Monday, March 26, 2012

We Didn't Have Another Way

Here, it wasn’t a question of waiting for a hero. We’d waited for decades. The visionaries had no money. Those with resources failed to see value in the risk, or lacked the passion to lead what we all knew was right. So here, it happened the only way it could.

The Atlantic has followed up their excellent story on Kansas City’s 18th and Vine District with a visit to Memphis and a thriving Beale Street (here). Beale Street has grown into a premiere tourist mecca, mostly through private development, spearheaded by developer John Elkington. Meanwhile, 18th and Vine, spearheaded by city government, has not.

Elkington argues, “You've got to have somebody who's saying, ‘Hey, I'm gonna risk everything ’cause I believe in what we’re doing….’ Government cannot do these projects. Government can do infrastructure, they can help with regulations, they can make sure that the building department makes life easier, they can help with zoning. There's a lot of things they can do. Anything more than that is really counterproductive because you want to be on the edge all the time in these developments, and government is always politically correct.”

He adds, referencing 18th and Vine, “That should be one of the great places in America. But I think they allowed government to really say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna solve this problem. Here’s what we're gonna do: We’re gonna recreate this.’ Can't do that. You gotta get people to take risks, as we did, and then what happens is if it’s successful then other people will come in and take measured risks too.”

He’s right.

And he’s wrong.

What worked in Memphis would not have worked in Kansas City. We lacked one critical element. And without that element, had city government not stepped in, 18th and Vine would still be a decrepit neighborhood of grassy lots and history mostly boarded tight.

Because 18th and Vine never inspired a private visionary with the resources to take risks. 18th and Vine never had a John Elkington.

But then, Kansas City approached its historic district from a different direction. Kansas City’s primary passion was to build an International Jazz Hall of Fame.

Organizations had been devoted to that goal since 1964. In 1969, Kansas City Jazz, Inc. explored establishing a Jazz Hall of Fame near 12th Street and The Paseo. But, as one organizer conceded to the Kansas City Times 15 years later, “We had lots of people with ideas but nobody with money.”

In 1979, the Music Director and Conductor of the Kansas City Philharmonic advocated a Jazz Hall of Fame in Union Station. He got the assistant to the director of the National Endowment of the Arts involved. What he didn’t get was money.

Eddie Baker, president of the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation, argued passionately for an International Jazz Hall of Fame in the former Jewish Community Center building at 82nd and Holmes when it became available in 1983. The Kansas City Council responded by passing a resolution to establish a Jazz Hall of Fame in the 18th and Vine District. Eddie responded by accepting a check from Count Basie Enterprises for $10,000 for a Jazz Hall of Fame in the former Jewish Community Center building.

The chairman of the then-newly established Kansas City Jazz Commission responded by telling The Kansas City Star, “I think it ought to be where there’s some semblance of jazz history, and 18th and Vine certainly has that. The funny thing is, here’s all these people arguing over where the location should be and nobody has identified the money that will be required to do this.”

The Jazz Commission was in turmoil when I was named chairman in 1987. Yet, a City Council member confided that a then-recently defeated tax increase would have been used, in part, for a Jazz Hall of Fame, though the public wasn’t told. And in my first meeting with the Mayor, the Mayor emphasized the need for Kansas City to be home to a Jazz Hall of Fame. He asked me to meet with Emanuel Cleaver, then a City Councilman representing the Fifth Council District.

In 1989, after I left the Jazz Commission, Cleaver introduced a capital improvements plan which included money for a Jazz Hall of Fame in the 18th and Vine Historic District. As City Councilman and then as Mayor, Cleaver shepherded the development through to its grand opening in 1997.

That’s a third of a century after a group first discussed the possibility of establishing a Jazz Hall of Fame in Kansas City.

Elkington is right. An individual with resources, willing to risk everything because he believes in it, will drive a development with the necessary edge. But Kansas City didn’t have anyone like that. Maybe we didn’t because the bickering scared them all away. Or maybe we didn’t have anyone like that because in Kansas City, we just didn’t.

And The Atlantic’s writer is right. The 18th and Vine development we got – incomplete, but as far as the city’s money could take it – lacks the critical mass to thrive as a destination the way Beale Street thrives.

There’s the downside of how we did it.

But I remember what was there before. I remember the trash-strewn fields at 18th Street and The Paseo and at 18th and Woodland. I remember the buildings across from the Gem Theater which looked like they may or may not still be standing tomorrow. I remember the shack with barbeque (terrific food but questionable health standards).

I remember a decrepit neighborhood of grassy lots and history mostly boarded tight.

The historic Cherry Blossom nightclub burned in an arson fire in 1984. The city started to tear down historic Lucille’s nightclub in 1987. Both were privately owned. There were our visionaries.

