Claude 'Fiddler' Williams Fires Up K.C. Jazz & Blues Fest

Weekend's 10th annual event also features Medeski Martin & Wood, Myra Taylor, pianist Jay McShann.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This weekend's 10th annual Kansas City Blues & Jazz Festival honored local violinist Claude "Fiddler" Williams, emotive vocalist Myra Taylor and pianist Jay McShann — who, along with guitarist Duke Robillard, charged up a Saturday night crowd with music that transcended boundaries of time and style.

The festival began on Friday and culminated Sunday, offering a cross-pollination of musical styles on three different stages, from the 1960s jump-blues style of local favorite Four Fried Chicken and a Coke and blues guitarist Robert Lockwood Jr., to Williams, who demonstrated on "Moten Swings" that, even at 92, he can still swing a crowd.

Eschewing the arrogance that often comes from a performer of his stature, Williams smiled between songs, amusing listeners with sentimental comments of Andy Kirk, Mary Lou Williams and others who helped to define early jazz in Kansas City.

Friday night's jazz performances came dressed in traditional and nontraditional clothing. The evening featured groups as diverse as locals Club Inferno and the forward-thinking improvisations of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, who demonstrated that he has emerged from the shadows of his father, John, and is quietly and finally starting to carve his own musical territory.

The mystique surrounding Medeski Martin & Wood is genuine. The group entranced the audience, creating an almost incantatory atmosphere. Much of the music was from Tonic, their latest Blue Note recording.

But the Kansas City Festival isn't just about providing diverse musical pleasures; it's also about providing a musical direction for the next generation of performers.

Class Acts And More

Nothing has highlighted the festival's growth as much as its Soul School, which provides music workshops for aspiring musicians.

Officials expected that, by the end of the festivities, more than 1,000 students will have participated in the workshops, which include everything from guitar seminars to private piano lessons. This year's instructors are pianist Henry Butler, saxophonist Bobby Watson, guitarists Robillard, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Charlie Musslewhite and vocalist Little Milton.

But it's the music that most had come to hear.

When Brown performed Saturday night, he left the crowd with no regrets. Mixing a blend of blues, country and some of jazz's more standard arrangements, Brown and his quintet fired up the Heritage Stage.

Backstage earlier, pacing and puffing hard on a small black tobacco pipe, Brown talked about how the music business has changed, but how each concert remains special and how every audience deserves the best that a musician has to offer.

And he didn't disappoint the crowd that grew with anxiety and excitement with each song. Brown bounced from guitar to violin and back again with ease. During solos from other bandmembers, he looked on, at times like a fan and at other times like an intent instructor.

The band played "Charlie Parker Blues" and Count Basie's "One O'clock Jump." But Brown made his biggest impression when he transported the audience from Kansas City to Louisiana fiddle country on "Up Jumped the Devil."

Festival promoters anticipated a record crowd, and it seemed that Saturday's blistering summer heat wasn't enough to turn away fans from the performances. Mothers arrived pulling their kids in little red wagons and fathers toted ice coolers, while young men arrived with young girls. Some wore shorts, other sported baggy jeans.

Attendance Expected To Double

More than 50,000 fans attended last year's events. This year, organizers are expecting more than 100,000 fans, many of whom squeezed among each other on blankets and lawn chairs throughout the grounds of West Penn Valley Park, a flat field of grass and clover that sits just north of downtown.

"It continues to evolve," said Sarah Shmigelsky, public relations specialist for the festival. "Each year it has grown, and with the weather cooperating the way it has, attendance should be more than we expected."

The festival, which began in 1991, was founded by the Kansas City Blues Festival Society and the Kansas City Jazz Festival Committee. Sponsored by a host of contributors, including CGI Long Distance Service and the Missouri Lottery, the festival is built around time-honored music with Kansas City and Mississippi roots, blues from the Delta, and more modern elements — fusion, funk and R&B songs.

During a break in the music, concertgoer Tim Stevens, 46, who made the trip from Davenport, Iowa, said, "The beauty of this festival is, it forces everyone to mingle. Here, you'll find all kinds people just enjoying the music. Some people are here for the blues, or for jazz and some for R&B."

And right then onstage, Big Al and the Heavyweights started to galvanize the crowd. A short, portly man grabbed a young woman and began dancing in the crowd.

"Come on, girl," the man shouted. "This is my song."