Monday, July 26, 2010

History and Homes and 18th and Vine

You’re headed east on 18th Street and cross The Paseo.

As you cross, on your left, you see an outdoor pavilion. When jazz thrived here, that was the site of the Street Hotel, 1508-12 E. 18th Street. It extended from the corner to maybe the end of what most recently was the Peachtree Restaurant. This was the hotel for black patrons in Kansas City. Inside, at 1508 E. 18th, was the original Blue Room night club (and the Rose Room, a popular restaurant).

Now look to your right, at the building labeled Paseo Bootery, 1513-1/2 E. 18th Street. That structure housed offices of the Kansas City Monarchs baseball club.

Down the street a bit, on your left, the door with Jazz District Apartments, 1514 E. 18th Street, was the address of Jones Recreation Parlor. It was still in operation when museum construction began. A barber shop in the front operated since 1920, while pool tables in the rear dated to 1911. Jones patrons included Count Basie, Bennie Moten, Lester Young, Satchel Page, Joe Louis, countless others.

Next door, 1516 E. 18th Street, today is the address of the 18th and Vine Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation. But once that was the address of the Subway Club, managed by Piney Brown, of Big Joe Turner’s Piney Brown Blues fame.

Glance down Vine Street. In the last post (here) I discussed the fabulous history of the Eblon Theater/Cherry Blossom club. Did you know that the building adjacent to it, still standing, was the first car dealership in America owned by a black man?

Now continue east on 18th and cross Vine. The Lincoln Building, built in 1921 and renovated in 1981, anchors one corner. Across from it, at what was 1610 E. 18th Street and is now about the rear half of The Blue Room, was El Capitan, another well remembered club. The building which housed it was demolished for the museums.

Further east, the restored Gem Theater is a district highlight. But stand in the adjacent lot and gaze across the street. Today you see the museum’s changing exhibition space. Once, at 1616 E. 18th Street, you’d have seen Bennie Moten’s home.

Cross Highland Street. At the corner is the former National Guard Armory, its facade now boarded. I recounted its history in this post.

Continue to the last boarded front before The Kansas City Call, 1713 E. 18th Street. This was Lucille’s Paradise Band Box, a club where Charlie Parker played. In 1987, the city started demolition of the building as a dangerous structure, before the process was halted by protests and the district’s historic status. A city department head later said he made a mistake.

Now back up a bit, back to Highland. Turn south on Highland. Jazz fans know this street. At 1823 is the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Built in 1906 as a duplex, it was purchased in 1928 by Black Musicians Local 627 for use as a union and recital hall. In 1982 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. If you haven’t been to a weekend late night jam session here, why not?

(Many of the above facts are from the 1982 18th and Vine Walking Tour map and brochure published by the Kansas City Landmarks Commission.)

Look next door to the Foundation. That was the Rochester Hotel. Today boards cover windows, graffiti mars its front, the frame which held its name hangs empty. Across the street, clapboard houses, boarded and numbered one through six, survive, barely, behind a chain link fence.

These are not proper surroundings for a landmark.

Plans exist to change that. An article in The Kansas City Star details how the city needs to decide whether the homes and hotel merit its priority list for state and federal tax credits. If they do, money will be available to renovate them into 22 apartments for senior housing at a cost of $200,000 per unit.

The Star editorially supported the project. The issue was also discussed on KCPT’s opinion show Ruckus (here; the topic starts at 17:36).

Initially, I was skeptical. We’ve already lost more important homes. Try to find, for instance, 1516 Olive. Today it’s warehouse grounds. But it was the address of the home where Charlie Parker grew up. I remember Eddie Baker, of the Charlie Parker Foundation, describing how he lobbied city councilmen to spare the house. He said they told him it was just another old home to be razed.

Meanwhile, Lucille’s, where Parker played, was nearly destroyed. I don’t know what shape it’s in behind that boarded front. Is it secure? And the Eblon/Cherry Blossom burned 26 years ago. Do we leave that weed-backed facade as is for another quarter century? Aren’t these structures more historically significant? Shouldn’t these be saved first?

But then I walked the district. So many of the historic addresses are gone. New buildings are nice, certainly, but they’re new buildings. They’re not the Subway Club. They’re not Bennie Moten’s home.

The homes across from the Foundation were built for the black middle class, circa 1920 and before, with original occupants like a real estate agent and a civil engineer. They’re the last remaining example that Kansas City’s jazz district boasted not just businesses and bars, but family homes, too.

These houses are not, by themselves, historic. Twenty years ago they would never have been my priority for saving. But today, so few of the jazz district’s original buildings remain that, in a broader context, their survival has become crucial to understanding and experiencing the character of the area where our internationally renowned reputation lived.

