JAM! Chapter 3
Updated: Aug 7
In Chapter 1 I told the story of the Jam's original era (1984-1986) and how it was started by Jim LaForte and Rich VanSant.
In Chapter 2 I talked about my coming back onboard after a 5-year hiatus to join Mama Ray and the Rich VanSant Band on the Saturday Afternoon Jam at Harling's. I focused on Rich VanSant.
In this Chapter, I want to tell you 'bout yo mama, my mama, everybody's mama...
Back in the beginning days of the Jam recounted in Chapter 1, the Harling's band (myself, Rich VanSant, Jim LaForte, Chico Battaglia and either drummer Terry Hancock or Marc Caplan) played a Sunday night Jam for a few months at a place called the Redwood Inn. Although it was LaForte's gig, in an odd foreshadowing, the gig at the Redwood also involved Mama Ray:
Yes, I knew Mama Ray before she was sober!
To say that Mama Ray has a colorful history would be the understatement of this century - as well as the last one. It's going to be very difficult for me to refrain from telling stories and keeping this to a single post.
She grew up an army brat and talks about the time when she was bitten by the performing bug. She was a young teenager singing for thousands of - shall we say, "appreciative" - American soldiers in Germany. After that, it was all over - she was going to be a singer.
I've got to walk a fine line here; it was the 60's. Jimi, Jim Morrison, Janis and Mama Cass were still alive; we didn't know drugs were bad. Mama Ray claims she was at Woodstock, but doesn't remember much about it. There's a saying about Woodstock; if you remember it, you weren't there!
She spent years on the road. With kids. I don't mean child performers, I mean she raised her kids on the road while at the same time running a band and performing every night.
Musicians - on the road...with everything that entails. C'mon, you've read the biographies, you've seen the interviews, you've watched "Behind the Music" - you don't need me to spell it out. Suffice to say that Mama Ray has been around the block more times than you and I can imagine - and I can imagine quite a bit.
If there was one word I had to choose to describe Mama Ray, you'd assume that word would be "survivor." It's true that Mama Ray is a survivor, but that's not my word. My word is "conqueror." She hasn't just survived, she has conquered. Substance abuse, addictions, abusive relationships - name it, she has been through it all and come out strong on the other side. Sometimes Karma can be a bitch, and to this day, whenever a trial or tribulation comes her way (and believe me, shit happens) she deals with it head on. No retreat, no surrender - head on. Trust me, you don't want to piss off the Mama!
Her heart is as big as her voice. Her charity work is well-known. She's been sober for decades but is still very active in AA. Leading groups, sponsoring members - whatever it is that goes on there. I wouldn't know - alcohol isn't one of my problems. I drinks a bit now and then when someone else buys it - no problem. My youthful indiscretions and issues involved other substances.
Sometime in 1989 Mama was playing in a pool league. She came into the bar for a tournament and sat down on the only open stool at the bar. It just so happened that sitting next to her was a man named Willard Ruggles. He had on a t-shirt that said, "Dirty deeds done dirt cheap." Mama Ray told him she really liked his shirt. The next week Will showed up with a shirt for her. The rest is history, the details of which shall remain untold except for this short sketch:
A few weeks later they moved in together. Shortly after that Mama got sober. A few months after that Mama kicked Will out for being drunk all the time. She gave him a card for a recovery house and said he had to stay sober for a year before she would even think about letting him move back in. Will did, she did, and they've been sober together ever since.
Will says she saved his life. I believe him.
BTW: Are you aware that Will is younger than me? And Mama is over 10 years older than me! She freakin' robbed the cradle, man! Ok, I'll shut up now.