We couldn’t wait any longer for a hero.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Transforming the Paseo YMCA

It was 92 years ago last month. Nobody noticed.

On Friday, February 13th, 1920, a dozen men, some owners of black baseball teams and others prominent black sportswriters, met at the Street Hotel, at the corner of 18th Street and The Paseo, and the Paseo YMCA, on the west side of The Paseo between 18th and 19th Streets. Throughout the day, team owners discussed their goals. Then, throughout the night, Elisha Scott, a black attorney from Topeka (whose sons would later argue for desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education), with the sportswriters, drafted the constitution for the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs, operating the Negro National League, Inc.

On Saturday, February 20th, 1920, in the Paseo YMCA, the team owners adopted that constitution. The Negro Baseball Leagues were established.

The Paseo YMCA, circa 1925
The Negro Leagues were a tightly intertwined part of the culture which also birthed Kansas City jazz. Count Basie discussed attending Kansas City Monarchs games on Sundays “because that’s where everybody was going on a Sunday afternoon.” The Blue Room’s bartender said of the Monarchs, “They were the life of Kansas City in the Negro vicinity.”

I wrote about this two years ago. Much of what follows echoes that post. It warrants updating.

Two years ago, I applauded barbecue baron Ollie Gates’s commitment to raise money to save the Paseo YMCA and rehabilitate it as the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center. The building then faced The Paseo with windows and doors missing or boarded and the fire escape dangling from its side. This building is an integral part of the 18th and Vine Historic District. The legendary Cherry Blossom nightclub stood just a block away. Yet, two years ago, the Paseo YMCA sat dilapidated, another monument to the neglect of history.

Don’t underestimate this building’s significance. The Negro Baseball Leagues showcased some of history’s greatest athletes. But more, they fed the integration of baseball. And the integration of baseball is commonly cited as a key step towards the acceptance of integration in America.

And the charter creating the Negro Baseball Leagues was signed in here, in this red brick building facing The Paseo, on Saturday, February 20th, 1920.

Now look at the building today.

The Paseo YMCA today
New windows and repaired doors seal it from the elements. The fire escape is painted, repaired and re-attached. The exterior is clean. A small park on the south side celebrates Buck O’Neil and the league born inside.

I don’t know what’s left to do inside. Two years ago, The Kansas City Star reported that $17 million was needed to completely rehab the building. Organizers started with a $1 million gift from Julia Irene Kauffman, daughter of KC Royals founder Ewing Kauffman. I suspect there’s a long way to go. But the transformation so far is remarkable. You look at the building today and you know it is going to survive.

The Paseo YMCA today, from the south
But that’s not enough. I’ve maintained for decades that the Paseo YMCA is one of the three most historically important buildings in the Kansas City area. The other two are the Mutual Musicians Foundation, also in the 18th and Vine District, and Harry Truman’s home in Independence. Those other two sites have won recognition as National Historic Landmarks. The Paseo YMCA has not.

Among the criteria evaluated for such recognition, according to the federal government (here), is, “The quality of national significance…ascribed to…sites, buildings, structures…that possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States….”

And, “That [the sites] are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to…the broad national patterns of United States history….”

And, “That [the sites] represent some great idea or ideal of the American people….”

What could be a site of more national significance, or a place with more value in illustrating our heritage, or a building representing a greater American ideal, than one where there was laid so important a cornerstone on the path to equality?

The rehabilitation that has begun on the Paseo YMCA is stunning. Now start the process of officially recognizing the building as the national landmark it became 92 years ago last month.


Facts and quotes in the first few paragraphs are from The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball by Janet Bruce, University Press of Kansas, 1985.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Kansas City in the Early '30s, Part 2

On Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson:

“I didn’t actually get to Kansas City until late March or early April [1936]…and I’ll never forget the first night. I went to the [Reno Club]. Basie had a show at eight o’clock at night, eight p.m. to four a.m. They did three shows a night. There were about four chorus girls, there was a whorehouse upstairs….

“So there I was at eight o’clock and I stayed until four that night. Then afterwards Basie said to me, ‘Come on, John, I’m gonna take you to the Sunset.’ I had never heard Pete [Johnson] and Joe [Turner] at that time. Joe Turner was singing at the bar and Pete was in the back room playing, and while Pete was playing Joe would be singing. A room apart, and it was unbelievable. Joe’s invention was just endless. One blues could take a good half hour or forty minutes if it was slow and twenty minutes if it was fast…. He was just marvelous….”

— John Hammond, Goin’ to Kansas City

“Sometimes I used to go by and listen to Joe Turner singing the blues. The first time I met Joe he was working on Independence Avenue. He was the bartender  down there in a basement joint where they used to serve whiskey by the dipper. Big Joe was the singing bartender. He would sing his numbers right behind the bar while he was mixing drinks. He’d be hollering the blues and dipping that good taste, and also taking special care of all the cats he knew. He was in charge of that whole basement down there.

