Musicians, by trade, are lifelong students. It’s a simple fact that respected Kansas City bassist, bandleader, and composer Bill McKemy embraces with every fiber of his being. And as he carefully explains, you always have to be ready for that next lesson — no matter the source or the circumstances.
“The greatest thing about getting to play with high caliber people is the opportunity for growth that there is for me,” McKemy says. “The best way to learn is to be in bands with people that are soundly superior to you, whether it’s a technical thing, a knowledge thing, or more of an internal energy or spiritual thing. The main thing is the opportunity to cross paths with somebody who constructs their world as an improviser in a completely different way.”
For McKemy, that journey has brought him in contact with an impressive roster of musical mentors, including such renowned players as guitarist John Abercrombie, percussionist/conguero Pablo Batista, saxophonist Ted Nash, trombonist Bill Watrous, and 3-time Grammy Award-winning trumpter Randy Brecker. But even considering how closely McKemy grew up to the traditional crossroads of jazz and the blues, it’s still pretty remarkable that he embarked on this journey at all.
“I grew up on a farm a little over an hour outside of Kansas City and I had never heard anything that was presented to me as jazz until I was maybe 13 or 14 years old,” McKemy recalls. “There just wasn’t any jazz in the schools or the community.”
Even at that age though, it wasn’t the more digestible sounds of big band, swing, or cool bop that drew McKemy into a jazz orbit like so many others before him. Instead he was quickly enthralled by more challenging fare thanks to a generous teacher and the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz.
“The stuff that really stuck with me right off the bat was the selections from Ornette Coleman on there and the Charlie Parker tune ‘Koko,'” McKemy remembers with a grin. “That stuff just knocked me out. With tunes like ‘The Blessing’ or ‘Lonely Woman,’ it had something to do with the freedom but also the relaxation that they had. Contrast that with the Parker cuts that had this crazy frenetic sound with the zillion notes of virtuosity and overwhelming energy. Both had lot of power and impact. They were really breaking loose from the herd and weren’t afraid to be outsiders. It was infused with so much personal energy and I heard that as such a liberating force.”
After completing his music degree, it didnt take long for McKemy to take the ultimate leap — from the quaint quietude of the Midwest to the bustling bandstands of Philadephia.
“I went out to Philly and continued this habit of woodshedding three hours a day that I had done for years and had some lucky breaks right off the bat getting work,” McKemy says. “And I also got schooled in many different ways.”
After a few years in the Philly scene, a stint that was primarily built on the connections he made through AMLA (the Asociación de Músicos Latinoamericanos) and punctuated by a healthy exposure to that city’s vibrant free jazz scene, McKemy began to feel the pull back to his Midwestern home. It was also a decision based on more distressing circumstances
“I moved back to Kansas City in 1997 with some technical problems on the upright due to not studying the more classical traditions of the bass — tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome — to a pretty severe Chronic level,” McKemy recalls. “My wife and I came back to our families and I knew that the scene was robust, so I took about six months off and then slowly started to come back with some gigs.”
However, McKemys stint on the coast left him looking at the Kansas City scene in a whole new light.
“The kind of work that I found in Kansas City was playing standards in a mostly straightahead, conservative style,” McKemy says. “That was fine, I still had lots to learn and I still do, but I got to a point pretty quickly where I had over 30 bookings a month but becoming more dissatisfied with the artistic level of what was happening. In Philly, the art aspect was so strong in the scene I ran in. So I got involved with Malachy Papers and started doing really adventurous free improv/rock-oriented improv by touring and recording with them.”
But again, lifestyle decisions kept McKemy yearning to be closer to home but remaining committed to carving out a niche for himself as a player while also trying to draw in more contemporary sounds into the traditional Kansas City scene. It was within these next steps of the journey that McKemy found himself moving from his roll as a sideman to occupying the spotlight as a bandleader, a title that McKemy claims with modest apprehensions.
“My bandleader concept is essentially borrowed from Miles Davis and Joe Henderson,” McKemy says. “I once read in an interview where Henderson once said ‘I don’t want to be a bandleader that tells people where to make an entrance or this or that. I just want to be a conduit of energy.’ If there’s anything I have a talent at, its being able to spot in other musicians things that I can work well with, things I can amplify and play off.”
McKemy now looks at such opportunities regardless of categorical style as part of his ongoing education, both for himself and his audiences.
“One of my projects is a free improv/hip-hop trio with a turntablist and beat producer,” McKemy says. “The reason I did it was because I hadn’t done it yet. I thought maybe there’s some stuff there I can learn. Sure, it’s a completely different aesthetic than whatever people call straightahead jazz, but I don’t really think of being a musician that wears different hats and tries to be this kind of guy one day and this other kind of guy the next day. Instead I want to be the same person but with so much integrated experience that I can be really rich and informed by everything else, even if it is a particular stylistic thing I might attempt only one time.”