I’m dismayed by many of the choices made in the district over the decades. But those are done. The focus now must be on not losing anything more. One article says the homes and hotel are “shovel ready.”

If they’re ready to be saved, save them. Now.

Then focus on the rest of the district’s fragile history. More stands ready for the salvation queue.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Second Most Historic Jazz Structure in KC

All that remains is a facade. But I contend it’s the second most historic jazz structure in Kansas City, because of what happened behind that facade. If you know some KC jazz history, you may know the stories. But odds are you didn’t know they happened here.

KC’s most historic jazz structure is the Mutual Musicians Foundation. But next time you’re in the area, stroll south on Vine from 18th Street. Maybe two-thirds of the way down, on your right (west) side, you’ll find a two-story wall braced from behind. The building it fronted is long gone (it extended as deep as the still-standing building next door). Weeds tower behind it. Doors are covered with boards.

Those doors first opened in 1923 to an auditorium showing silent films, accented with velour drapes, seating 1000. The Eblon Theater, at 1822 Vine, was described in The Kansas City Call as “keeping with the plans to make it the best theater owned by Negroes and catering to Negroes.”

But it’s the stories that bond the building to jazz history.

Like the one about the stranded piano player. TOBA (Theater Owners Booking Association), the black vaudeville circuit, started in New York and toured west to Kansas City, then reorganized before returning east. In 1927, a young piano player was left here when the act which brought him disbanded. So he took a job playing organ to the silent movies in the Eblon.

His name was Bill Basie.

In spring, 1933, remodeled and converted to a night club, the Eblon was rechristened the Cherry Blossom. In his autobiography, Good Morning Blues, Basie, then in Bennie Moten’s band, described it: “It was designed to look like an oriental spot. All of the decorations were Japanese, including a Buddha on stage, and the waitresses wore costumes that made them look like they were Japanese. That was about as far as it went. You couldn’t get any Japanese meals in there or anything like that.”

George E. Lee’s band opened the Cherry Blossom and played the first few months before being replaced by Moten’s group. By fall, the ambitious Moten was ready for another venue. But band members wanted to stay. Moten’s was a commonwealth band, meaning each member held an equal vote. The band voted Moten out as leader and Basie in.

The band’s name was changed to Count Basie and His Cherry Blossom Orchestra.

Basie: “That was the first time I was actually billed as Count Basie….The truth is that I named myself Count Basie back when the Cherry Blossom was still the Eblon Theater.”

An article in The Call, reporting the turmoil, noted the band’s new leader was a piano player “who calls himself Count.”

A commonly told tale says a radio announcer bestowed Basie with the title of Count during a broadcast from the Reno Club. That’s wrong. Those broadcasts started three years later.

Behind that facade, Basie became Count Basie.

(The band later broke up and its members, including Basie, rejoined Moten.)

The Cherry Blossom was also site of the infamous battle of the saxes with Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins (nicknamed Bean), king of the tenor sax, was visiting KC with Fletcher Henderson’s band.

Hawkins did not join jam sessions. But that night, said Basie:

“Herschel [Evans] and Ben Webster and Lester [Young] and a few others were up there jamming, and Hawkins came by….Somebody kept asking him to play, so he finally went across the street to the hotel, and…he came back in with his horn….

“All those other saxophone players were up there calling for their favorite tunes, and then Hawk went up there, and he knew all of the tunes, and he started calling for all of those hard keys, like E-flat and B-natural. That took care of quite a few of the local characters right away. Not many piano players were eager to mess with that stuff. I knew I wasn’t.”

Mary Lou Williams remembered:

“I happened to be nodding that night, and around 4 a.m. I awoke to hear someone pecking at my screen. I opened the window on Ben Webster. He was saying, ‘Get up, pussycat, we’re jammin’ and all the pianists are tired out now. Hawkins got his shirt off and is still blowing. You got to come down.’

“Sure enough, when I got there Hawkins was in his singlet taking turns with the KC men. It seems he had run into something he didn’t expect. Lester’s style was light took him maybe five choruses to warm up. But then he would really blow, then you couldn’t handle him on a cutting session. That was how Hawkins got hung up.

“The Henderson band was playing in St. Louis that evening, and Bean knew he ought to be on the way. But he kept trying to blow something to beat Ben and Herschel and Lester. When at last he gave up, he got straight in his car and drove to St. Louis. I heard he’d just bought a new Cadillac and that he burnt it out trying to make the job on time.

“Yes, Hawkins was king until he met those crazy KC tenormen.”

