Kansas City is mostly known for two things—barbeque and jazz. The Kansas City Stockyards in the West Bottoms can take credit for the barbeque, but who can Kansas City thank for its jazz?
The history behind this mystery lies within the walls of the Museums at 18th and Vine. Located in the heart of Kansas City’s historic Jazz District, the 50,000 square-foot complex is home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum.
Originally called the Kansas City Jazz Museum, it was built in 1997 and later obtained its national reputation and role as “the world’s first museum dedicated to the research, preservation, and exhibition of America’s classical music—jazz.”
Jazz was born out of New Orleans around the 1920s, but was simultaneously popping up in places like Kansas City and Chicago. Ragtime and folk blues were already popular, but jazz advanced an array of other variations, such as boogie blues, big band, swing, bebop, bossa nova, soul and funk.
Now considered one of the world’s greatest musical forms, jazz originated in 19th century African American culture, and out of Kansas City came some of its most exceptional contributors.
During the 1920s and 30s, Kansas City had over 200 clubs. Its style was known for being soulful and bluesy, often showcasing enthusiastic solos played to speakeasy audiences. A few of Kansas City’s jazz legends include Joe Turner, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams and Jay McShann.
At the American Jazz Museum, guests can view a short film produced by former Kansas City Mayor Emmanuel Cleaver II that reflects on Kansas City’s jazz experience, featuring commentary from jazz artists.
“The first time I came to Kansas City, I was on my way to Omaha and I stopped through,” Pianist Jay McShann said in the film. “When I hit 12th Street, I couldn’t get out of the car fast enough. You could hear ‘ole Joe Turner hollerin’ the blues.”
McShann came to Kansas City in 1937 and created a successful dance band featuring some of the greatest musicians in the area, including alto saxophonist and Kansas City native, Charlie Parker.
Jazz percussionist and composer Max Roach said, “To live in a city like [Kansas City] is how you really learn the craft. They had all kinds of what we called classrooms—joints, clubs.”
Many great jazz artists didn’t get their start in Kansas City—Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis—but they’re all remembered in the American Jazz Museum.
What’s important to remember is the history surrounding jazz. Louis Armstrong once took a stand against racism that caused a media uproar in 1957 when, in protest to Arkansas school segregation, he cancelled a government-sponsored trip, saying he “had it put in my contracts that I wouldn’t play no place I couldn’t stay.”
In addition to the museum’s sounds, exhibits and displays, it’s possible to play the role of an audio engineer, where volume, stereo positioning, room sound, harmonies and melodies can be adjusted through headphones at one of the “mixing stations.”
Guests may feel like they’re traveling back in time to the days of speakeasies and swing as they pass walls of neon lights and album art. It feels about as close to what walking down 18th Street would have felt like when it was boomingin its prime. Visitors will be moved to dance as they listen to piano rhythms and soak up the words of great jazz artists, and if the inclination becomes too overwhelming, they can head over to the Blue Room.
The Blue Room is a club within the museum that comes to life four nights a week with performances by local and national jazz artists. The museum’s “Swing Shop” offers an array of memorabilia and music, including an album called “The Real Kansas City,” which includes 25 original recordings of jazz and an extensive history of its local origins.
Right across the street sits the Gem Theater, which opened as a 100 seat movie house in 1912. It was completely restored in 1997, and now serves as a 500 seat performing arts venue that welcomes an assortment of musical performers.
Visitors of the Jazz District can also stop by nearby Arthur Bryant’s famous barbeque restaurant at 18th and Brooklyn Ave. It was founded in the early 1920s, right about the time all that jazz was pouring out of Kansas City clubs.
UMKC students interested in accessing the spontaneously intricate music can tune into K-ROO Student Radio at www.k-roo.org on Wednesday nights from 8 – 10 p.m. on “Jazz with Joel Stratton.”