She is well-known for her Hope House Benefits. Hope House is a shelter for abused women and their kids. Mama Ray has organized a benefit for Hope House every year since 1995. You have no idea what it takes to put something like that together. Hundreds of ducks have to be lined up. It's like herding cats. Every year she spends her capital with dozens and dozens of musicians who come in and play for free to benefit Hope House. Why do they do this year after year? Because it's freakin' Mama Ray, that's why! Each benefit takes months to put together. I have no idea how much money she's raised for charity over the years. Meanwhile, she lives in a modest split level in Independence with Will and a couple of cats, tending to her contracting business, Ray Construction. True, there is this kind of crusty exterior. A little potty-mouth going on. Ok, a lot. A rough edge. Colorful language. I've heard her refer to her sons as "sons-of-bitches" when she wasn't happy with them. Well, you know, she's 17 till she outgrows it - but it's a high-mileage 17! She basically doesn't care what you think about her, she's going to be who she is, deal with it! I lovingly refer to her as "turd-plated-gold." "The Lord sees not as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." When it comes to Mama Ray, the heart is gold. Don't strain a gnat and swallow a camel.
The Jam Jams On
So...notwithstanding the frequent changes of drummers, things chugged along fairly consistently from 1986 to 2003. The jam at Harlings became well-known, not just in Kansas City but around the world. I remember a jazz guitarist from Minsk, Belarus, who showed up one day. Kansas City to him was like Mecca to a Muslim. He was beside himself with excitement, awe and fear. He was going to actually play with Kansas City musicians! He couldn't speak English but he knew the tunes. He did great - he knew his jazz and blues vocabulary. One day the entire Krakow (Poland) City Youth Big Band showed up. The international component is also illustrated by these two stories of musicians from Africa and Pakistan. I'm still in touch with both of these guys:
Tons of big names have shown up and jammed. Many of those got their start in Kansas City - Marilyn Maye, Karrin Allyson, Will Mathews (guitarist for the Count Basie Band), Haji Ahkba (recorded and toured with Van Morrison and James Brown), Wilbert Longmire, Kevin Mahogany ... the list goes on and on.
A real high point for me was getting to jam with Narada Michael Walden in 2001. He's a drummer who's played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Sting, Whitney Houston, Santana, Jeff Beck and many others - more recently he's toured as the drummer for Journey. I link to the story of his appearance at the Jam in the bullet-points below.
Many times an entire road band in town for a gig at Blayney's or the Grand Emporium would come in and play. Of course, they're promoting their own gig that's occurring later that night, but also, the jam at Harling's was known among musicians as the place to go if you wanted to test yourself against the Kansas City cats. Here are just a few stories:
During these years, Mama, Rich and I played other gigs as well. For a time we did a Friday matinee with saxophonist Phil Brenner at a place in Johnson County called Mother Tuckers. We played a more jazz-type gig for a while on Monday nights at a club on 39th between SW Trafficway and State Line called the Blind Pig. We did a Sunday night gig for awhile at Bogart's in Independence.
Notice that these gigs were matinees or on off-nights? That's because I either had my own band going or played in someone else's band and Rich played in another band or 2 as well. There were stretches of time where I played Monday or Tuesday through Saturday nights with one band, and Friday afternoon, Saturday afternoon, Sunday night and sometimes Monday night with Rich. Plus I was teaching 50 or 60 students a week. And Rich had a day job. Of course there were bumps in the road. In the spring of 2001 I had a breakdown due to chronic exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Big surprise, huh? It was quite dramatic - I was running hard when I hit the wall! The closest thing to it I had ever experienced was an LSD trip gone wrong back in 1973. The waking vision/panic attack happened right before lunch on a Saturday. Like any pro musician I thought I would just tough it out on the gig. Didn't make it; I had to leave the gig after the first set. Cotton Candy's guitar player, "Booger" who was there to jam, stepped up and took my place for the rest of the day (I don't even know Booger's real name). Tom DeMasters told me later he heard that I had a nervous breakdown on stage and ran down Main Street naked! "Damn!" he said, "I guess Jay had to play 'When a Man Loves a Woman' one too many times!" Oh well, I don't care what they're saying - just as long as they're talking about me! I was out for 2 or 3 weeks. I don't remember the time frame but Mama missed 2 or 3 weeks because of surgery on her vocal chords. That was kind of scary. And then finally the situation that eventually resulted in Rich leaving the gig in 2004. As I said in the previous chapter, after a period of rotating keyboard players Mama settled on Allen Monroe and I slowed down to avoid dying.
