“The Drummer Loves Ballads”, a tribute to the late musicians of KC

“His disgust hung in the air like a thought bubble.”

This is how John Armato remembers the meeting that would lead to his latest album, “The Drummer Loves Ballads”, featuring a who’s who of Kansas City jazz musicians.

In the summer of 1981, Armato was in his final year at Winnetonka High School, playing drums at his first jazz festival at the Crown Center. In the midst of workshops, clinics and student performances, a jam session took place.

“I was kind of tricked into thinking it would be a musical experience,” Armato recalls. “But as any jazz player can realize, what’s going on is like an old-fashioned cup contest with everyone trying to show off. It’s all about higher, stronger and faster.

After hammering the upbeat switchboard “Cherokee”, the saxophonist who was in charge of the jam turned to the band and asked, “What do you want to play next? ”

“Nobody said anything, so I said, ‘How about a ballad? “Said Armato.” He just looked at me then said, ‘What’s up, man? Are you tired?’

Still, this drummer wasn’t tired – or joking – he really liked ballads.

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John Armato, who grew up in Kansas City, recorded “The Drummer Loves Ballads” with his 1964 Ludwig. Andy Amyx

The story turned out to be so critical that not only did it form the title of the album, but Armato actually includes a spoken, drummed-up version of the tale on the opening track.

“The album started out as a moment of rejection. But it finally became a reflection album, ”explains the native of KC, 57 years old.

“I wanted to present a range of styles that all loosely revolve around the notion of ballads: light bossa nova, French coffee waltz, great orchestral numbers, really melancholy things. It was important for me to show how the drums can not only scream, but also whisper.

The disc’s 16 tracks feature 34 musicians, including many of Kansas City’s best and a few imported guests. Pianist Wayne Hawkins, guitarist Rod Fleeman and bassist Gerald Spaits form the core of the group. Other notables include Lisa Henry, Brett Jackson, Doug Talley, Lynn Zimmer, Lucy Wijnands, Houston Person, Steffen Drabek, and the late Molly Hammer.

The album contains Armato’s first foray into songwriting, “Au Trocadéro”, a composition shared with Hawkins. The track is a tribute to his parents, Frank and Millie Armato, who both died eight months apart while recording the project.

“Growing up, whenever my parents heard a sultry ballad – especially with a big tenor saxophone – they always said the same thing: ‘This is the kind of music we heard at Le Troc,” he says of the past. Club Trocadéro at 39th and main street.

“They got married, (and) 63 years later and for six decades they’ve been like, ‘This is the kind of music …'”

Radiant with light / Le Club Trocadéro

Cocktails and jazz / The cool craze of the 1950s

The dance was tight / In front of the trio

Music so sweet / Just room to sway

“As a songwriter, I studied his lyrics for several weeks and after several tries, I realized that I could use every part of his lyrics, almost verbatim,” says pianist Hawkins, who composed the song. music.

“I was touched by the story of his parents’ favorite club. We wrote this song when they were both in decline, so it was like a last message of love for them. “

This album was not the only one dedicated to the deceased.

Saxophonist Kerry Strayer, original member of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra and its former artistic director, died in 2013 of prostate cancer. File photo by Tim Janicke Kansas City Star

“Memories of You” is a tribute to horn player Steve Patke, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2005. “Night Lights” pays tribute to conductor and saxophonist Kerry Strayer, who died of prostate cancer in 2013.

“Kerry and Steve were important players and friends for me over the next few years in the ’80s,” Armato said. “These were people I really loved and spent a lot of time playing with, and I just had very emotional reactions to their untimely death. I also strongly associated each of them with a particular piece of music.

Armato met Strayer while studying at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where the two were working on their degrees (undergraduate and graduate, respectively).

“We recorded a demo at UMKC studio that included ‘Night Lights’. I had never heard the song before, and it became one of those moments where it’s like, “This song is beautiful, and it just overwhelmed me.”

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Kansas City jazz singer Molly Hammer died in November after a long battle with breast cancer. “The Drummer Loves Ballads” includes one of his last recordings. PS Linden

The album also includes “Moonlight”, a duet between singer Ron Gutierrez and Molly Hammer, who died of breast cancer last year. (Ron’s sister Lisa is a reporter for The Star.)

“This may be one of Molly’s last recordings,” he says. “This was the last session of the project, which would have taken place on September 19, 2019, just three days after my mother passed away.”

When asked to name his favorite tracks on the album, Armato quotes the cover of “Shadows of Paris” by Henry Mancini.

“As a sort of production in its own right, its scope is cinematic. I love the orchestration of Paul Roberts. We have several guest artists, and Lucy (Wijnands) does this amazing vocal performance. I like the feeling that gives like a sort of sweeping moment, ”he says.

“For just a quartet moment where the core of us are playing, I really like ‘Making Rainbows’. It’s designed to feature Wayne Hawkins on the piano. It was the first thing we recorded, so I have fond memories, ”he adds, noting that it’s airing around his current home port of Sacramento.

The first memory of the drummer’s ballads came from network television.

“I remember watching ‘The Tonight Show’ with a singer doing a slow piece of music, and I remember being a little impatient when I was little. I wanted to hear Doc and the band roar. So, I don’t know if I fell in love with ballads early on, but when I fell in love with them, I fell in love with them really hard, ”he says.

After graduating from UMKC in 1987, Armato continued his musical career but also found a harmonizing career in communications. He eventually became director of media relations at Avila College. A job opportunity brought him to New York in 2004. He moved to San Francisco four years later. He is currently a senior partner at global public relations agency FleishmanHillard.

“I am an aspiring Renaissance man,” he confesses. “I’ve always had a lot of diverse interests. My first love is music. But as a writer I have always liked words. I am a lecturer. I like to tell stories. I did some voiceover work. I started my career right out of university as a freelance graphic designer. And I like the aesthetics of a really well-designed communication.

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John Armato, from left, in session for “The Drummer Loves Ballads” with guitarist Rod Fleeman and pianist Wayne Hawkins. Courtesy of John Armato

The elaborate packaging and website components (including an animated video) for “The Drummer Loves Ballads” reflect his abundant talents. As well as a booklet proposing “Libations for the listeners” of cocktails created especially for the disc. He recruited a friend from his agency who is a “wonderful mixologist” to create song-inspired drinks, such as Trocadero Sour and Moonlight Mule.

“I’m not really a wine or beer guy. My preference is a cocktail. But this idea literally came from a line in “Au Trocadéro” which reads: “Cocktails and jazz / This cool craze of the 50s”. It’s just trying to paint a picture of that almost “Mad Men” era. You know, go to the little jazz club and enjoy a cocktail.

Armato sees the album as a showcase (and a collision) of all his skills. It also represents a real exhibition of the sound signature of the city.

“When I grew up on the Kansas City scene, I underestimated the value or idea that there really is a Kansas City sound. The city loves to talk about Charlie Parker and Count Basie, and I I kind of thought that was our publicity as a city, ”says Armato.

“But when I was playing in New York or certainly here in Sacramento, there were times I would play a shuffle or a real straight swing until someone looked at me with a little smile, and they’d say: “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“I’d tell them I’m from Kansas City,” he said.

“They were like, ‘Yeah, I can hear it.'”

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All”.

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