Monday, May 23, 2011

Commission Tales 5: Friends

Sometimes you wonder why you do it.

I wasn’t paid for chairing the Kansas City Jazz Commission.

First you do it because you believe in the cause, because you believe this organization deserves another chance to thrive.

You do it because you have experiences and you meet people you wouldn’t experience or meet any other way.

When your name and face become tied to the cause, you do it because you want to be tied to a cause which, ultimately, succeeds.

The full Jazz Commission held monthly meetings. I put them in City Hall, in part for the symbolism of this beleaguered commission meeting there.

Among the people who attended every month was Bennie Moten’s daughter, Zella Mae. I did not know her well. Zella Mae rarely spoke during the meetings.

One month, at the end of the meeting, Zella Mae stayed while I gathered the papers and supplies I brought with me. She stopped me at the door. There, Bennie Moten’s daughter clasped my hand between her two palms and said, “You’ve done more with the Jazz Commission than anyone since the start. Thank you. Thank you so much.”

You do it for moments like that.


We had enemies in City Hall. But we also had friends.

On the phone was a woman I knew from my jazz festival days. She had been involved in civic groups and we met somewhere along the way and remained friends. I didn’t know her husband was an assistant city manager. It had been awhile since we talked, so I was a little surprised when she called.

A city commission was meeting at her home the next night. It would be a casual evening. They would have drinks and finger food. Among the people there would be the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. Also there would be the chairman of the City Council’s budget committee who wouldn’t release the Jazz Commission’s funding and who wouldn’t meet with me.

Her husband suggested she invite me. Would I like to come?

I arrived early. The Chamber chairman and the budget committee chairman arrived together. During the meeting part of the evening, we stood on opposite sides of the living room. And during the mingling, they seemed to mingle away from me.

Towards the end of the evening, the assistant city manager tapped me on the shoulder and suggested I step into the kitchen. Now.

The Chamber chairman was standing at the sink, washing his hands. The budget committee chairman stood next to him. I walked up and introduced myself to the Chamber chairman. Cordially, we talked. He asked me about the Jazz Commission. I described the people involved. I described our plans. The budget committee chairman joined the conversation. What would we do with the city funding? I laid out how we could parlay it into more funds and stage events to benefit the city.

The conversation ended and we shook hands. The Chamber chairman and the budget committee chairman left. I had the chance to say everything I would have said in a meeting in City Hall. The Jazz Commission was no longer a nebulous body, in the budget committee chairman’s view, wasting city dollars. We had a face which he now knew. He knew our plan. I felt good.

Less than a week later, the councilman who had first befriended us phoned me. The budget committee chairman came to him with a new deal. $15,000 of the $20,000 budgeted for the Jazz Commission would go to the Commission and $5000 would go to another community group. I hesitated for just a moment. The councilman quickly added, “This is the best deal you’re going to get. You need to take it.” I did.

The funding would come up at the next budget committee meeting. The councilman suggested I bring supporters to speak in favor of it. As it turned out, they weren’t needed. The committee chairman introduced the funding, he introduced me, I spoke, reporters took notes, it passed unanimously. The committee chairman smiled the entire time, as if we were friends. The next week, the funding passed the entire City Council. The City Council continued to fund the Kansas City Jazz Commission each year I was chairman, and beyond.


Our former treasurer pled guilty and agreed to repay all of the stolen money. The incident would be removed from the person’s record when repayment was complete.

On a regular basis, we received checks from the county, passing along to the Jazz Commission the money being repaid. I don’t remember now how long it took. A year? Two years? But I remember seeing the letter from the county which accompanied the final payment, telling us that the full amount was restored.

By that time, the Kansas City Jazz Commission had moved on to new battles, but also to stage successful events and to contribute to the city.

By then, the events which precipitated those checks felt like they happened a long time ago.

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