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.

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