Exit from Harling's
In late August of 2007, an undercover cop witnessed a drink sale to a minor at Harlings. The city shut the club down for a month. Mama moved the Jam to the Embassy Bistro right downstairs. At first the move was to be temporary; we would resume the Jam at Harlings when they opened back up in October. But for reasons I have no knowledge of, Mama decided to make the move permanent.
In case you haven't realized it, with Rich gone, this gig is a strict matriarchy! I was in favor of the move. It seemed like the gig at Harling's was fading. The money was dropping to the point that sometimes it was barely worth doing. Several times I had seriously considered giving notice but whenever I was thinking along those lines something really cool would happen that kept me on the gig. But something needed to change, in my opinion.
The following is from the News section of MasterGuitar.com (those familiar with Harlings will understand the positives):
October 12, 2007: Mama Ray has moved the Jam to the Embassy Bistro and Bar permanently. Positives: No stairs, the air conditioning works, the bathrooms don't stink, it sounds better, there are decent blinds on the west-facing windows, there's actually a stage, and they serve food. Negatives: it's smaller than Harlings. In the winter time Harlings packs. I think that people will be turned away because it's too crowded...Some have expressed to me that they'll miss the sunlight streaming in the windows at Harlings. It's true that Harlings has a unique ambience.... Harlings will always have a special nostalgia for me. I was fairly young (28) when we started that gig. I've played with some great players there, it was the right gig at the right time. Thanks to Jerry (the owner) and Rich VanSant for making it happen all those many years ago. As far as I know Jerry and Mama Ray have parted on good terms. I've heard that Jerry is planning on putting another band in there on Saturday afternoons. I think that would be a good thing. The two jams would feed off each other, people would go upstairs to hear the band (I've heard that Tom DeMasters is putting it together) have a drink or two, walk downstairs and see Mama Ray et al, have a drink or two, go back upstairs....could make for a fun Saturday afternoon.
For a short period of time there were 2 jams going on, one upstairs at Harlings and one downstairs at the Embassy Bistro. These pictures are from the Embassy Bistro:
Then in December of 2007, I slipped on some black ice, fell and broke my face. Literally. I had to have facial reconstruction surgery. And it happened on a Saturday morning as I was going outside to warm up the car before leaving for the Jam.
After I regained consciousness and crawled back into the house I called Mama and told her I wouldn't be showing up that day. I'm going to leave this incident right here for now and save it for later because what happened as a result of this accident perfectly illustrates what I said about the Jam community, church and life - and that's the subject for the next chapter.
In September of 2008 after several negative experiences with the management at the Embassy Bistro, Mama Ray moved the Jam to B.B.'s Lawnside BarB-Q, where it remains to this day.
The 25th Anniversary Jam caused a big ole whoop-di-doo!
Check out this page that has screenshots of Blues News Magazine on the 25th Anniversary Jam with a "Jammers Gallery."
In 2014 we lost our long-time drummer, Don Glaza, and have rotated drummers ever since. In 2015 and 2016, the Saturday Afternoon Jam was honored by the City of Kansas City, Missouri for its "...many years of entertainment to our community." Has any other jam session in the history of Kansas City been so acknowledged?
The Saturday Afternoon Jam has become a Kansas City institution and tourist destination. It's not unusual for there to be folks from all over the world in the crowd on any given Saturday.
The longevity and consistency of the Jam is some kind of record! I know of no other Jam that has lasted 39 years, anywhere! With the exception of my 5-year break from 1986-1991, I have played that Jam most Saturdays from the time I was 28 years old up to now. Wow!
In November of 2019, Mama Ray collapsed at home. She suffered internal bleeding, mostly from multiple bleeding ulcers in her stomach, as a result of blood thinners prescribed subsequent to a routine stent procedure. Will did CPR until the EMTs arrived, which saved her life. She was in and out of the hospital for several weeks, with one crisis after another, including multiple surgeries. She came very near death several times and Will again saved her life...more than once. Millie Edwards, Lori Tucker, and Lester Warner covered for her on the Jam for several weeks and I temporarily took over the business end of the gig. In light of the fact that the Saturday Afternoon Jam has historical significance, I began to think about what course of action to pursue should Mama not make it. During this time, Mama Ray and I had several conversations about her legacy; she had definite opinions about who should replace her. We took inventory of assets:
Thousands of pictures arranged on poster board collages organized by year. Those could be digitized.
