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