Monday, May 26, 2014

The Smart Museum

Tables and people filled every nook and cranny of the lobby. I’m sure if one more person had said they would come, space for them would have been found, but I don’t know where.

Normally, the American Jazz Museum is closed on Mondays. However, on this Monday, early in April, board members and friends of the museum had invited friends and associates to a free lunch, to hear presentations on how the museum and its programs are reaching out into and benefiting the community, and to ask for financial support.

We knew why we were invited. I walked in determined that I would not give a donation, it was just not in my budget at this time.

But when you’re sitting at a large table, and you’ve just eaten a good lunch that your hosts didn’t have to feed you, and donation cards are handed out, and pens are handed out, and you’re asked to make a donation, and you look around the table, and you see everyone else at the table, including the friend who invited you, filling out the cards and making donations, and you’re the only one at your table not using the pen you’ve been handed, and everyone else is using theirs, not just at your table but everywhere you look in that packed room, including people you know, some of whom might be looking at you not using your pen, and the lunch was good, and, well….

Don’t underestimate the peer pressure. I caved and made a donation.

This was for the American Jazz Museum’s PEER Into the Future initiative. PEER is an acronym for the museum’s mission: Performance, Exhibition, Education and Research.

I don’t know if the luncheon was the culmination of a campaign or the entire initiative. But a thank you letter noted that PEER Into the Future 2014 reached its goal of raising $120,000 for general museum operations.

That is impressive. Other jazz organizations could learn from the American Jazz Museum.


Part of its battle, from the start, is that this was never the museum that advocates of a jazz museum envisioned. In 1989, a complex was announced by the city with two grand halls and a theater embracing historical study, education and performance. In 1997, a smaller building opened, sharing space with the Negro Leagues Museum. Its collection was limited by funds, showcased relatively few musicians, and was derided in The New York Times by the Executive Director of The Count Basie Orchestra. To many who had pursued a dream since the 1960s, this was not the American Jazz Museum. This was the American Jazz Museum Compromise.


A feature in the 913 and 816 sections of last Wednesday’s Kansas City Star highlighted jazz education opportunities for the young. The article opened with the American Jazz Museum’s monthly Jazz Storytelling program, aimed at introducing children to jazz. The program has been entertaining and educating children for a dozen years.

Just last month, the museum co-hosted, with Penn Valley Community College, the 18th and Vine Jazz Festival, giving middle school, high school and college music students the opportunity to learn from professional musicians and perform in the Gem Theater.

Educational outreach is critical to the survival of jazz. The American Jazz Museum’s efforts are under-recognized and under-appreciated.

The museum also reaches out to the community with its annual Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival. Never mind that the event desperately needs a more succinct name. And overlook for the moment that this is a self-proclaimed jazz and blues festival that seems afraid to book much jazz or blues. The last two years the event was stung by misfortune beyond its control (rain and the death of a headliner). But for the two years prior, museum officials showed the wisdom and foresight of taking an event that had covered Parade Park, then couldn’t sustain its weight through the recession, and downsizing it to where it turned a profit. If both the weather and headliners’ health hold out this year, the festival should again turn a profit.


Part of it is animosity from the remaining dreamers. Part of it could be jealousy in seeing a professional staff while other jazz organizations run on the hopes of a few. I suspect some of it is simply leaders with conflicting ambitions who don’t like each other. But there are still pockets of the jazz community that look derisively on the American Jazz Museum. In doing so, they hurt themselves. This is an institution accepted by the community as a whole – I saw that in the packed lobby – which benefits Kansas City.


Last Saturday night, I drove through sparse traffic in the Crossroads district. It was a holiday weekend. Kansas City goes out of town for holidays. I probably wouldn’t have any trouble finding a table at The Blue Room.

The Blue Room, a part of the museum, was packed. Students from Omaha lined the seats along the edge of the upper level. Other guests hailed from other cities and towns. I shared a table with a couple who spoke Russian (I don’t think they they were visiting from overseas, but I can't be certain; I don’t speak Russian).

The Blue Room is more than a jazz club. Standing at Kansas City’s most historic corner, it is a destination for visitors.

And let’s not forget that just a couple years ago, after Jardine’s expired, The Blue Room, solidly, reliably, stood as this city’s principal location for jazz and a drink, until new club owners had the opportunity to help fill the void.

For the record, on Saturday night, the Jazz Disciples delighted everyone in that room.