“Later on, he was working for Piney Brown at Piney Brown’s Sunset on Twelfth Street with Pete Johnson, playing piano with Murl Johnson, and sometimes Baby Lovett on drums. And they were something. When I heard him that first time, I said to myself, Jesus, I never heard nothing like this guy. He was the blues singer in that town. Anybody who came to Kansas City talking about singing some blues had to go listen to him.”

— Count Basie, Good Morning Blues

“The first time I came to Kansas City I’d never been exposed to anything like was happening then. Joe Turner and Pete Johnson and [drummer] Murl Johnson were working together [and] I would go down…the street and listen to Joe sing.

“I had no idea that sometimes he’d be making up the words as he’d go along. The thing that really amazed me was that Joe would keep singing for thirty or forty minutes straight through…. Between times he’d tell Pete to roll ’em [play a boogie-woogie piano solo], and Pete would roll ’em on the piano for maybe ten minutes, then Joe would come back [and] sing ten or fifteen minutes. You know, they’d play one tune and it’d last forty-five, fifty minutes and that was the set. A one-tune set…. I’d never seen anything like that.

“I didn’t know when to go to bed. I was afraid I’d miss something.”

— Jay McShann, Goin’ to Kansas City

On Count Basie and Andy Kirk:

“Basie’s band built up their popularity on socializing. I mean the big following they had in and around Kansas City. But that whole band didn’t believe in going out with steady black people. They’d head straight for the pimps and prostitutes and hang out with them. Those people were like a great advertisement for Basie. They didn’t dig Andy Kirk. They said he was too uppity. But Basie was down there, lying in the gutter, getting drunk with them. He’d have patches on his pants and everything. All of his band was like that.

“Andy Kirk was winning all the battles, but he didn’t have the right people to give him a build-up. His was the most popular band in Kansas City, but Basie ended up with...John Hammond behind him. You think Kirk’s band didn’t have the drive of Basie’s, but I’d put it a different way. Some bands – and I could name others in Kansas City – had too much orchestration. When you listen to the original Basie records, they sound so exciting. Sometimes it wasn’t really the solo that made it exciting, but the riff backing it up that Buster Smith, Herschel [Evans], Jack Washington, or any of the four guys in the sax section set. That also left the soloist free. The horns weren’t fighting to make that note on time, like in those real experienced bands of Duke, Lunceford and Andy Kirk. One band that went to New York and didn’t really make it, because it didn’t do enough ad lib playing, was Harlan Leonard’s. That was why Jay McShann’s band outblew them every time. Jay would give us the first chorus then turn us a-loose.”

— Gene Ramey, The World of Count Basie

On Mary Lou Williams:

“…Sometimes I used to sit in at the Subway Club. I remember working down there with a drummer…. But I didn’t hang around there too often, because the Subway also used to be one of Mary Lou Williams’s stopping-off places, and I always used to get out of her way. Anytime she was in the neighborhood, I used to find myself another little territory, because Mary Lou was tearing everybody up.”

— Count Basie, Good Morning Blues

“[Kansas City] was such a great city for the music, when anyone visited they always stayed! They never left. That’s where I met Thelonious Monk, and Joe Smith, the great trumpet player. Fletcher Henderson stayed there, married a girl. It was just so joyous to go out every night, around seven o’clock and jam and play the piano and mingle with people all [through the] morning.”

— Mary Lou Williams, Goin’ to Kansas City

Monday, March 5, 2012

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Benny Golson at The Blue Room

If you know jazz, you know his compositions: Killer Joe, Along Came Betty, I Remember Clifford. And even at age 83, he bounces onto the stage like some musician just starting his career. But then he tells you stories about childhood friends, like John Coltrane, and he starts to play, and you know you are hearing a jazz legend.

Benny Golson took The Blue Room stage Saturday night, February 25th. And, with Sharp Radway on piano, Jim Anderson on bass and Kansas City’s Tommy Ruskin on drums, he took The Blue Room. A standing room only audience hung on every word – Benny tells you stories from his past between songs – and on every note. Because we were in the presence of jazz history.

Here’s how being in the presence of jazz history looked. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

Benny Golson

Benny Golson's quartet at The Blue Room. Left to right: Sharp Radway, piano, Jim Anderson, bass, Tommy Ruskin, drums, Benny Golson, saxophone.

Benny Golson on sax

Sharp Radway on piano

Benny Golson talks about his friend John Coltrane

Jim Anderson on bass

Benny Golson blows

Tommy Ruskin first drummed for Marilyn Maye fifty years ago this year. He's still drumming for the best in jazz.

Benny Golson talks

Bass, drums and sax

Benny Golson in The Blue Room