Meet Tom Wells, Jazz Super Fan!

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By TESSA SOUTER AND ANDREA WOLPER

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Article can be found at AllAboutJazz.com.

Born and raised in that other “capital of jazz”—Kansas City, birthplace of Charlie Parker—Super Fan Tom Wells, along with long-time jazz date, his wife, Geri St. Clair (a future Super Fan—stay tuned!), is a huge supporter of the local scene. How huge? Well, Tom and Geri once followed the University of Missouri Kansas City’s Jazz Orchestra all the way to ParisSwitzerland and Holland for the “jazz experience of a lifetime.” 

Tell us a little about yourself. 
I was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up with no siblings in a working class neighborhood. I left Kansas City in 1954 and didn’t return to live until 1985. I went to Central Missouri College in Warrensburg, Missouri. Upon graduation, I was drafted into the Army, serving two years as a medic at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, before returning to Columbia, Missouri, to earn a master’s degree in social work at the University of Missouri. With the exception of a couple of years, I had a 40-year career in the mental health field. I was fortunate to have been at the beginning of the community mental health movement, and was a part of the opening of two new Community Mental Health Centers in the Central Missouri area. I was also able to attend the University of California, Berkeley, where I was one of 20 students in a post-master’s program in Community Mental Health. In 1968- 69, Berkeley was an exciting place; it was the height of the anti-war movement, with the People’s Park demonstrations and riots. I was tear-gassed twice—once through the ventilation system of the University library. A classmate liked to say, …” and Tom never went to the library again.” I returned to Kansas City in 1985 just in time to help the Kansas City Royals celebrate winning the World Series. GO ROYALS! I am married now to Geri St. Clair. We met in 2005 and married in 2009. She is a longtime jazz lover, so we became Tom & Geri jazz fans.

What’s your earliest memory of music? 
Growing up in the ’40s, my first exposure to music was my parent’s 78s (to the younger folk: those were big black discs with grooves and a small hole in the middle!). Much of it was big band music: Harry JamesCount BasieGlenn Miller. I was also exposed to many vocalists. I particularly enjoyed, and still enjoy, the Ink Spots and Frankie Lane. In about 1993, I purchased a copy of Frankie’s autobiography, That Lucky Old Son, which he autographed for me. It is a treasured possession. In the early 1980’s, I heard a group in Pensacola, Florida called the Ink Spots. The group was mostly comprised of nephews of the originals, but they sounded as good as the old records to me. I was quite thrilled.

How old were you when you got first record? 
The first record I recall was “You Belong to Me” by Jo Stafford. It was played at our high school sock hops. I had to have it. Listening to it, I was probably daydreaming of dancing with a certain popular girl. Of course, it was all fantasy, as she was there with the school football hero. Interestingly, 55 years later we met at a jazz event. She was still into music and dance. Of course, she’d been unaware of my admiration from afar. Nevertheless, “You Belong to Me” is still one of my favorites. Several musicians who know I like it play it for me without a request.

What was the first concert you ever attended? 
My first concert was probably the Harry James Orchestra at the old Pla Mor Ballroom in the late 1950s: The Pla Mor, with mirrored ball, large dance floor, and that wonderful orchestra, was intoxicating. My date and I felt like we were in the movies. The Pla Mor had been the most popular ballroom in the heyday of Kansas City jazz during the 1920s, ’30s, and early ’40s. Prohibition was the law of the land, but not in Kansas City; at that time, Tom Pendergast was the political boss who allowed (encouraged) alcohol, music, gambling, etc. There was an unbelievable number of clubs, joints, and ballrooms with quality jazz, blues, and swing music, open 24 hours a day. It was a haven for musicians unlike any place in the country. I have read that Edward R. Murrow once wrote, “If you want to see some sin, forget Paris and go to Kansas City.” The name “Paris on the Plains” stuck. A couple of years ago, Geri and I had a “Paris on the Plains” theme party with bathtub gin and all. It was a hoot!

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz? 
Upon returning to Kansas City in1985 I began going out to hear jazz and blues about once a month. I really didn’t get hooked until 1990, though, when the Phoenix Jazz Bar opened in downtown Kansas City. The music was great and the people were friendly. I just started getting into the scene. I would go there or to other clubs a couple of times a week. I took some short adult education classes on KC jazz and blues. I joined a couple of volunteer groups, KC Jazz Ambassadors and KC Blues Society. Each group supports their music by providing scholarships and assistance to musicians in need.

How long have you been going out to hear live music? 
Since 1985.

How often do you go out to hear live music? 
After hooking up with Geri in 2005, my jazz involvement increased. It’s hard to say how often we go out to live music and related activities. I know if we only go out one time during the week there are real feelings of withdrawal, and we feel as if we are definitely missing something. On the other end of the continuum, when we go out on four or five consecutive nights we are pretty worn out. I would guess we go out three or four times a week, including a great Sunday brunch at the Phoenix Bar where two of our favorite musicians, Millie Edwards and Dan Sturdevant, musicians hold court. They also contribute in many other areas of the community. They’re great musicians, great people, great friends.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you? 
When listening to the performers, I feel good. In fact, it is good for my soul and makes me feel happy. It is just a FUN experience. Maybe this is where I should put in a disclaimer. I’m not musical; Geri throws things at me on the rare occasion that I attempt to sing. I’m not a critic, and I don’t follow the national scene very closely, even though I did enjoy Chick Corea‘s performance at the recent KC Jazz and Heritage Festival at 18th and Vine. I am also looking forward to catching the The Hot Sardines at the historic Folly Theatre in early 2018. I like to focus on the local scene. Geri and I have gotten to know many musicians, fellow patrons, staff, and a few club owners. Many are now friends. We have jazz-related art work in our home. The most prominent is an original piece entitled “1935,” an abstract that denotes venues and musicians from the 1935 heyday of jazz in Kansas City. Downstairs in my man cave, the walls are covered with photos and prints of jazz musicians. Many include Geri and me, and are autographed.

