Leawood’s Cool Cat

Ask David Basse what he never leaves home without and he’ll probably tell you one of his trademark fedoras.

The smoky-voiced Basse, one of Kansas City’s best-known contemporary jazz greats, exhibits a well-honed impulse for captivating showmanship whenever he mounts the stage. Always sporting a jaunty chapeau — switching from felt to straw depending on the season — Basse channels heavyweight songsters like Mel Torme, Al Jarreau and Dr. John and the ghosts of jazz artists past and then injects his own tasty brand of KC jazz and blues for a unique and mesmerizing sound.

When Basse rolled into KC in the early 1980s he immersed himself in the city’s rich stew of jazz and blues, discovering what would become a life-long love affair with the infectious music. Emerging from an intense tutelage in the pulsating world of jazz was hipster Basse — a finger-snapping, always-on-the-cutting-edge of-his-art, cool cat persona. 

“Kansas City’s jazz comes from ragtime,
along with a kind of southwest feel,

almost country,” explains Basse. “We’re not New Orleans’ brand of jazz. We’ve carved our own attitude.”

Basse’s music idols growing up included icons Jimmy Hendrix, The Doors, Cream and The Beatles. He also developed an affinity for the jump blues, an up-tempo flavor of music personified by small groups featuring horns. But when Basse saw the superbly crafted talents of jazz artists Jay McShann and Claude “Fiddler” Williams at the Kansas State Fair, he saw his future flash before him in Technicolor.

“Simply, I was blown away,” recalls Basse. “I immediately wanted to be in a band like that.”

Basse, who says he played his share of sleazy dives and pool halls in the early genesis of his stellar career, formed the famous City Light Orchestra in 1982. It was the abiding beauty of McShann’s and Williams’ music that became the equation for CLO, which quickly became known as Kansas City’s premier swinging jazz ensemble.

“I started to dress in the mode that emulated my jazz heroes,” says Basse. “Every waking thought and creative idea was influenced by their music.”

Basse’s deep, resonant voice fits hand-in-glove with his chosen genre and his prolific career spans the globe. He’s represented Kansas City throughout the world on prestigious stages like the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Jazz Aspen-Snowmass, the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee and Virginia’s celebrated “Wolf Trap and All That Jazz.” He’s played at Harrods in London and at the Palacio dei Congressi in Lugano, Switzerland. 

The musician has been featured on A&E Television’s landmark series City Confidential that spotlighted the KC jazz scene; CBS Sunday Morning where distinguished jazz composer, pianist and educator Dr. Billy Taylor tagged along with Basse for a fascinating interview; NPR’s Weekend: All Things Considered where Scott Simon bantered with Basse about all things jazz; and PBS’s Barbeque America with host Rick Browne.

The eponymous title song of Basse’s recording “Strike When Your Iron is Hot,” released in October 2000, was used by the Gore campaign and the Kansas City Chiefs to rouse crowds and his City Light Orchestra was part of the 1997 Inaugural Gala for President Bill Clinton. He has recorded with many jazz standouts, including Bobby Watson, Les McCann, Phil Woods and Grammy-nominated pianist Mike Melvoin whom Basse has collaborated with since 1992.

Basse hosts the award-winning Jazz Scene Saturdays on Kansas Public Radio where he features new releases, classic jazz and information about area jazz concerts, festivals and performances. Guests have included Pat Metheny, Marian McPartland, Ramsey Lewis and Chick Corea and even special visits from the big bands of KU and UMKC.

“I never met jazz I didn’t like,” admits Basse.

Basse and his wife, Cathy, and young daughter, GG, lived in Los Angeles, Calif., during most of the 1990s and relocated to KC for the quality of life. The musician also wanted to return to the roots of the KC sound and enmesh himself in the very fabric of the local jazz scene and the artistic climate Kansas City offers to serious musicians like himself. 

“KC has a vibrant nightlife,” says Basse. “You can go out every night of the week and hear great music, including blues and jazz. Plus we have great galleries and world-class museums and easy access to the coasts.”

A highlight of Basse’s career was when he and GG sang the national anthem to a packed house at Kauffman Stadium.

“She loves to sing and plays the guitar, cello and piano,” says Basse. “I don’t push GG but she likes music. I try to appreciate what she listens to on the radio and not be ancient and say, ‘Turn that off.'”

Basse is an ardent preserver and promoter of Kansas City’s legendary and illustrious musical history through his work with the Mutual Musicians Foundation, located in the heart of the historic 18th and Vine district. 

“The Musicians Foundation is a National Historic Landmark,” explains Basse. “Working musicians rehearse, relax and casually educate future generations that will continue to play and shape Kansas City jazz.

In December 2008, Basse re-released his first recording with the City Light Orchestra in honor of its 25th anniversary. The acclaimed “Raised Spirits” debuted in 1984 and Basse says has found a new following.

Basse carries on the tradition started by household names like Charlie Parker and Count Basie and takes that responsibility seriously.

“I am the embodiment of Kansas City jazz and blues,” says Basse, with a wink, smile and tip of his fedora.

Catch David Basse and his band at Ironwoods Park, 145th and Mission Rd., Sunday, September 6 from 6 – 8 p.m. Visit www.davidbasse.com for more information on other appearances.

words: Kimberly Stern

photos: Chad Hickman