When I first walked into the Mutual Musicians Foundation – I think it was 1983 – many of the greats who created and developed Kansas City jazz were still there. On a Saturday afternoon, you could sit across a table from and chat with Herman Walder, or Ben Kynard, or Baby Lovett.
But you knew that 1823 Highland was their building, their former union hall. You were welcome, but you were a guest in their clubhouse.
In the latter half of the 1980s, the building was refurbished. At the time, Jane Flynn, director of the Landmarks Commission, told me that most of the joists had rotted away and the four walls were being held up by little more than the ceiling. With funds secured after the Mutual Musicians Foundation was named a National Historic Landmark, 1823 Highland was structurally stabilized.
Its management proved less stable. As the first generation of Kansas City jazz musicians passed, the Foundation evolved. Some board members passed through pursuing only the best for the historic institution. Others allegedly used the Foundation for personal gain.
And to many of us, visiting on a Saturday afternoon or taking in a late night jam session still felt like we were visiting somebody else’s clubhouse.
Somehow, the Foundation was missed when redevelopment enveloped the 18th and Vine district. Buildings were torn down and replaced with museums and offices along the north side of 18th street. The Gem Theater was rebuilt on the south side. But development dollars overlooked Vine Street – which is still a disgrace – and Highland Street.
The Mutual Musicians Foundation sat off on a side street and was pointed to from the lavish new buildings as a historic relic with a reputation for being poorly run and anyway, it’s really somebody else’s clubhouse. Surrounding homes deteriorated. Windows were boarded in the decrepit hotel next door. Visit the shiny new museum, public. But the Foundation? You don’t really want to go over there.
The stigma stuck. History dictated that the Mutual Musicians Foundation be recognized as a crucial piece of the jazz district. But it was over on a side street where it more often than not badly managed itself.
The surrounding homes today sit beautifully refurbished and occupied. The hotel next door now looks new and is full with renters. Buildings along half of Highland Street still need work. But surrounding the Mutual Musicians Foundation is a neighborhood the city can showcase as proudly as the shiny museums.
New management is running the Foundation like a business. Through a federal grant, downstairs walls were reworked to tell the Foundation’s story. I don't like what they have done with the walls and feel it was unnecessary. But a business decision was made by the board, money was identified, and it was done.
This is a business now, not somebody’s clubhouse, and I respect that.
Management has brought in Brand USA, a public-private partnership promoting international travel to the US, to help market the Foundation. In June, the Foundation sponsors a meeting of jazz writers and bloggers, including highly respected author Stanley Dance, to tour the district, see the remaining historic structures and experience the Foundation, then go write about it.
And awhile back I noted the Foundation’s pursuit of a low power radio station license. More news on that is promised soon.
There's a pugnaciousness to the Foundation’s moves. This disrespected and badly managed historic building on a side street is determined to make its mark on the jazz world. This is noise beyond all night jams. The Mutual Musicians Foundation is set on making noise the jazz world will not ignore.
But there is still a division in the Kansas City jazz community over the Foundation. It cannot shake skepticism built from decades of dubious actions. An ill-defined set of musicians tried to organize a boycott of the Foundation last February for reasons never publicly explained. As far as I can tell, they were mostly ignored. A new organization, KC Jazz Alive, purportedly wants to bring together the Kansas City jazz community. Yet, officers of the Foundation tell me they haven't been asked to join.
Kansas City jazz is not a community that can thrive through division. It cannot survive apparently overlooked invites. It cannot survive its most historic member feeling it must doggedly make noise all alone. It cannot survive hurt feelings and silly boycotts.
I chaired The Kansas City Jazz Commission in the latter half of the 1980s, before the museums, when a multitude of jazz organizations set their own paths because nobody believed anyone else was doing it right.
Kansas City today can boast more jazz clubs than it has seen in a decade, thriving festivals (albeit festivals that are too small) at 18th and Vine and in Prairie Village, and young talent dominating the scene that just might be the best we've heard since Basie and Prez.
It’s time we get along with each other, all of us, no matter our past.