Here’s what I didn’t expect. Because I’ve driven through most of these neighborhoods, I’ve explored them any number of times, trying to understand the context of Kansas City’s jazz history. But I’ve always approached them from my home in the suburbs. I’ve entered them from the south. Approaching these neighborhoods from the north, from the center of the district on out, they way they developed and the way they disappeared, brings a different perspective and broader understanding.
I didn’t expect that.
Last week, the Mutual Musicians Foundation introduced, explained, demonstrated and provided rich context for Kansas City’s extraordinary jazz history to a group of writers and bloggers from around the country. Famous authors and writers for publications as prominent as The Wall Street Journal saw our history and heard, in The Blue Room and at the Foundation’s late night jam, some of the young musicians carrying it forward.
Authors Stanley Crouch and Chuck Haddix discussed their books on Charlie Parker on Thursday night at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center. Next time, someone really needs to test the microphones first. But the intimacy of the conversation forced the audience to concentrate on words being said. Crouch’s responses consistently returned to understanding the music. He elegantly described how in jazz the musicians on stage hear each other and respond, and how that sets a live performance apart from any studio recording. Within that context, we understood the intelligence that elevated Charlie Parker’s music to another level. Haddix concentrated on the history, such as the multiple Kansas City homes Bird lived in, facts unrecognized until researched for his book. Both discussed the influence on Parker of growing up in Kansas City at a time when he could stand in the alley behind the Reno Club and hear Lester Young and Buster Smith blow the magnificent evolution of a music that grew from the streets.
But the true highlight of the conference was a bus tour.
Limited funds changed the transportation from an intended fine tour bus to a church van with a cracked windshield and seating for fourteen. Didn’t matter. This was a fascinating look at the three square miles that Kansas City’s Black population was confined to during the days that musicians in this city invented one of the pillars of jazz. It started at the Black downtown, 18th and Vine, and covered the streets outwards from there.
I’ve visited Troost Lake, off The Paseo. But I’ve always approached it from the south. Driving to it from the north illustrates how it was part of a community, the lake where the Black population was allowed to go. I’ve seen the nearby street that angles sharply towards the east. But I never knew that street was angled to define a dividing line between the portion of Vine Street where Black Kansas Citians could live and the portion where they were not allowed.
It took little imagination to envision the endless grassy fields, extending south to 27th Street and east to Prospect, as neighborhoods once packed with homes and businesses. Driving into them not as an outsider would but from the community’s downtown, brought a fresh perspective. I could understand this as a once-vibrant community welcoming musicians moving here from the southwest and elsewhere in the 1930s to find work.
This land has been cleared for over fifty years. New homes are sprinkled throughout the area. A few of the buildings and homes that have survived the years are gorgeously refurbished, while others look ripe for demolition. It’s an urban area that, with the proper explanation, adds important context to the Kansas City where jazz thrived.
A Friday panel that was part of the gathering looked at the musician union’s place in Kansas City jazz historically and today, and offered unionism as a solution for low wages for musicians. The historical perspective fit this conference. But calls for a revitalized union felt more like grasping at hopes.
A more nuanced program discussing solutions for jazz musicians supporting themselves today is being co-sponsored this Friday, June 27th, in the Folly Theater’s Stakeholder Room by KC Jazz A.L.I.V.E. and the Elder Statesmen of KC Jazz. Admission is free.
The stated goal:
“These organizations have teamed to address the unemployment issues area musicians presently face. Realizing that all musicians will not secure musical work on a consistent basis, many can explore other employment opportunities/options to achieve the same goals. The objective of Musicians Assisting Musicians is for unemployed musicians to work whether it's musical or non-musical employment.”
A press release continues:
“….From 11:00 am until 1:30 pm, a panel of musicians, business owners, union representatives and corporate America, will explain how they've been successful at securing musical employment; bidding on contracts; developing relationships with the Convention and Visitors Association and American Federation of Musicians 34-627, etc.
“Other music organizations, employment services, medical insurance and accounting services, will be on hand for an informative panel of presenters….”
Honestly, I’ve so far been less than overwhelmed by some other initiatives of KC Jazz A.L.I.V.E. But with this panel, the not-for-profit group is carving out a valuable niche for itself in the Kansas City jazz community.