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  • Writer's pictureJAM

Big for Kansas City Jazz

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

For the past several decades Merle Stalder has been frequenting jazz clubs around the city. You might have seen a lanky unassuming fellow sitting quietly and listening to good music. You may have seen him out of the corner of your eye as you headed to the bar for a drink or gazed across the room at the crowd. In fact, he was such a fan of Kansas City’s Jazz, that if you look really closely, you may see him as a young man on the set of The Last of the Blue Devils in 1974, when the film was made at the Mutual Musician’s Foundation.

Merle Stalder

Merle Stalder passed away in Kansas City on Christmas Day.

On August 22, 1985 Merle married Marcia Stenger Bordelon in Falls City, Nebraska. A few years later the vivacious couple purchased, as a second home a high-rise Plaza condo with a view.

President of the Jazz Ambassadors at the time, Mike Rollf said, “The Stalders purchased that condo for 2 reasons: To be walking distance from the jazz clubs and to host a viewing party of the Plaza Lights each Thanksgiving for the Jazz Ambassadors.”

The second home allowed Merle and Marcia to be seen out in the clubs most Thursday through Saturday nights. Merle was busy with the family cattle farm in Richardson county and the Stalders weren’t all that young when they married in 1985, Merle was already 57.

But you would not have guessed it. The newlyweds loved to travel, collect art, listen to jazz and play Trivial Pursuit, a game they were virtually unstoppable at. They came from Falls City, Nebraska, but they had each been traveling the world since the early 1950s.

The Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors owe a great debt to the Stalders and to many other jazz loving couples, who have fostered Kansas City’s rich scene by supporting musicians, and by quietly funding events that hired those wonderful musicians.

“Merle could always be counted on to go the extra mile when we needed financial support,” said Rollf. “I remember Marcia and Merle volunteering to greet the artists as they checked into the hotel at the Kansas City Jazz and Blues Festival one year.” Little did they know the Stalders also took care of the fees for the musician’s rooms. “This all went very well,” said Rollf, “until the couple bought drinks and partied with the performers to the point that several of the musicians were a bit tipsy when it was time to get to the gig.”

Merle & Marcia Stalder with pianist Joe Cartwright in 1991

A now legendary event, The Jazz Ambassador’s Jazz Lover’s Pub Crawl, drew thousands of listeners each year, to abandon their vehicles at their favorite nightspot and then jump on a bus to who knows where until the wee small hours of the morning. The number of abandoned cars found by the nightspot’s morning clean-up crews may have ended this unbelievably fun series of events, leading the city to host the more traditional jazz festivals.

The festivals that began with Kansas City Jazz ’83 and ran through the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festivals of the late 1990s, and early 2000s would not have been possible without the support and quiet guidance of these knowledgeable jazz fans.

Merle had a good head for business. He and his father formed a partnership and led Stalder Cattle Company. Merle was a fourth generation Stalder whose ancestors came to Richardson County, Nebraska in the 1850’s. His aunts introduced him to the worlds of history, art and music, taking him to the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

In 1950, Merle Stalder graduated from the University of Nebraska, he was a member of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and served on the staff of the Daily Nebraskan. He and several friends organized the original university rodeo with Merle as the announcer, and those friends held Old Cowboy reunions for many years.

He was stationed in Austria and served in the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1954.

Pianist, Joe Cartwright, remembers the Stalders as founding members of the Brownville Concert Series in Brownville, NE;

“The very first year of the Brownville Concert Series, Marcia and Merle sponsored my trio, with Bob Bowman and drummer, Tim Davis at the hall’s very first jazz concert,” said Joe. “Merle was very influential in my career, by financing record projects and I played the Brownville Concert Series more times than I can remember.”

Joe remembers Merle Stalder as, “big for KC Jazz”.

Merle and Marcia donated most of their extensive art collection to Richardson County Library & Community Foundation. That art has been part of shows in the Stalder Gallery, which they built and it has been shown in various gallery and museum shows around the United States. Marcia passed away January 15, 2002.

Merle served on the board of directors of the Richardson County Bank and on the Board of Directors for the Museum of Nebraska Art.

He was awarded the Thomas C. Woods III (Partner in the Arts) Governor’s Art Award in 2008. When the Falls City Library and Arts Center was built, Merle provided the funds to build the Stalder Gallery as part of the new library and commissioned a sculpture for the front of the library.

One never knows who the may run into after bedtime in a dimly lit jazz club.

If you’d like to offer a tribute to Merle Stalder, memorials are suggested to the Richardson County Library & Community Foundation (P.O. Box 37, Falls City, NE 68355).

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