What is the farthest you’ve traveled in order to get to a jazz performance? 
In the first year of our relationship, Geri and I had the jazz experience of a lifetime, thanks to Jon McGraw, who is big in the KC Jazz scene. Jon turned us on to a trip that Bobby Watson‘s University of Missouri at Kansas City Jazz Orchestra was taking to Europe. The Friends of Jazz, a support organization to Bobby’s outstanding UMKC Jazz program, was offering a few spots for fans to travel with the 17-piece orchestra. In 2006, this group played at a park beneath the Eiffel Tower. They played twice at the Montreux Jazz Festival on the beautiful Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The final gig was at the world famous North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam Holland. This was my first trip to Europe and it exceeded any dream I ever had of going to Europe. Again, we met folks who became friends.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be? I would like to add “and get to know.” This is a tough one, and I am going to mention three. Louis Armstrong was pretty much there in the beginning of jazz. He did it all, beginning with having no sound equipment and filling settings of all sizes with his powerful and wonderful sound. He performed with big bands. He played in movies. What a range, and what an ambassador for jazz. I would also go with Kansas City’s own Charlie Parker. I have heard numerous musicians and educators state that Charlie had influenced most music and the musicians that followed him. Lastly, Glenn Miller. I just love his sound. It is very sad that he was lost to all at such a young age, in the service of his country.

What makes a great jazz club? 
My ideal club would have music five to seven days a week. It would have early sets (5:00 pm) two or three times a week. They probably would have singles, duos, or trios and/or jam sessions during the week, with larger groups on the weekend. My favorite grouping is a rhythm section, a couple of horns—or horn and guitar—and a male and female vocalist. The leader (and others) would work the house and banter back and forth with humor. The band would provide some education with background info about their musical selections. There would be a dance floor. Décor and physical setting isn’t that much of an issue. However, good acoustics, sound system and sight lines are a must. A decent menu (doesn’t have to be gourmet) is a big plus. A happy hour wouldn’t hurt.

Which club(s) are you most regularly found at?
We are at the Phoenix a lot. It’s almost like the TV “Cheers” bar, a comfortable, fun place, with great music, of course. We enjoy the Green Lady Lounge, also great music. The Blue Room is another stop; it’s in the 18th and Vine area, which has a lot of musical and cultural history. It’s also the home of the American Jazz Museum. For jazz lovers or just history buffs, the American Jazz Museum is a must-see in Kansas City.

Is there a club that’s no longer around that you miss the most? 
I probably miss Club 427 the most. It was located the city market area, which is in the oldest part of KC. They had wonderful musicians including The Scamps, a legendary black group that has been around since the 1950s. The food was good. The vibes were good. There was a second level, which is a little unusual for this town.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?
My only “claim to fame” in the Kansas City jazz scene occurred in 1999. I organized a musical program for a non-profit’s annual fundraiser. I put together Eldar Djangirov and Claude “Fiddler” Williams. The two had never played together before. A little background: In the late 1990s, a very young Eldar, a piano prodigy from Kyrgyzstan, moved to the USA. His parents were music teachers who loved jazz, and even though jazz was outlawed in their homeland, they exposed Eldar to it at an early age. He showed an amazing flair for the music, and the family was able to migrate to the US so he could further develop his gift and pursue a jazz career. The family chose Kansas City to live in, solely due to their love of Count Basie’s music. Claude “Fiddler” Williams, on the other hand, had a long career in Kansas City, playing and recording nationally with many famous bands, including Count Basie’s. The event was called “Soul of the City—It’s Ageless.” Eldar (13) and Claude (92) played wonderfully together. The crowd went wild. They were a hit, and played other venues. Eldar went on to school on the west coast and a Grammy-nominated career and is now based in New York. Claude died a couple of years later. With an almost 80 year age difference they were truly an ageless duo.

How do you discover new artists? 
We are involved with the Jazz Friends that support Bobby Watson and Dan Thomas, who head up the University of Missouri-Kansas City Jazz Program. We have known Jim Mair, Director of Jazz program at Kansas City Kansas Community College, for more than 20 years. We learn of new players through those contacts. Additionally, veteran and highly respected musicians such as, Tim Whitmer and Lonnie McFadden will, on occasion, introduce an “up-and-comer” during their gigs. Vinyl, CDs, mp3s, streaming? My preference is live music. When driving, I prefer CDs and radio. At home, CDs and Pandora.

If you were a professional musician which instrument would you play? 
Even though I have no musical ability, and little rhythm, as a kid I loved drums and tap dancing, and dreamed of doing both. Identifying with tapping and drumming’s high level of activity was much like fantasizing being one of the Three Musketeers. I still dig tap and drum.

What’s your desert island disc?
I guess I would have to go back to high school and “You Belong to Me.” I might also try to sneak in something more lively, like “Moten Swing.”

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
Jazz gets into your soul. It makes you tap your foot. It simply feels good and makes you happy. I would like to see more done to expose young people at the elementary and middle school level to jazz. A few may learn to play and carry on the tradition, but many could be exposed to it and learn how fun jazz is. Creative approaches are needed. For example, a local puppeteer carried out a project for the Charlie Parker Celebration a couple years ago. He wrote and told a story with his life size puppets about Charlie Parker and some of the history of Kansas City jazz. Children were invited to performances at the GEM Theatre at 18th and Vine. It was well received by the kids, and performed later at local schools. I would like to see other creative programs carried out in KC and the rest of the country.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be… 

Simply unimaginable.

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