The American Jazz Museum isn't ideal. When I walk through, I crave more space and more exhibits. But sixteen years after its opening, nobody else has built a monument to jazz more grand, or more smartly operated. It’s past time to recognize that.

Monday, May 19, 2014


I hated it.

Back in the 1980s, I was part of a group of volunteers who staged an annual jazz festival each summer in Volker Park, between the south lawn of the Nelson Museum and the Midwest Research Institute. With artists like Wynton Marsalis and Stan Getz, we claimed 100,000 patrons over the two day event, and in good years probably actually drew around 35,000.

In Septembers, another group staged a street festival in the 18th and Vine district. In the days before museums, stages were erected in grassy lots at 18th and The Paseo and at 18th and Woodland, and sometimes one on Vine towards 19th Street. 18th Street was closed for the weekend between The Paseo and Woodland. Craft booths lined 18th Street while jazz and blues, and on Sunday some gospel, filled the stages.

In time, within the jazz community, the festivals grew nicknames. The Volker Park event was the white jazz festival, while 18th and Vine hosted the black jazz festival.

I hated that.

That was thirty years ago.

Two weeks ago, I was speaking with a musician on the possibility of performing in this year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival. The musician was Black. Another musician of equal stature, who was White, might precede this act. I wondered whether some might view the two as the White headliner and the Black headliner. The musician I was speaking with was incredulous and asked, “Do people still think that way?”

Kansas City’s jazz community has evolved beyond sensitivities ingrained in me, beyond cautions that attitudes of past decades taught me to mind.

Jazz ensembles in Kansas City today are built on talent and friendships with blind indifference towards race. Some were built similarly thirty years ago, but others kept an eye towards the subtleties of a not always integrated marketplace.

Decades ago, some clubs booked jazz expecting more support than really existed. They booked the music not because they cared for jazz but because they expected it to draw crowds of people who would buy food and drinks.

There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, in the 1930s, didn’t Kansas City clubs book one jazz band over another in order to differentiate themselves from the juke joint next door?

Today, we understand that jazz is a niche music. But it’s a niche with a sufficient fan base to still support several clubs. The difference today is that in Kansas City, we can boast of jazz club owners and managers who are in this business in large part because they genuinely love jazz.

Talk to any of them – John Scott at Green Lady Lounge, Neil or Pat at Broadway Jazz Club, Lori or Doug at Take Five, Gerald Dunn at The Blue Room – and you’re talking to one of this city’s greatest jazz enthusiasts.

But you’re also talking to a jazz fan with a business to run, with a need to draw customers. That means offering music those customers want to hear, which translates into accessible jazz. In 2014, more esoteric styles of the music appear to have lost a home, except perhaps for The Record Bar on a couple of Sundays each month.

Musicians who are playing in Kansas City jazz clubs in 2014 are determined by the audience a jazz-loving club manager expects an ensemble’s music to attract. You can argue that’s always been the case. But unlike this city in the 1930s, or pockets of the area even thirty years ago, today only the music matters.

Yet, some corners of the jazz community don’t share this view.

Jazz was born in the Black community. Many in the Black community rightfully claim the music as a key part of their cultural heritage. That claim demands the respect of all of the rest of us who also want a piece of the music.

But I hear some claims that amount to a right to divisiveness based on that heritage, an argument that the music is ours, not theirs. And the claim is often followed by a perception of prejudice, of jobs not going to the music’s heirs.

Kansas City jazz was born in a racially divided past. It grew in part because extraordinarily talented musicians were forced to live and work within perimeters imposed by others.

Jazz cannot deny its past. The Mutual Musicians Foundation, Vine Street, the museums and history of 18th Street, always need to remind us of the unique claim jazz lays on Kansas City. That past, and all its flaws, are integral to what is Kansas City.

But jazz can only survive by looking forward. It can only live with the help of jazz-loving clubs offering the music that people who enjoy jazz in 2014 want to hear.

Regardless of color.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Count Basie, Broadcasting Live From 86th and Wornall in 1935

Today, houses line both sides of the street along Wornall between 85th and 86th Streets, and a church. In 1935, this was the outskirts of Kansas City. Here is where the tower for radio station W9XBY stood. From here, Count Basie and His Barons of Rhythm were broadcast live from the Reno Club six nights a week, and Kansas City jazz was discovered.

W9XBY was one of four experimental high-fidelity stations approved by the Federal Radio Commission in December, 1933.

