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Arts & Entertainment - The Teacher 

Leon Brady

Leon Brady knows what people say about the art form that put Kansas City on the world's map.

"I tell people: If you think jazz is dying or dead, visit 1317 Central."

He's talking about the Kansas City Youth Jazz studios at 13th Street and Central in Kansas City, Kansas. Here, at midmorning on a Saturday, the 76-year-old music teacher is running the Sunset Band through a set of jazz standards. These 22 middle-schoolers have come from all corners of the metro; they're kids of all races and both sexes, and one saxophonist has purple hair. The grade-schoolers in the Hey Hay Band, the advanced players in the Orchid Room Band and the seasoned high-schoolers in the Reno Band will all get some serious rehearsal time this morning with Brady or one of the other professional musicians teaching classes here.

"We have four bands on Saturday, and if a person comes in at 9:30 and leaves at 12:30 and says jazz is dead, they're living in a different world," Brady says.

Throughout the year, Kansas City Youth Jazz bands will play constantly, taking as many gigs as Brady and his wife, Linda, can book — at the Blue Room at 18th Street and Vine; at private parties; at the gritty Kansas City, Kansas, Street Blues Festival in late June; at the Red Cross annual Red Ball fundraiser at the Sprint Center.

The Bradys started this project eight years ago, but Leon has been teaching music in Kansas City since he got here in 1957. He had grown up in New Orleans, standing outside clubs and listening to the music inside, then he joined the Air Force. The way he tells it, he didn't want to peel potatoes, so he lied and said he could play the drums. He went to military music school and ended up in a combo with other players who went on to be superstars, though Brady won't divulge them to Pitch readers because he doesn't want to look like a name-dropper.

By the time he got to Kansas City, lured by its jazz reputation, the heyday was fading. He took teaching jobs at Northeast Junior High School in KCK and, later, at Sumner High School. Often, big touring acts passing through town hired him to sit in on drums. In return, Brady strong-armed them into visiting his classes. That's how generations of young Kansas City players got face time with Clark Terry, Maynard Ferguson, Max Roach, Cannonball Adderley, Stan Kenton, Grover Washington Jr. and Dizzy Gillespie.

"We had to take Dizzy off the congos to get him to play trumpet," Brady says.

In 1972, Sumner took top honors at the International Jazz Festival in Paris. "That trip we took to Europe — a lot of those kids had never even been to Missouri."

Brady's bands have played on the steps of the White House, but this morning they're playing at 13th Street and Central.

Brady cuts them off in the middle of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say."

In the Sunset Band's performance, different sections stand up at different points and play to the left, play to the right. But the saxophones are too stiff. Brady, dressed in his standard black suit and tie, cuts them off and shows them the move: a smooth dip with the hips as they turn. He turns around to face a few parents sitting on metal folding chairs. "I'm going to have to take these people dancing."

You can't go into a club around town, Linda Brady notes, without running into one of Brady's students. Some of them move on to the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. A few are now rising stars in places like New York City.

His philosophy, he says, is to make sure every kid who wants a jazz experience can have one. And today, there are plenty of kids at 13th and Central. The art form isn't dying.

— C.J. Janovy

(Photo by Angela C. Bond)

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