stand located at the same corner before going inside to listen to more jazz.
Although the Green Lady and Black Dolphin lounges are neighbors with separate addresses, the properties owned by John Scott actually operate as a single jazz venue, including the Orion Room located in the Green Lady basement.
The staff uniform: black cocktail dresses or black suits with black shirts and bright red ties. Food is limited to two types of snacks plates. And drink tabs started in one location follow patrons when they move to the other two clubs.
“I lead with the jazz and the ambiance,” Scott said. “If it’s between cooks and jazz, I’ll go with the music.”
The Green Lady at 1809 Grand Blvd. offers traditional live jazz acts typically booked six months in advance. The red walls and mid-century lights give a retro feel to the club where patrons sit at the bar, talk at small tables, or cuddle in curved lounges.
The Orion is a smaller, more intimate space with chandeliers hung from the dimly lit ceilings, speakers lined at the top of the walls, and tables scattered throughout the narrow space.
The service bar is for staff only. No standing or waiting allowed. Waiters and waitresses bring drinks to the tables.
Finally, the Black Dolphin at 1813 Grand Blvd. boasts a more contemporary feel with its exposed brick and light bulbs.
While patrons at the other two clubs try to engage in conversation over the band music, patrons who come to the Black Dolphin don’t talk. They only listen.
“I don’t think we intended it to be a listening room, it just evolved that way,” explained bartender Zack Alvey. “We have more fusion jazz and out of town groups here.”
Originally as a saloon and brothel in 1911, the building at 931 Broadway Blvd. is now home to The Majestic Restaurant and its three venues: the private Pendergast Club cigar bar upstairs; The Majestic Restaurant on the main floor; and the Kansas City Jazz Club downstairs.
The Majestic features jazz music seven days a week, with solo piano music on the main floor when the jazz club is closed on Sunday and Mondays.
Although the club does not have a cover charge, patrons must purchase an entrée ($24- $88) at dinner tables or a suggested two drink minimum ($20) at the bar or cocktail tables.
“We can’t just have people taking up a table and listening to music,” said The Majestic Assistant Manager Cap Narine.
“At the end of the day, we are a restaurant not just a jazz club, and we have to make money.”
Don’t miss any downtown news, sign up for our weekly CityScene KC email review here.