Monday, March 16, 2015

A Quarter Century Later

Twenty six years ago last Wednesday, the plan was announced that would lead to construction of today’s American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Museum complex.

The announcement was the culmination of intense negotiation and compromise.

Eddie Baker, a musician and executive director of the Charlie Parker Foundation, had advocated an International Jazz Hall of Fame in Kansas City since 1977. But not at 18th and Vine. That neighborhood, he felt, was too closely tied to Kansas City jazz to be the location for a museum embracing all styles of jazz. In 1983, after the Jewish Community Center announced plans to move to Johnson County, Eddie promoted their soon to be vacated building at 82nd and Holmes as the perfect location for the Hall of Fame he envisioned. In 1983, the Kansas City Council passed a resolution stating that a Jazz Hall of Fame in Kansas City would be located in the 18th and Vine district. In 1984, Count Basie Enterprises donated $10,000 from Basie’s estate (Basie died in 1983) for a Jazz Hall of Fame that met Eddie’s vision. In 1986, Eddie trademarked the name International Jazz Hall of Fame so nobody could use it without his permission.

On March 11, 1989, at a press conference attended by Dizzy Gillespie (who was in town for a show at the Folly), the city announced that an agreement had been reached to build the museum and jazz institute that Eddie had championed in the former public works buildings at 21st and Vine. The city accepted Eddie’s dream as the plan. Eddie accepted the 18th and Vine district as the location.

That compromise fell apart. The city allocated $20 million to the project. Cost estimates grew to $32 million. Space was slashed in half and the location moved. Eddie withdrew his support and permission to use the name International Jazz Hall of Fame. Count Basie Enterprises denied use of Basie’s image except for photos already in the public domain.

The museum known today as the American Jazz Museum opened in September, 1997.

Battles over the museum were typical of the infighting prevalent in Kansas City’s jazz community in the 1980s and the 1990s.


A poster of the 11th Jazz Lover’s Pub Crawl in 1992 lists 31 locations where jazz could be heard that night. Don’t misunderstand. That doesn’t mean jazz could be found in over thirty clubs and hotel bars each night. Many clubs booked jazz just this one evening because the Crawl was so popular they would see little business if they didn’t.

Still, 31 places to hear jazz in Kanss City, even for one night, is remarkable.

In 2011, Jardine’s closed. That left The Blue Room, The Majestic, Take Five, the Mutual Musicians Foundation and on some nights The Phoenix or The Record Bar as all the clubs in the area with jazz.



Young musicians dominate Kansas City’s jazz scene. They know the standards, sure, but they’re invigorating jazz with fresh sounds and ideas. And they’re finding opportunities to play. I'm told some young New York jazz musicians have discussed moving to Kansas City. They're hearing stories about gigs and a more agreeable cost of living.

A second live recording made at Green Lady Lounge is scheduled to be released next month, with owner John Scott planning more. A page on his web site sells CDs by Kansas City jazz musicians. He wants to bring back into circulation local CDs that have been unavailable. He’s an evangelist for today’s Kansas City jazz. He wants it to be known worldwide, because the music is that good.

New club owners are building audiences. Take Five is bringing jazz to a part of the city that never before heard it live. And they’re drawing Blue Valley High School students, part of tomorrow’s audience, to the shows.

Planning has started for the second Charlie Parker celebration. An expanded bus tour, encompassing more historic sites tied to Kansas City jazz, is being discussed. Events that pull together more of the metropolitan area seem likely.

The celebration is the hallmark event of KC Jazz ALIVE, an organization that has unified an unprecedented portion of KC’s jazz community. Not every group is a part of this organization. Some outliers seem determined to plot their own direction. At one time, the Kansas City Jazz Commission was appointed, in part, to bring a fractured jazz scene together. I chaired that commission for two years in the late 1980s, so I understand the challenge. And I marvel at the amount of harmony, though still fragile, that I’m seeing.

(By the way, I sucked at unifying the jazz community.)

Integral to the Parker celebration and KC Jazz ALIVE is the American Jazz Museum. They are devoting staff and other resources to promotion and education. They employ thousands of jazz musicians each year. They are educating young people and exposing them to our internationally renowned heritage.

The Charlie Parker Foundation, which Eddie Baker directed, advocated the education of youth in jazz, developing opportunities for our stellar musicians, and promoting our incredible jazz heritage to the public. The American Jazz Museum may not be the institution that Eddie imagined. But in 2015, it is doing more to perpetuate the Parker Foundation’s goals than any other jazz organization in Kansas City.

I’m not sure whether that’s ironic or beautiful.

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