Kansas City swing is real party jazz remember that phrase. It's the kind of music that gets people riled up and sends them jitterbugging across the floor. What few people know is that we still have some active, traditional swing bands right here in town. For example, there are the Scamps heading toward their 60th year of performing and the nationally acclaimed act Tim Whitmer and the KC Express. But before you reach for some of that ol' bathtub gin, think about ordering a Red Bull and vodka instead. Because there's a swing band right here in town that not only represents a younger generation of musicians and listeners but also has a history as eclectic as its music is danceable.
The Grand Marquis came on the scene in 1998. But the earliest glimmer of what would eventually become the band began two years earlier, when bassist Ben Ruth, a freshman at the University of Missouri-Kansas City met local punk-rock drummer Lisa McKenzie (of Cher UK and Goodpuss fame) at the Corner Restaurant where they both worked. Musicians daylighting as servers and cooks is commonplace; what was unique about McKenzie and Ruth is that, when they met, they were both rock-and-roll musicians yearning to learn jazz.
They also learned that the transition from rock to jazz is not a smooth one. "I didn't understand it I could hear the chord changes, but when I tried to translate it to my electric bass, it didn't work," Ruth tells the Pitch from behind a cloud of his bandmate's cigarette smoke inside the swanky, historic 12 Baltimore club. "So I knew I had to learn stand-up."
McKenzie had similar adventures in genre hopping. "Don't get me wrong, I love punk," she says. "But the whole time I played, I always felt like I wasn't playing like I wanted to, which really pushed me into wanting to learn to play jazz. So I started taking lessons."
Ruth and McKenzie started a jazz combo, the Loose Malloys, which was more about practice and honing improvisational chops than playing out.
During this period, McKenzie also traveled to Africa several times to attend a drum clinic in Ghana, an experience that has influenced her distinctive drumming style. "My favorite thing to play on drums is the toms tom-heavy stuff which is definitely African-influenced," she explains.
Thirty lost pounds and a bout with malaria later, McKenzie was introduced to local top-flight rockabilly musician Carl "Slim" Hanson in 1998, through a mutual friend who knew they were both looking to start a jazz band. When McKenzie and Hanson added stand-up bass player Andy Dondzila and a sax player named Bryan Redmond to their mix, the Grand Marquis was officially a band.
Initially billed as a rockabilly act, the Marquis' lineup changed for the first time in 1999, when McKenzie's original jazz comrade, Ruth, replaced Dondzila on bass. Things got even hotter for the Marquis in 2002, when trumpeter Chad Boydston joined.
Boydston, unlike the other Marquis members, had a good idea early in life that he wanted to be a jazzer. Born and raised in Iowa, he was handed a trumpet by his father at age 6. Dad was passing on the torch he's an accomplished trumpet player himself who got to sit in with Louis Armstrong a time or two. "Trumpets can express," Boydston says. "I got hooked on solos that was a real turning point for me."
It also helped that he got a few lessons and advice from Wynton Marsalis while he was still in high school. "When I went to see Wynton play the first time, he knew I was serious because I brought my trumpet with me to his performance," Boydston says.
After graduating from Northern Iowa University, Boydston headed south. "I went to New Orleans to play, and basically everyone was telling me you don't really want to move down here it's not that hot," he says. "So other than New Orleans, it's Kansas City or New York, and New York is at the top of the food chain. But I came here, and I think KC is better than Chicago you can get gigs here."
In 2003, Hanson, frontman and co-founder of the band, decided to call it quits. Because of his famous talent and flamboyant leadership, many people thought that his retreat spelled the end for the Marquis. But for McKenzie, Ruth and Boydston, there was no question whether to keep the band going.
"The night that Slim quit, Chad and I were talking on the phone about it. And then we called Bryan and said, 'You're going to sing!'" McKenzie recalls.
Unlike McKenzie and Ruth, sax player Redmond is not from Kansas City. He's a west Tennessee son of a Baptist preacher, raised on roots and country music. His granddad introduced him to jazz and the blues. He moved to Kansas City when he was 9 and first played sax publicly at age 10, in church. He later joined the high school jazz band and then attended UMKC on a music scholarship. After graduating, he knew that he wanted to make a go at gigging. So when he answered McKenzie and Hanson's 1998 want ad seeking a sax player, Redmond knew he'd found his band.
"This is the first band I've sung in, and, yeah, I was scared," he says. "But I took a lot of the songs Slim did, stuff I co-wrote and sang back-up to, and just did them my way."
Redmond's energy onstage and his love for the music are infectious. He often explains the details of songs before the band plays them both the covers and Marquis originals such as "Paseo Street Strut" and "Cointreau's Raid" filling the audience in on the songs' historical or mythological origins. The entire band embodies that old-school swing look and feel with its suits and ties, but it's Redmond, with his pomaded hair, porkpie hat and suspenders, who completes the Marquis' speak-easy air.
With Redmond secured as sax player and singer, the band started looking for a guitarist.
"I knew as soon as I heard them play that I wanted to be in the band," says ax-slinger Sammy Nicolier. Born and raised in France, Nicolier's eclectic guitar style dates to his enrollment at age 5 in a music academy.
"Sammy isn't a power guitarist at least not in this band," Boydston says. "He's very graceful, very virtuosic. You can hear that Django Reinhardt influence when he plays."
The Grand Marquis, which has toured extensively and made countless weddings memorable, recently celebrated its 800th show. But the act never gets stale; at any given performance, expect to see baby boomers and Gen Y-ers cutting slices outta the same rug.
"You know, we didn't start out saying this is exactly what we're going to do. It kinda morphed," McKenzie says.
"It's still morphing that's the beauty of it," Boydston adds.
"I think people started taking more notice of us when Ben joined the band," McKenzie says. "He added a rock-and-roll element and rawness, which added a new dimension. His playing has real energy and character."
"I love the real smooth and clean notes and stuff, but I just don't play like that. It's kinda raw I like to dig into notes," Ruth says.
Any 18th and Vine bass player from the '20s would probably agree. After all, KC swing, which was born of late-night jam sessions, is a sound that swings harder than any other jazz out there.
"We play party jazz the jazz of the people that really came out of the '20s and '30s and was music for people to dance to," Boydston explains. "You don't have to have a music degree to understand it. You can just enjoy it."