The great jazz and rhythm and blues singer and Kansas City native Priscilla Bowman is buried in a cemetery adjacent to the Quindaro ruins. Her grave sits at the crest of a hill, under the shade of a large tree. It’s an appropriately beautiful setting for someone whose singing brought joy to so many of us.
I saw the gravesite some years ago while on a guided tour of the Quindaro ruins which, with permission of the nearby Allen AME Church, included the cemetery.
(If you don’t know, Quindaro was established in the mid-1850s as a town for slaves escaping across the Missouri river, from current day Parkville, to find help and a route to freedom on the underground railroad. The town’s ruins, today within Kansas City, Kansas, were uncovered in the 1980s.)
Priscilla Bowman’s gravesite is one of the few properly identified in these burial grounds, one of the few anchored by a marker. Most of the grounds are littered with the stumps, if that, of the tombstones which once filled the cemetery. The tour guide said that in the 1950s and 1960s, police or sheriff’s deputies (I don’t now remember which) used the tombstones for target practice, firing bullets at them until none remained.
I cannot imagine the feeling of knowing your mother’s or grandmother’s gravesite was desecrated, and her tombstone destroyed, by authorities using it for target practice.
People, of course, are shaped by experiences common to their community. And sometimes others of us cannot understand those experiences, because we know no comparable frame of reference.
Differences were unspoken but prominent when I first encountered Kansas City’s jazz community in the 1980s. Back then, if you stepped into the historic Mutual Musicians Foundation on a Saturday afternoon – and often, I did – you would find many of the musicians who created Kansas City jazz in the 1930s. But, while you were welcome in the landmark, you understood that you were walking into the elderly musicians’ domain. You were walking into the gathering place of supremely talented people who, throughout their career, had been personally banned from certain hotels and restaurants and public water fountains.
You knew you were walking into an institution which existed because, until the mid-1960s, Kansas City had separate unions for black musicians and white musicians. And you were walking in there less than twenty years after those unions merged.
We sensitive, liberal youth responded naively. The Kansas City Jazz Festival was staged in Volker Park because that was a universally accepted location, where most people would go, near both the Country Club Plaza and the city’s black community/white community dividing line – even more decisively so then – of Troost Ave. We consciously scheduled a balance between numbers of black and white musicians on the festival stage. We envisioned a common gathering place and a common reason to celebrate – jazz! – bringing Kansas City together. In the end, we contributed no particular good but created no harm.
In 1989, Sprint was the festival’s title sponsor and chose to produce a CD of Kansas City jazz, entirely local musicians. When a representative of the company faxed to me the list of groups their producer planned to include, I faxed back that there was a predominance of white musicians and that could cause them problems within the jazz community. As a result, Eddie Baker’s New Breed Orchestra was added.
During my festival years, I succeeded at persuading big corporations to react naively, too.
Today, I can't help but note the preponderance of white musicians playing Kansas City jazz. I shouldn’t note it, but I can’t shake instincts and sensitivities built on past experience.
Jazz is, after all, a music which grew from black experiences. In Kansas City, during years of prohibition and overt racism (Count Basie once described Kansas City as “a cracker town, but a happy town”), jazz provided a living and a route to national recognition for talented musicians in a tight community. Performers from throughout the Southwest flocked to Kansas City for the opportunities available here. In certain, less obvious and more modern ways, maybe 18th and Vine of the 1920s and 1930s was a Quindaro of its day.
When I question some of Kansas City’s young jazz musicians today on whether race is an issue for them, I might as well be asking if they’ve visited Mars. I’ve received odd looks that the question should be raised. It’s not an issue.
What a perfect response.
Yet, I know of pockets of insular attitudes within Kansas City's jazz community, mostly among some who personally experienced or whose parents personally experienced the worst of exclusion. Some people in the community have told me they’ve tired of encountering these attitudes. But I greet them with respect.
Because I cannot imagine the feeling of knowing your mother’s or grandmother’s tombstone was destroyed by authorities using it for target practice.