Much of the last week was spent with family. An uncle passed away, and other uncles, aunts and cousins gathered from afar to mourn and talk and reminisce.
My aunt reminisced about dating in Kansas City in the 1940s. Specifically, she remembered going to Milton’s, a jazz club then at Armour and Troost, to hear Julia Lee, piano and vocals, with Baby Lovett, drums. She recalled Julia’s double entendre songs, titles like All This Beef and Big Ripe Tomatoes and The Spinach Song (better known as I Didn’t Like It the First Time). Her sex education, she said, came from listening to Julia Lee at Milton’s.
To know Kansas City jazz is to know, too, Milton’s. It was the iconic Kansas City jazz club.
When I knew it, Milton’s Tap Room stood at 32nd and Main Street and no longer featured live bands, instead playing Milton’s enormous record collection day and night. Anyone of drinking age in KC in the early ’80s or before (or those somewhat near drinking age; that wasn’t necessarily an issue at Milton’s) more likely than not knew the joint, too.
Milton’s neon sign glowed out front. Inside Milton Morris, jazz era raconteur, sat at the front, big black eyeglasses on his owl-like face, cigar in hand, scotch nearby, telling tales. Music by Ben Webster or Count Basie or Buck Clayton or Julia Lee or dozens more filled the darkened room. Large backlit silhouette cut-outs of musicians and musical instruments graced the back wall. Milton knew how to run a jazz joint. It’s what he’d done since the 1930s.
A friend talks of a Saturday afternoon when he stepped into the barely lit club and Milton called out to him, told him to come join him at the table where Milton sat with a friend. Milton wanted to introduce him to a buddy. And Milton introduced him to Count Basie. When Basie passed through town, he’d usually stop by to see his old friend Milton, who had employed Basie in a KC club decades before.
You never knew who you might run into at Milton's. What you did know is that you'd enjoy good drinks, hear good jazz and have a good time.
Both Milton and Basie passed in 1983. Milton’s niece inherited the club and a year later sold it to a group of investors and fans. Another friend was part of that group. He tells of the day they turned on the lights to clean the place. Maybe the first time the lights had been on in years. They found walls stained by decades of cigarette smoke. They found dead bugs and rat droppings behind the silhouettes.
And in the loft, they found Milton’s spare false leg.
I’m working now to open a new jazz club in KC. I don’t know if I’ll be successful (lately I’ve faced more discouragement than encouragement). But if I am, Milton’s is the model. If I’m successful, among my intentions: Live Kansas City jazz nightly. No dead bugs. No rat droppings. And any false legs in the club must be attached to paying customers.