At least 2 CDs that could be re-released.
A camcorder video of the 10th Anniversary Jam in 1996 - that's 4 hours of footage. Not professional quality but it could be tweaked and would have immense nostalgic value to many people. I have already had it digitized. Clips from it have been included in this blog series.
The 20th Anniversary Jam in 2006 was professionally recorded on 24 tracks of ADAT. Those tapes still exist. That day was also professionally videotaped using 3 different cameras. I am in possession of all that footage. A professional-quality documentary could be produced. All it would take is money and time.
However, true to character, Mama Ray survived - again. She returned to the Jam in January of 2020. She had only been back on the gig a few weeks when the Covid shutdown happened in March of 2020. For the first time since it began in 1984, there was no Saturday Afternoon Jam. Again I wondered, was it finally over? Would B.B.'s survive? Would the Jam survive? One year later, we started back up. We set up and played outside on the deck to the parking lot until the capacity and mask restrictions were lifted and then moved back inside and carried on as before.
Then, on October 10, 2021, after 34 years of living in sin, Mama Ray and Will got married!!! My wife and I were honored when Mama asked us to sign the marriage license as the official witnesses. That was a good day. Mama Ray is officially an honest woman now! Finally!
B.B.'s Changes Hands
The owners of B.B.'s at the time we moved the Jam there in 2008 were Lindsay Shannon and his wife Jo. Lindsay handled the music-booking and menu; he's a Blues aficionado and a founding member of the Kansas City Blues Society. He had a weekly Blues show on a local commercial FM radio station for over 30 years. Jo handled the books and accounting. They were great folks. When the bar and wait staff stay the same for years at a time, that tells you the owners are good people, and Lindsay and Jo were good people. I can't tell you how much I appreciate them. Playing a gig week after week where you don't have to deal with flaky club owners is a gift from heaven in my estimation. That's one of the reasons a gig lasts week after week for years at a time. Nothing kills a gig faster than a flaky club owner. Notice that the Jam lasted barely a year at the Embassy Bistro? That's the direct consequence of a flaky club owner.
When Mama Ray approached Lindsay about moving the Jam to B.B.'s, he said, "Well that's a no-brainer!"
Sometime in 2019, Lindsay began slowly turning over the day-to-day operations of the place to Jimmy Nickle in anticipation of his retirement. It was Jimmy who successfully guided B.B.'s through the Covid shutdown. Two months after Mama Ray and Will were married, Jo Shannon died from cancer on December 7, 2021. On July 2, 2022, the Nickle Boys became the new owners of B.B.'s Lawnside BarB-Q. They've undertaken some major renovations to the place and guess who the contractor has been? None other than Mama Ray of Ray's Construction!
I've been impressed with Jimmy Nickle; in my opinion, all signs point to Lindsay making a wise choice. On April 16, 2023, after a 3-year hiatus because of Covid, B.B.'s hosted Mama Ray's 25th annual Have a Heart for Hope House Benefit.
Continuous music for 8 hours from 7 different bands and a plethora of special guests sitting in; over 50 musicians altogether, playing for free to raise money for Hope House.
Mama Ray had done it again! And so, against all odds, the Saturday Afternoon Jam continues into 2023. 39 years from its beginning at Harling's Upstairs, and 37 years from when Mama Ray first came onboard. Of the original 5, Jim LaForte and Mike Rammel have left this dimension. Rich VanSant is retired and no longer active in the music scene. Chico Battaglia showed up at B.B.'s a few years ago. He told me he'd sold all his congas because he had arthritic hands and could no longer play.
That leaves me - the last man standing. Or rather, the last man playing. That's the short story, at least up to now - but not the real story! I will attempt to tell the real story in the next chapter.
There is a Blog Category dedicated to stories from the Jam called Jam Tales - check it out!
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