The legend of Kansas City jazz was cemented behind that facade.

The building was later renovated as another club, the Chez Paree. By 1944, it was home to Jay McShann and singer Walter Brown.


On August 2, 1984, at 2:54 p.m., a two alarm fire was reported at 1822 Vine. Six pumper trucks, four ariel trucks and 44 fire fighters responded. The blaze was declared under control 28 minutes later. The fire was classified as arson.

Efforts were made to stabilize the walls and salvage the structure. But in the end, only the facade could be saved.

At the time of the fire, the building had sat empty for over twenty years. Between that and its historical significance, officials could not make a damage estimate.

I know the value. The ghosts behind that facade are priceless.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

This 'n That 'n Ruth

Every weekend, I listened. It was a time when I was discovering jazz, and each weekend these two ladies, for two hours on KCUR, played traditional jazz and discussed the musicians and the music and then played more.

Ruth Rhoden and Ginny Coleman were not polished broadcasters. Not even close. They were two jazz fans who played the music they loved on the local public radio station at a time when local public radio stations filled weekend hours with volunteer programming.

I learned about jazz and jazz musicians while listening to Ruth and Ginny. I know I’m not the only one.

Ruth Rhoden passed away last week. She was 85 years old.

Nobody was more supportive of Kansas City jazz and jazz musicians than Ruth and Ginny. Need time to promote a new jazz album or jazz event? You had it. Each year I was involved with the jazz festival, Ruth and Ginny offered as much of their show as we cared to monopolize to promote it. I was their guest several times.

But make no mistake, their interests and their show were focused strictly on traditional jazz. I recall being on their program in 1989, the year Pat Metheny – not traditional jazz – was to headline the festival. I arrived at the station, and suggested one cut to Ruth from Pat’s current CD that would fit their show. Both Ruth and Ginny were enthusiastic while on the air. But when the show went to a break, and the microphone was dead, Ginny looked me in the eye and asked, If this is a jazz festival, why didn’t you book jazz?

(Answer: The other headliner and the most of the local acts would satisfy their more traditional tastes. Pat’s jazz was better known and would draw a larger crowd. We needed both.)

I don’t know what Ruth thought. She said nothing. She was far too polite to grill a guest.

Ruth Rhoden was one of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure to know in KC’s jazz community. My condolences to her family.


Congratulations to KC trumpeter Hermon Mehari, back this week from Sydney, Australia, where he placed second in the Jazz Improvisation Competition of the International Trumpet Guild.

You can find his name (badly misspelled) on a list of contest winners here. You’ll find his photo with the other finalists (and further evidence that Australians apparently can’t spell either Hermon or Mehari) on page 9 of the pdf here.

Further proof (not that any of us around here needed any) that Kansas City is home to some of the world’s greatest jazz musicians.


An interesting article on discusses how jazz musicians make money. Without mentioning specific income, they talk to three jazz musicians, each from a different generation, and reveal how each earns a living. The article is here.

A discussion in the comments of a post on this blog, several months back, pondered just what is the market share for jazz CD sales today. This article offers some distressingly sad facts:

“In 1999 the Recording Industry Association of America said that jazz sales were 3 percent of all recording sales. By 2008 they were 1.1 percent. In 2000 Soundscan reported that 18,416 jazz albums were sold; nine years later, fewer than 12,000 jazz-genre albums were purchased.”


Monday, July 12, 2010

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Crosscurrent at The Blue Room

They’re one of the best jazz groups in town. Somebody give these guys a gig.

Crosscurrent is drummer Sam Wisman’s collection of top KC talent playing the music of Lennie Tristano. T.J. Martley claims Tristano’s piano seat, plus Matt Otto on tenor and other reeds, Zach Beeson on bass and Sam on drums. And this night they were joined by equally superb sax-man (but, I hear, soon to leave KC, alas) Steve Lambert.

They assembled for the group’s second public performance last month at The Blue Room. Sharp and precise playing complex Tristano compositions, the talent of each shines through on imaginatively conceived and thoroughly enlightening solos. They’re as good as you’ll find in Kansas City – or damn near any city.

On Mondays at The Blue Room, a single set is followed by a jam session. But one set of this group is not nearly enough. I want to hear more. So somebody, do me a favor and book these guys. I’ll be there.

(And when that happens, everyone else: You should be there, too.)

