The Tradition Jams On
The upscale department store, Saks Fifth Avenue rolled onto the Country Club Plaza with a fundraising event in honor of the Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz.
The year was 1983, and the Kansas City Jazz Festival presented Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, and George Benson. It was a happy time. Some say Kansas City jazz was thriving once again. A band made up of older jazz musicians that rehearsed at the Mutual Musicians Foundation performed in the store for the event.
Herman Walder, Ben Kynard, Orville ‘Piggy” Minor, LaVerne Barker, Oscar ‘Lucky’ Wesley, Franz Bruce, ‘Baby’ Lovett, Arthur Jackson, Claude ‘Fiddler’ Williams, and L.C. ‘Speedy’ Huggins and many other KC jazz greats.
The driving force behind this iconic event was a couple that had virtually grown up at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Sam and Pam Hider-Johnson were well-aware of the highs and lows of the jazz lifestyle.
As President of the Mutual Musicians Foundation, Sam Johnson had stayed up all night, keeping order at the club’s legendary all night jam sessions and spent time working tirelessly to keep pace with the former Black musicians-union’s rank and file. Sam even mowed the lawn.
Peeling off the idea of honoring senior musicians from the Foundation seemed like a wonderful idea at the time. So, the couple set-up their own 501C3 and named it, The Elderstatesmen of Kansas City Jazz, Inc.
The band of ‘older cats’ that rehearsed in the late afternoons at the Foundation became the official band of the organization. With a revolving membership, and some ‘younger cats” to augment when necessary, the Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz began at the Saks event in 1983 and remained a band through the 2018 Charlie Parker Festival. Not bad, for a bunch of seniors!
Morgan Faw, still a teenager at the time became a regular in the band in 2016, after meeting Pam Hider-Johnson during a Jazz Ambassador summer art opening event at Buttonwood Financial. Morgan remembered his conversation with Pan Hider-Johnson this way:
“My family and I were very interested in getting more involved in Kansas City’s jazz community. Pam and I spoke in the buffet line at the event. It was a casual conversation that led to a 45-minute discussion about all things KC Jazz. I introduced Pam to my family. From then on it seemed I would run into Pam Hider-Johnson everywhere I went.”
I remember Pam’s calm voice and that classic and genuine warmth and attention that gave me the feeling I was the only person in the room. She was saying, ‘Oh, you’re a musician, what do you play, who do you study with?’
She gave me all these things to think about.”
As they conversed, Morgan told Pam that he studied with Bobby Watson, Chris Burnett, and others. A short time later, Pam heard Morgan play in a duo with bassist, Ben Tervort at the American Jazz Museum.
This began a long association between Pam Hider-Johnson and saxophonist, Morgan Faw. Following an Elder Statesmen performance in the Atrium of the museum, Pam called to ask if Morgan would sit-in with the Elder Statesmen.
Morgan didn’t realize at the time that Pam wanted him to have the experience of meeting with and sharing with these wonderful veteran musicians, and for him to experience their wisdom first-hand.
After he became a regular member of the band, Pam Hider-Johnson began calling Morgan Faw her “grandson”. Morgan remembered his experience in the band this way:
“The Elder Statemen are not based in forward thinking, but they are there to remind young folks like myself that the music is connected to life. To play the music of their era and honor the past, encouraging us to remember and acknowledge the past, as we go forward. I played with Lee Brown, who grew-up with Charlie Parker, and with Reggie Watkins and so many more, all with so much to share.
Pam wanted me to gain from these masters-in-music and to learn other things in life from the experience; patience, listening, wisdom, and always having your horn with you and being ready to play music.
She taught me, scolded me, and made me realize the importance of keeping the past alive. We do a service to our community and ourselves by keeping their names and stories alive.”
Burying the dead, feeding the poor, encouraging young talent, helping those that have trouble staying in their homes were just a few of the side jobs the Johnsons’ took on under the wide brim of the Elder Statesmen.
The CODA Jazz Fund became another offshoot, as the burden of keeping everyone taken care of continued to mount. Musicians were passing on and did not have the money for a proper burial. Through the work of Sam & Pam Hider-Johnson funds and resources appeared, and the problem was resolved for many seemingly musicians successful Kansas City jazz musicians.
The job description continued to expand as the Johnsons’ continued to take on all that they could. Pam wrote grants and utilized the funds to continue the ever-expanding support of the musical community. Sam, an eloquent public speaker inspired the community to join in the fight. This led to an annual American Jazz Museum event, honoring musicians. These events included, free medical check-ups, fruits, and vegetables and of course, live jazz from the Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz.
A close friend and confidant of Pam Hider, Toni Oliver and I spoke intimately about the passing of her close friend and her great loss. The next morning, I received this beautiful voicemail:
“Good morning,” said Toni, “I just wanted you to know that Pam spearheaded a food distribution center from Covenant Presbyterian Church, located at 59th & Swope Parkway for more than 5 years. She made sure to feed the musicians and the poor as she delivered the food to them, I forgot to mention, and it is such an important factor in her life. Thanks for your time!”
Many in the jazz community know that Sam Johnson had a devastating reaction to a flu shot that has kept him bed-ridden for several years. Pam carried on, undaunted as a board member of KC Jazz Alive, and in many other of Kansas City’s jazz and philanthropic organizations, until she was struck down by a heart attack in 2019. Sam and Pam roomed together until last month.
Pam Hider-Johnson died due to Covid 19 in late October. When I first contacted Toni Oliver about this article, I said, “I am so very sorry for your loss”. Her response:
“Our loss, she did so much for our musicians.”