The Early Shortwave Stations: A Broadcasting History Through 1945 explains:

“There were two aspects to high-fidelity experimentation. One was the establishment of several ‘high-fidelity’ AM experimental broadcast stations on channels just above 1500 kc [kilocycles], the high edge of the standard broadcast band. These were 1 [kilowatt] stations and enjoyed bandwidths of 20 kc rather than the standard 10 kc. The stations were W1XBS, Warterbury, Connecticut and W9XBY, Kansas City, Missouri, both on 1530 kc, and W2XR, Long Island City, New York and W6XAI, Bakersfield, California, both on 1550. These stations could be heard on the popular all-wave receivers of the day, as well as many older sets whose tuning overshot the 1500 kc end point of the AM dial….”

W9XBY was owned by First National Television (FNT), which also ran classes for aspiring engineers. The station reportedly went on the air on December 31, 1934. However, online it’s easy to find W9XBY broadcast verification cards with earlier dates, like this one:

It reads:

“VERIFICATION—W9XBY—1000 watts, 1530 Kc. Kansas City, Mo.

“This is to thank you for your report on the reception of W9XBY on [date and time are handwritten] 12-8-34 at 3:35 AM-EST. W9XBY is one of the 4 new ‘high-fidelity’ stations in the U.S., and is operated in the interest of higher quality radio transmission. The equipment used is NEW RCA-Victor 1-D, 1000 watt ‘high fidelity’ transmitter and using new RCA-Victor amplifiers and velocity microphones. Studios are located on the 29th floor of the Power & Light Building—transmitter near 86th & Wornall Road.

“Equipment is operated entirely by student-engineers enrolled in the training division of FIRST NATIONAL TELEVISION, INC., who also own and operate Television Station W9XAL in synchronization with voice channel W9XBY. Complete details regarding our technical training will be sent on request. THANKS!”

An ad in the March, 1935 Popular Mechanics touted the school:

“EXPERIENCED MEN Get the Big Radio Jobs!

“S.Q. NOEL, Pres. First National Television, Inc.

“Every qualified man I train puts in actual hours at my 1000 Watt Commercial Radio Station! When you have completed my training course, you are a tested radio and television expert – ready to step into the BIG PAY class! You have had actual experience behind you in genuine radio broadcasting work which gives you preference in any radio job. The hours you spend in my ultra-modern, ‘High-Fidelity’ commercial station W9XBY and my licensed television experiment station W9XAL mean dollars to you. Never before have you been offered so great an opportunity! Tune in on ‘High-Fidelity’ station W9XBY – 1530 kilocycles.”

W9XBY broadcast Count Basie’s band live from the Reno Club, in 1935 and 1936, for a half hour six nights a week.

FNT student and W9XBY engineer Newcomb Weisenberger, recalls:

“W9XBY broadcast live dance music late at night.  These remote pickups were manned by an announcer and [an] engineer.  I covered two such pickups on the same night.  The first was at Pusatari's Italian Supper Club….

“After this broadcast, I would pack up and move to [12th] and Cherry to cover a program from a black dance hall. The same announcer shared this assignment. (This was not a nice part of K.C. to visit after dark. But white people did!)

“I set up the W9XBY remote mixer on a small table, off stage, between the dance band and the door to the ladies powder room. The floorshow was so noisy that I heard it seeping into my headphone covers. It took all my attention and both hands to mix the sound….

“The waiter brought drinks for the announcer and me….  The wet glasses ate sticky rings into the fake leather cover of the mixer. As couples left, the waiters cleaned off the round tables by dumping the ashtrays onto the floor.

“The floor show ended with the two male dancers flat on the floor, face to one side, crawling off on their elbows and toes….”

Record producer John Hammond caught W9XBY’s signal late one night in Chicago. He came to Kansas City to see and hear Basie’s band for himself. Basie and his band left for New York in November, 1936.

W9XBY’s call letters changed to KXBY in 1936 or 1937 and later to KITE. In a reallocation of AM frequencies in 1941, KITE was moved to 1590 AM with a standard frequency. In July, 1942, it changed call letters again to KXKX. In financial trouble, the station went off the air in October, 1942. In November, 1942, the FCC ruled its license was in default.

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Week Off

A busy weekend, combined with work on two posts that are requiring more thought, more research and more time than I expected, mean no new post today.

Once upon a time, I pressed myself to fill this space every week. It was a personal goal. But that resulted in some not very good blog posts and occasional burnout. If I seem to be taking more weeks off these days, it's with the hope that when I do put something here, it's worth looking at.