Lonnie McFadden has something important to say.
“Happy 41 years of marriage. Happy anniversary to LaVelle and Martin,” the Kansas City jazz performer said, in the first half of her show on a recent Saturday night at Lonnie’s Reno Club at the Ambassador Hotel.
The old-fashioned nightclub is packed with guests. Black-and-white photos of Charlie Parker and other Kansas City jazz legends line the walls.
LaVelle and Martin smile as the audience cheers wildly.
At 66, McFadden is celebrating a milestone himself. It’s his 50th year in show business, but the first time he’s had his own place.
When McFadden’s regular gigs were canceled due to COVID-19 in 2020, he started a weekly live gig. Soon, however, staff at the Ambassador Hotel approached him to perform – first outside. McFadden jumped at the chance. He says his need to perform outweighs his fear of COVID.
“Just to play for people and there’s laughter and smiles and applause and dancing,” McFadden says. “Oh, man, it’s just a good time.”
McFadden named the club after the original Reno Club, where Count Basie forged the Count Basie Orchestra in 1935. And it was there that radio broadcasts first introduced Kansas City jazz to the world.
“I am happy to have the chance to tell the story of Basie and Hot Lips Page, Mary Lou Williams, The Chocolate Drops, Charlie Parker, so many great musicians and so many great things that have happened here in history jazz. and I like to tell the story,” says McFadden.
In the front row, Sandy and Leo Miller are at the Reno Club to celebrate 39 years of marriage.
“And just reliving Kansas City history. And I think that’s wonderful. Just wonderful,” says Sandy Miller.
Lonnie McFadden tap dances on stage at Lonnie’s Reno Club downtown at the Ambassador Hotel
McFadden grew up a few blocks from 18th & Vine. His father, tap dancer Jimmy McFadden – known as “Pops” – toured with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Count Basie in the best jazz bands of the thirties and forties.
“I’ve always been proud of the DNA, of everything we have here that makes our swing different,” McFadden says. “That makes it emotional. It’s bluesy. Oh, it’s just awesome to me.
McFadden was a 16-year-old trumpeter at Lincoln High School when he was picked up by legendary Kansas City funk band Clyde N’em and Her.
“Every weekend I go to school, I play these shows with Clyde N’em and Her at these nightclubs: AG’s Lounge, The Inferno, 50-Yard Line, all these mostly black clubs because At the time, a predominantly black band couldn’t play at Country Club Plaza.”
When the band went on the road, they asked him to join the tour. McFadden says he found himself at a crossroads.
“I had to make a decision and for me it was not a decision, but I had to speak with my mother and my father,” he recalls.
McFadden says he was able to convince his parents that he was serious about music.
“And that was the start. I left high school at 16 and left Kansas City to hit the road.
Around Kansas City, McFadden is known for putting on high-energy shows. But he sees it a little differently.
“People say I have energy,” McFadden says. “I have no energy. What you see up there is me celebrating life, celebrating the fact that I can actually do something that I’ve always wanted to do. And I do and I pay the bills.
“He’s the Michael Jordan of jazz,” says Cindy Bussjaeger, sitting at a table with a friend during a break from the music.
“I watched him at Phoenix Jazz in high school,” Bussjaeger says. “I would say it was 20 years ago. Super proud that he is at the Ambassador hotel and I mean goosebumps. You can’t leave this club without getting goosebumps.
Between songs, McFadden takes a moment to introduce these celebrations.
Butler Joshua Judy prepares the list of names and goes over it with McFadden before the show, so McFadden can be sure he pronounces each name correctly.
“Carl, birthday,” Judy reads. “Larry, birthday. LaVelle and Martin, 41st birthday.
Judy says people have been holding back on marking personal milestones during the pandemic. Now celebrating is more important than ever.
“For a lot of people, they haven’t been out for a long time,” says Judy. “They needed music. They needed that chance to celebrate. If it’s a special occasion, Lonnie recognizes it.
McFadden says he’s noticed the public has a different vibe now that the COVID situation has improved.
“Every week, I can feel the energy,” says McFadden. “And I don’t know if it’s something that happens everywhere. I hope so. But I know that here the electricity is palpable. I mean, people meet us halfway and we meet them. I mean, it’s a certain synergy that happens and I love that.
And after years of performing on a different stage every night, McFadden says it’s nice to have a place of his own.
“I know everyone here,” McFadden said. “I know all the maids. I know all the cooks. I am part of the Ambassador Hotel. These are my people. So it’s like, yeah, I’ve never been part of anything. And now I’m home.