When James Van Buren showed up to play the 1992 Utrecht Jazz Festival in Holland, fans stomped the stadium, screaming for his trademark "Three-handed Woman" ("She's right-handed, left-handed and underhanded too"). Van Buren used to play the drums with the likes of Lou Rawls, Mel Torme and Pat Metheny. But the showman in him, and his singular Kansas City vocal style, resulted in a second life up front and center stage. A producer and songwriter, Van Buren's second album, It's All Over, made the top 20 list on NPR's "All Things Considered."
Van Buren's only 64, and was tickled when one European reporter called him an "archeological find." He's well-known in Colorado and across the country, yet Van Buren is struck by how intimately his fans know his music when he travels overseas. "People just take you for granted in your own hometown; they don't recognize you until you start getting talked about in New York or LA. Then they start calling you "The people's own,' or "Colorado's own.' That's just the music business."
Recent years have given Van Buren some hard times. His ex-wife got some money out of him after realizing he wasn't doing too bad. One of his sons was killed in a drive-by in Los Angeles while just walking home. His mom's been sick. But it's not Van Buren's style to be bitter. "That's just life," he points out. With a new CD out, The Jazzy Side of James Van Buren, he's planning an upcoming multi-city tour.
Despite the fact that he has called Denver home since 1978, Van Buren doesn't play many gigs in Colorado. He doesn't want people to assume they can see him anywhere, anytime. But this weekend, he'll be highly visible at the first Pikes Peak Jazz Festival in Woodland Park.
What's the state of jazz in America right now?
This is the only art form this country's given the whole world, but people aren't serious about jazz. In Europe, they embrace it, but here they don't care. Over there, in Paris and London and Holland, they know all about you. But then again, Europeans care about art in general; they give their money first for art. Here in America, art is the last thing that gets any money.
So where's it headed?
There are less than 20 radio stations that play jazz full-time in the United States right now, and most of those are public radio. Still, it's better now than it's been for years. Congress made jazz an official national treasure in 1986, and that has raised awareness. There is jazz education in schools now, so we are raising young artists who know about the music.
Do you think racism, and the fact that jazz was originated mostly by black musicians, was a factor in how the music has been played in this country?
Oh sure, definitely. Back in those days, everything was segregated; they called 'em race records and wouldn't even play the music on white stations. People don't like to talk about it, still. But that's the way it is.