With humble beginnings, the Jazz Studies program at UMKC took a backseat for years to classical and accordion music programs. In 1998, Jazz Studies at UMKC began a transformation. Initially a regional jazz program, it is now recognized nationally, even internationally. Kansas City has become a destination for students looking at a serious career in jazz.
The obvious reason for this transformation is the presence of a master. When Bobby Watson returned to Kansas City after spending several years on the East Coast as a solid New Yorker, the local jazz community had high expectations. Mr. Watson and his leadership have advanced the jazz scene further than imagined at the time. Credit is due to Watson’s stellar choices for the department.
Former co-director Dan Thomas helped expand the department. A program known at the “Kansas City, New York Connection” began bringing world-class musicians to the school. Not only did they interact with the students, the artists performed at local venues. The accessibility of these guest artists not only allowed students to visit with them—in many cases, there were opportunities to jam. or even perform, in concert with these world-class artists.
You may imagine this sort of activity happening in a major music market, like LA or New York, but before 1998, it was almost unheard of in Kansas City. To have this caliber of talent presenting and interacting with local musicians and students is keyworld-class to a thriving jazz scene.
This year, there have been some very exciting new changes in the Jazz Studies portion of UMKC’s School of Music and Dance. This music has spilled out all over the city. Into the nightclubs and concert halls, and not only in Kansas City, but literally around the globe, as students use what they learned here to live their individual dreams.
With the addition of trombonist Mitch Butler to the faculty, a new wave of visiting guest artists has materialized. The Jazz Studies Department is moving forward.
Kansas City is getting a boost, too. Alto saxophonist Dan Thomas, who recently left the UMKC faculty, has been named executive director/CEO of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. This professional repertory orchestra plays four annual concerts a year at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. They also grace private and public performances around the city with a real taste of Kansas City jazz.
In May 2018, the KCJO represented Kansas City in Hannover, Germany. This tour celebrated the designation of Kansas City as a UNESCO World Music City. The recent designation has not yet been fully realized by the city, and having Thomas at the KCJO ought to push this prestigious classification into its proper light.