Monday, February 8, 2010

The Jazz Museum That Wasn't

I was there, before the article starts.

Last week, The Pitch ran two stories on the 18th and Vine district. The cover story (here) details turmoil at the historic Mutual Musician’s Foundation. But it was the accompanying editorial (here), recounting development challenges in the jazz district, which stopped me. Because I was there, at the point where that story starts, and before. I was Jazz Commission chairman when the jazz museum was announced in March of 1989, at a press conference with the mayor and city council members and Dizzy Gillespie.

I’ve written before that my most memorable experiences with the commission involved being at the right place at the right time, or being at the wrong place at the wrong time. This covers both.

I was appointed to the commission as the jazz festival’s representative. Shortly after, the commission’s treasurer quit. I volunteered to be the new treasurer. Then I then found out the last treasurer quit after being accused of stealing city funds from the commission. Definitely wrong place, wrong time.

Then it got worse.

There was an investigation. The last treasurer did steal city money. There was a city audit. The executive director left. Stories ran on the front page of the Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Times. The audit was leaked to the Star. The commission chairman quit. I volunteered to be the new chairman. And I was appointed because, under the circumstances, nobody else was stupid enough to take it.

(There’s many more stories there, and those will fill future blog posts.)

I soon found that, as a commission chairman, some politicians tell you what they’d like done then turn to you to help make it happen. And people in City Hall wanted Kansas City to be home to a jazz hall of fame and museum. One councilman confided that a large portion of a then-recently defeated tax measure for public improvements would have gone towards building it, but the public wasn’t told because of the Jazz Commission’s untimely problems.

The commission’s new board needed to solve those problems (coming in, we knew that) so a jazz hall of fame/museum could move forward publicly (we didn’t know that).

Also, there were competing interests and could I help with those?

Eddie Baker of the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation wanted the hall of fame in the former Jewish Community Center building, near 83rd and Holmes (I toured the site with Eddie, recruiting support). City Hall wanted it near 18th and Vine. Eddie trademarked the name International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1986. That’s what the city wanted to call it. Eddie had contacts and influence with jazz legends who could donate memorabilia. The city did not. Eddie’s vision encompassed a jazz hall of fame, a museum, an area for artists in residence, a performing arts facility, an educational wing, and a home for the Count Basie Orchestra. Other than Kansas City having the jazz hall of fame, the city wasn’t sure what it wanted. The city could raise enough money to pull it off. Eddie could not.

In 1989, a compromise was reached. In the end, I was not involved (though I heard stories). The facility would be located at 21st and Vine, in the public works buildings across from the castle where the Black Archives was then housed. It would include all the elements Eddie envisioned. It would be named the International Jazz Hall of Fame. The city would identify funding.

A plan was quickly written:

“The [Parker-Gillespie] Institute will provide a formal forum, the first ever, for those musicians who have created and perpetuated this American jazz music; to teach others who are in pursuit of a career in jazz....”

“A Museum will be adjacent to The Parker-Gillespie Institute to provide an Archives Center for the historical study of jazz and related music forms….”

“The Basie Academy will offer instruction in all categories of performing arts….It will also be home of the world famous Count Basie Orchestra, which in addition to performances, will conduct clinics, seminars and workshops.”

“…[Mahalia Jackson] University will train students and present support programs to further advance traditional styles and more modern styles of gospel music.”

A color rendering showed a paved walkway crossing Vine Street and connecting the museum and the archives, with a statue of Charlie Parker and another of Count Basie along the path. The path led to a grand entrance, flanked by north and south wings. Architectural drawings detailed a new 535 seat theater, behind existing buildings, with classrooms, offices and a jazz radio station.

Phase one would encompass the Parker-Gillespie Institute, the museum, Mahalia Jackson University, a memorabilia shop, and general support areas, 27,000 square feet. Phase two was to include the Count Basie Academy and a support area, 12,000 square feet. The third phase would cover the theater and more classrooms, 11,200 square feet.

Add site work, design fees, furniture, fixtures, equipment, land cost, contingency and a $3,250,000 endowment, and the complex would be completed, as projected on March 1, 1989, for just under nine million dollars.

Construction documents would be ready by August 1, 1989. Construction would start by December 1. The first phase would open on December 1, 1990.

A press conference was scheduled for March 11. Dizzy Gillespie was in town for a concert at the Folly Theater on that date, and he would attend. A booklet was assembled with all of the facts, the budget, the color rendering, the architect’s plans, letters from Eddie, from Dizzy, from the mayor, from the Jazz Commission, plus maps, a congressional resolution, and the history of 18th and Vine.

The press conference was a success. The plan was introduced to the public.

And that was the end of that plan.

It fell apart when someone figured out you couldn’t really build all that, with endowment, for just under nine million dollars. So the development was scaled back, moved to 18th and Vine and combined with the Negro Leagues Museum. The theater became a renovation of The Gem. Eddie withdrew his support. The city lost the rights to International Jazz Hall of Fame. The American Jazz Museum opened in September, 1997.


But sometimes as Jazz Commission chairman, I was at the right place at the right time.

I got my copy of the booklet, the one handed out at the press conference, autographed that day by Dizzy Gillespie. I still have it.

Small victories, I’ll take them.


  1. Huh. I didn't know half of that. Here's one of many questions I have: Had the Count Basie Orchestra agreed to relocate to Kansas City? (I'm assuming they were based elsewhere. Or was the organization dormant in the years following Basie's death in '84?)

  2. Yes, the Count Basie Orchestra was active and had either tentatively agreed to relocate to Kansas City or to seriously consider offers to do so (I don't now remember which). They were located in New York and managed by Basie's adopted son, Aaron Woodward. As I understood it, Aaron and Eddie Baker were friends. In the turmoil that followed the museum plans being scaled back and Eddie withdrawing his support, Aaron withdrew the Basie Orchestra's support for the museum. The story was followed by the Kansas City Star, so a series of articles detailing the events should be in the Star's archives.

    After Basie's death, Thad Jones, former Basieite who then was co-leading the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra in New York, was hired to lead the Basie Orchestra. I heard that group and it was the hardest swinging version of the Basie band of my lifetime. Sadly, Thad Jones soon fell ill and passed away.

  3. Thanks for filling me in. These missed opportunities are so darn depressing.

  4. We want pics of the Diz pamphlet!

  5. Definitely very significant KC jazz history worth reading. Thanks KCJazzLark. Peace, Cb


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