Here’s how it looked that June night. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

Crosscurrent. Left to right: T.J. Martley, piano, Steve Lambert, tenor sax, Zach Beeson, bass, Matt Otto, reeds, Sam Wisman, drums

Steve Lambert and Matt Otto

T.J. Martley on piano

Matt Otto on tenor

Sam Wisman on drums

Steve Lambert on tenor

Zach Beeson on bass

Matt Otto and Sam Wisman

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Other Jazz Museums: Final Thoughts

When I was named chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission, Eddie Baker was the first person to call, to set up a meeting at the Charlie Parker Foundation.

I knew Eddie from my years organizing the Kansas City Jazz Festival. But this meeting was different. He gave me a tour of the Foundation, then we sat in his office and talked. He offered insights into the leaders of city’s other, then numerous, jazz organizations. He offered advice on running an organization. He offered tips on dealing with the press.

I remember one of those tips in particular.

At the time, two writers at The Kansas City Star and The Kansas City Times (we had two newspapers then) covered jazz. One was Bob Trussell. Eddie told me that Trussell used a technique where, after you answered his question, he would sometimes say nothing, leaving a long, awkward silence, hoping you would say something more to fill it, something you never intended to tell the press. Don’t say anything, Eddie warned. Eddie recounted that he was warned and the first time he spoke with Trussell, he was sitting with the woman who advised him. The long, awkward silence started and, Eddie said, he started to fill it when the woman kicked him under the table, hard. He learned.

The first time I spoke with the reporter, I got the long silence. And I said something to fill it. Nothing horrible, nothing, as I recall, that wound up in the newspaper. But I learned. And every time after that, when I got the long silence, I heard Eddie Baker’s voice in my head warning me, Don’t say anything. And I didn’t.

Eddie Baker was a friend. I miss him.

Even years after I had stepped aside from KC’s jazz organizations, if Eddie saw me at an event he would make his way across a crowded room to shake my hand and ask me how I was doing.

Eddie tried organizing events. That was not his strength. But whenever an event where I helped turned sour, Eddie would call to apologize and ask what he could do to make the situation right

In the end, he wanted to do what was best for jazz and jazz musicians. His ideas often didn’t fall into the mainstream or flow with conventional wisdom. He dreamed big, and had more of his dreams been realized, jazz in Kansas City today would be in a better place. But he couldn’t marshal the resources to make his biggest dreams happen, and he wouldn’t accept the compromises reality demands.

The reality is Kansas City has the jazz museum it could afford. Give Emanuel Cleaver credit for that. He had the authority to marshal resources and he used it. Then he had the wherewithal to stay with the project to see built the museum that could happen.

What resulted isn’t what Eddie Baker dreamed. That wasn’t feasible. But before city money was appropriated, before it was necessary for politicians to take over, Eddie pushed the dream which kept a jazz museum in the forefront of Kansas City’s ambitions. Yes, he created animosities along the way. But what dreamer sure of his vision doesn’t? And what resulted, in the end, is a wonderful monument to jazz of which Kansas City can be proud. To my knowledge, nobody elsewhere has found the money to build one better.

Yet, frustrating to me is that Kansas City is home to all of the pieces of what could be a spectacular jazz museum and research facility, but they will never come together. The other part is UMKC’s Marr Sound Archive, a terrific library of music and history, including the collections of such luminaries as Jay McShann and jazz music producer Dave Dexter. It is a professionally curated and locally under-recognized resource for studying jazz, and music in general. But it’s within UMKC’s purview and blissfully separated from the political squabbling and cultural battles which marred the American Jazz Museum’s birth. The two will not come together and, for the good of the Archive, they shouldn’t. But the thought of the institution this city could have if they successfully did, is tantalizing.

The true value of the American Jazz Museum is best summed up by quoting from one more news story (when the museum operated under its first name, the Kansas City Jazz Museum):

“[The student] jumped up and down as he listened to musical selections at the Kansas City Jazz Museum. He flipped through as many tracks in the rhythm section as he could before the time came for his group to move on.

“‘It was the first time I heard of Count Basie,’ he said….

“Before the excursion to the 18th and Vine Historic District, most of the students didn't know about the mystical strains of Shirley Horn and Sarah Vaughan.

“Today, they are among the growing number of youngsters learning to appreciate jazz. From the northern tip of Kansas City to the southern reaches of Johnson County, school groups that visit the museum are tuning into the style that put Kansas City on the jazz map and listening to the music that is arguably America's foremost cultural contribution to the world….

“‘To have all the audio (and) visual available at the museum is going to be invaluable,’ [one teacher] said. ‘There are some things, particularly when you are teaching jazz because it is such a historical medium, that can't be learned any other way….’

“[A fifth grader] said: ‘Before the museum, I didn't know anything. Now I know how jazz started – at 18th and Vine.’”

The Kansas City Star, October 27, 1997