By Christopher Burnett
It was dark when we crossed the blue bridge over the Missouri River and pulled into the City of Leavenworth, officially known as “The First City of Kansas” and also hometown to such music industry luminaries as Melissa Etheridge and the phenomenal LA-based woodwind artist Gary Foster. I am a native of the Kansas City metropolitan area and grew up in the small city of Paola, Kansas.
We were brand new “empty nesters” and as fate would have it, we were starting all over again. I was finally coming back home to Kansas after leaving home in July of 1974 to make my way in the world. I was driving a 24-foot U-Haul rental truck and T was following me in our Oldsmobile. Coltrane, our dog, was riding shotgun with me in the moving truck along with everything in the world we still owned. That was in February 2001. Over twenty years ago. Another lifetime.
The Home Coming
We were moving to Leavenworth at the suggestion of my sister, Penny, after having literally traveled the world for a couple of decades during the course of engaging a complete and very successful career with professional military bands, inherently making “our home” wherever the military planted us whenever we landed. We had started and subsequently closed a retail music store in the town outside of the military base where we finished our active duty Regular Army career. We took a chance and lost everything but each other. So we literally started over and rebuilt our family all over again in these 20+ years since coming back home – but that’s literally another pretty cool story in and of itself.
We ultimately chose moving to Leavenworth because it still has a substantial active military and veteran community. And of equal importance to us was that the City of Leavenworth is located in the northwest Kansas City metropolitan area and part of the historically significant Kansas City Jazz Scene. Kansas City Jazz is something I knew about even as a student musician while growing up. I had great teachers – James Fuchs, Charlie Molina, and Nevada Rosbia all remain front of mind. Another interesting anecdote is that Gary Foster was the guest soloist on the LP album our Paola High School Band recorded. So coming home was clearly meant to be.
The Toon Shop
We are both musicians and we are both teachers. T was a tenured classroom elementary school teacher in addition to teaching her flute studio. So, she substitute taught and became certified to teach in Kansas schools. My focus at that point was to establish a private woodwind teaching practice and engage the Kansas City Jazz Scene from a position of being an established professional performing artist and knowledgable contributor to the community. I almost immediately found a local mentor in the esteemed elder, Ahmad Alaadeen who I apprenticed under for the better part of 5 years. Things have worked out nicely for us, we’ve built another life that’s better than ever, and we humbly consider Leavenworth to be our forever home. A custom fit community for us.
But, the first thing I did the next morning after we arrived in Leavenworth was to go to the Leavenworth Public Library, use one of their computers to update my resume, and then bring it to The Toon Shop music store where I applied to teach woodwind lessons in their studios. I was greeted by Ron Cowan, the son of the store owners, Bob and Shirley Cowan. He took my resume and introduced me immediately to his parents and their in-house instrument repairman, Rex Williams. Bob and Shirley hired me on the spot. And I have literally been teaching out of that music store for twenty years, with the only break during the years I worked at the jazz museum in Kansas City – another cool story in and of itself.
As I have now been a contributing member of the general jazz community at-large outside of military music for a couple of decades, I have better perspective on what makes our modern-era Kansas City Jazz Scene viable and one of perpetual unlimited potential. First, the people here are friendly and decent at their core. Second, you can live here affordably and enjoy access to an international airport, major league sports franchises, and a small, but world class music and fine arts culture nonetheless.
Ron, Rex, Shirley and Bob are all gone now. We lost Bob Cowan at 95 years old on the 4th of July. How fitting for a World War II veteran and former Army musician to leave this realm on our Independence Day holiday. He will be missed. They are all missed. But, they taught us something that keeps them alive through all of us they touched. I learned that you make your own scene from Bob Cowan. You don’t wait for someone’s permission to be a musician or include you in their cliques. You make your own ways to contribute to your community. When you do that you build a modern infrastructure that potentially employs artists at living wages. We are fortunate that there are many people in the Kansas City Jazz Scene who do this too.
The Art of Balance
Bob Cowan inherently reinforced everything that I had come to believe was viable as a music professional outside of the military music system. He verified that much of the publicist hyped rhetoric you see and read about regarding success within the modern jazz life today is best ignored. He built the life he wanted to live with. A life that included providing brilliantly for his family with the love of his life during their 73 years of marriage. A life that included “hitting licks” with his own ensembles around the KC metro playing as much as he wanted to with top musicians at top venues. I’m thankful for the many gigs Bob hired me to play. A life that included establishing an arts infrastructure by building a community around his music store where generations of musicians, including Melissa Etheridge and Gary Foster, took music lessons. A life that included making music and the arts an important “thing” to the people of our community.
Great Jazz communities inherently have great Jazz infrastructures. Bob Cowan was a significant contributor to the Kansas City Jazz Scene infrastructure in the ways we all should be. He was a producer and he was a mentor. He was of the Tom Brokaw anointed “Greatest Generation” that gave us the Big Band Era and swing, yes, but also came home to rebuild our cities and towns and economies. The modern era Jazz Scene could still learn from these maestros.