A 1980 study on possible uses for the Armory Building (today more commonly known as the Boone Theater) at 18th and Highland in Kansas City’s jazz district, commissioned by the Black Economic Union and funded by Office of the Arts of the Ford Foundation, surveyed 465 black Kansas City residents and 530 white Kansas City residents between October and December, 1979. Among the findings, on page 9 of the report, is this:
“To attract people, the leaders of the jazz effort in the Armory must face the issue of the safety reputation of the 18th and Vine area. Half of the white population and nearly three-quarters of the black, are nervous about the assumed dangers of the neighborhood; our researchers noted that white patrons…who had come into the neighborhood mid-day, were nervous about coming back at night. There would need to be a major public relations effort, to convince black and white customers that the Armory is a safe place to be.”
Earlier this month, on October 8th, organizers at the American Jazz Museum staged a magnificent Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival inside of and in the area behind the museum at 18th and Vine. The crowd loved the music and the environment. The organizers managed all of the details with professionalism and organizational skill, from seating to music to presentation, right down to the designed typeface on the signage (as opposed to hand-scribbled signs so often seen at similar events). They marketed the event well, with a solid web presence and ads in the Kansas City Star reaching out to the entire metropolitan area. I’ve previously mumbled about one of the headliners, and more promotional posters and cards placed around town would have helped build excitement. But the truth is, this was largely a model of how the best jazz festivals are staged in the 21st century.
The festival drew, by my estimate, about 7000 people. The crowd was, by my observation, predominantly urban.
By contrast, the Kansas City Jazz Festival in the 1980s in Volker Park, for which I was an organizer, drew more than 50,000 people over a weekend during its best years. The later Blues and Jazz Festival held in Penn Valley Park attracted even larger crowds.
You can blame the declining popularity of jazz for Rhythm and Ribs not attracting more people. You can blame the price of tickets. You can blame competition during a busy weekend in Kansas City.
But I blame a lingering, entrenched and undeserved reputation, an image identified in that study of the nearby Armory building nearly a third of a century ago, which continues to choke the neck of 18th and Vine. I blame Kansas Citians too naive to recognize a treasure.
I can understand my father’s generation avoiding the area, having grown up with its past. But I thought my generation would fix that. I thought that by building museums and restaurants and staging live music, the vitality and safety of the area would become obvious. I thought the Crossroads district growing east would bridge a path over less desirable neighborhoods to the front door of Kansas City’s history.
We’ve bridged nothing. Neighbors in my suburban neighborhood openly question whether I’ll arrive home from 18th and Vine safely. The truth: I’ve been going there for nearly three decades and have never – I repeat, never – suffered a negative experience.
Yet, perceptions breed divisions.
Last year the suburban community of Prairie Village started its own jazz festival. This year’s event was rained out, but last year’s organizers claimed a crowd of 7000 people for the day.
We’re dividing into a city of provincial jazz festivals. One in the city for an urban crowd, one out south for suburban patrons. Why can’t these 14,000 people – an apparent 7000 per festival – and more, mingle at a single celebration? Given our heritage, Kansas City deserves a major jazz festival.
Such a vision, to happen here, would first require a neutral site easily accessible from throughout the community. That shouldn’t be the case, but it is, because too many of my neighbors will enjoy jazz in Prairie Village but not at 18th and Vine. Attitudes anchored in ignorance cripple the jazz district’s ability to attract a substantially larger festival crowd.
It’s not because of the music. It’s not because of festival organizers. It’s because of misbegotten perceptions ingrained in too many Kansas Citians of my generation.
Still, at one place, I see a thread of hope.
I go down to the Mutual Musicians Foundation, at 1823 Highland, late on a Friday or Saturday night, and there I see young, diverse crowds interact. I see them mingle. There I see the potential of 18th and Vine.
There I see hope that the next generation might do better.