Not that he's not good. In fact, he's great -- so much so that he's inspired the type of fawning comparison to an athlete that nonsports greats receive at the pinnacles of their careers. A Nobel Prize winner becomes "the Michael Jordan of physics"; Djangirov is, the Hartford Courant says, "the Tiger Woods of jazz." On his self-titled debut disc, he nimbly handles Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker arrangements, and his own contributions don't seem out of place, even set next to the work of legends. A phenom who began playing fluently at age five in his hometown in Kyrgyzstan, Djangirov moved here with his family in 1998, impressed by Kansas City's musical tradition. He made numerous television appearances, performed at the Grammy Awards in 2000 and excelled academically at Rockhurst High School even though he spoke no English when he arrived in the country. But for all his abilities and accomplishments, Djangirov owes much of his reception to his wunderkind status -- rather than concentrating on what he's playing, observers marvel that he's playing at all.
Living legends such as Myra Taylor, Jay McShann and Claude "Fiddler" Williams inspire the same sort of awe. People become excited just to be in their presence and would never dream of asking authors of their own standards to cover other artists' work.
Local jazz artists between the ages of thirty and sixty, on the other hand, find themselves pressured to conform. Gerald Spaits, a twenty-year veteran of the scene, plays bass with Djangirov and in the all-originals quintet Westport Art Ensemble. The WAE takes chances, most spectacularly on the perfectly titled "Art Isn't Always Pretty," which begins and ends with chaotic brass revelry and maintains little structure in the eight minutes between horn blasts. At its most accessible, the group is smooth in the best sense of the term, with twinkling tones melting into subterranean bass lines and piano melodies dancing between staggered solos. It's an original yet far from outlandish outfit, but to the hard-line traditionalists who frequent many jazz haunts, it might as well be Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
Spaits, who gigs five times a week with artists such as Russ Long, Tommy Ruskin and Joe Cartwright, has regularly observed the cool greetings received by risk-takers, and that's why he's removed nearly all jazz venues from the WAE's itinerary. The group does, however, perform at the Blue Room at 18th and Vine, where its five members first played together. Spaits, drummer Todd Strait, pianist Roger Wilder and guitarist Jake Blanton played an entirely improvisational program; then, during intermission, saxophonist Josh Sclar, who had expected to miss the gig, arrived to join the group for the second set. Recognizing the players' immediate chemistry, the WAE started practicing and found a home at Westport Coffee House, where it plays on the last Monday of every month. Known more as a folk hangout, the coffee house provides welcome sanctuary from the usual atmosphere in which Spaits performs.
"It's like a real concert, with no waitresses going around or people talking over the music," Spaits says. "It's a listening crowd."
Spaits also attracts attentive audiences when he and Strait accompany Djangirov. It's not yet clear whether the teen-age virtuoso will serve as a jazz ambassador to young listeners ("I certainly hope so," Spaits says) or if he will relocate to take his career to another level, as Karryn Allyson and Kevin Mahogany have done. ("It's almost absolutely necessary," Spaits admits glumly.) It's certain that he draws crowds, though, which makes him an increasingly rare commodity in jazz circles. After dropping the ball on some premium shows with poor promotional efforts, the Blue Room and Gem Theater have made impressive efforts to elevate visibility, but Spaits says even if everyone knows what's going down, "there's only so much of a jazz audience."
Education, he adds, is the key, which is why crossover candidates such as Djangirov and jam-jazz juggernaut Medeski, Martin and Wood wield such power. "So many people just don't know how it works," Spaits says. "It's a very unique experience, composing music on the spot, and it doesn't happen anywhere else, at least on that level."
Other largely overlooked genres, such as classical (Charlotte Church) and blues (Jonny Lang and Shannon Curfman), find new audiences by presenting fresh faces, letting young listeners know these art forms aren't the exclusive province of fuddy-duddies (and stroking the cheek-pinching tendencies of the "isn't that cute!" contingent). It's not fair to compare Djangirov to these pop-leaning performers -- instrumental songs are music's subtitled films, instantly alienating a stubborn segment of the population. But if he can lure listeners to events such as the Music Lovers' Jazz Festival at the Liberty Performing Arts Theatre on Saturday, October 12, then other featured attractions such as Bobby Watson, Ida McBeth and Boko Maru can take it from there. Youth will be served -- as an appetizer -- and the genre's longtime practitioners hope casual concertgoers will become hooked on the taste of live jazz.
As a member of Djangirov's backing band, playing to standing ovations whenever the trio teams up, Spaits enjoys immediate attention as well as the indirect trickle-down benefits. But though he's one of the area's finest bassists, his name alone doesn't guarantee a gathering. Still, if he keeps producing, his time will come. "If I live another forty years," he says, "maybe I'll be a legend."