My May was monopolized with putting together the new Jam, hitting the streets now. It’s a special issue, marking the publication’s thirtieth year. As editor, I decided to celebrate by looking not back but ahead and asking this question: What is the future of jazz in Kansas City?
Articles quiz Mayor Sly James on the future of 18th and Vine; Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner on the American Jazz Museum; John Scott and Gerald Dunn on jazz clubs; Dan Thomas and Bill McKemy on jazz education; and Angela Hagnebach and Hermon Mehari for a pair of perspectives from musicians.
here. Better yet, pick up a copy around town (12,000 of them are printed) for the cozy feel of slick paper between your fingers as you peruse.
Or here’s another alternative. Each week I’ll reprint one or two of the stories here, for wider distribution and because their only other online presence – a PDF – doesn’t show up in online search results like a well-scoured blog.
This week, a committee of the Kansas City Council is considering a $27.6 million bond proposal for improvements to the 18th and Vine district. Mayor James offers his perspective in the Jam interview, we’ll start with that article. This is going to be longer than a typical post, but since this is the blog’s first missive in a month, I’m not really taking up more of your last thirty days than I normally would.
Each article is accompanied by a photo of the subject reading Jam. I’ll post those, too.
The 18th and Vine district is Kansas City jazz’s soul. It’s a district at the cusp of major changes. In April, ground was broken on construction of the nation’s seventh Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy in Parade Park, directly behind the jazz and Negro Leagues museums. The next week, the city unveiled details of proposed district improvements totaling $27.6 million. And a new executive director is leading the district’s anchor, the American Jazz Museum, into its twentieth year. Jam sat down with Kansas City Mayor Sly James to discuss the future of 18th and Vine, starting with the MLB Urban Youth Academy. What is it?
But also it’s going to be an opportunity for kids who might ordinarily just be hanging around to do something that’s conducted in a safe environment under the watchful eyes of adults and have fun doing it.
It will also provide some academic support. They’ll calculate the flight of a baseball over the wall and use baseball and statistics as a way of teaching math. There will be opportunities for kids to learn what it means to be a groundskeeper, what it means to be a concessionaire. You want to be a broadcaster? Go up and broadcast this game. But the main thing is that it is going to use baseball to improve the lives of urban kids in a way that hasn’t been done.
The physical layout will consist of two large fields, one a championship field – the fences, I think, will be 400 feet to center, some big alleys – a little league field and a softball field. And then a building where instruction can take place during twelve months of the year with an infield, batting cages, pitching cages, and classrooms. The whole operation will be operated by the Royals as a low level minor league type of a deal. They’ll pay for it for twenty years and run it like they run their team.
I’m really excited about this for a number of reasons. What it does for kids in this community is huge. We know from our summer programming that when kids are engaged, juvenile crime and victimization goes down 18 per cent. We also know that kids, when given an opportunity to do something positive, will take it.
What we’re doing is putting a bunch of kids in the area of 18th and Vine, which means they’re going to be there with their parents. There will be people from different parts of the city and the region coming in to play games at 18th and Vine. 18th and Vine should have more foot traffic. Hopefully, retail will spring up organically in order to satisfy some of the foot traffic. There will be people who are in the Negro Leagues museum and in the jazz museum, expanding the reach of those two places. Bringing people to the area means there’s going to be more exposure of the assets in the area.
The next phase is more assets need to be in the area. We need more rooftops. We need more retail. We need more eateries. If I could, I’d probably go down there and try to get me a space and get a little ice cream stand that’s open up on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in the summer and sell tons of ice cream to kids who are out there playing ball and waiting for games to be played. That’s the type of stuff that may come about.
There are also other things that are going on, and this is in conjunction with a different plan [the proposed $27.6 million in improvements]. There will be lots of discussion about what that should look like in the coming weeks, how do we make 18th and Vine more viable and live up to the history and tradition.
Last but not least, I think there is something in the works to stop having the Gem Theater be dark for three-fourths of the year. It’s a great venue and we don’t have enough activity there. There’s been conversations about a contract with some entertainers who would fill that on an ongoing basis. That’s not finished yet, but it’s something that I hope gets finished soon.
JAM: With the baseball academy attracting more people, proposed improvements in the area, and the Crossroads area growing towards the east, are we starting to see more of an alignment of the district with the rest of the city?
MAYOR JAMES: That’s the goal. That’s the articulated and tangible goal of connecting east Crossroads to 18th and Vine in a seamless way.
The problem that we have is that along 18th Street it gets kind of quasi-industrial, not very inviting. Lots of concrete, the overpass, things that don't necessarily say, hey, we’re pretty, come see us. So we’re looking at some options to make changes there.
Early on I did a Mayor’s Institute of City Design with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. When you do that, you select an area of the city that you’d like to examine and talk about and have some input on in terms of changing what it is. The area I selected was 18th and Vine.
The biggest thing that came out of that was to get more people down there as frequently as possible, for a couple of different reasons. Number one, the more people you have down there, the more activity that will be generated and the more incentive there will be for people, even on a pop-up basis or a food truck basis, to create economic activity. Then you will have incentive to increase that economic activity by connecting to the east Crossroads. You also generate more buzz.
Getting the urban youth baseball academy there brings more people down. The next step is working with the Downtown Council to get more people down on First Fridays and those types of things, so we can start that constant flow. If you have that constant and you’re a resident down there and you see every week there’s an additional 2000 people walking on the streets of 18th and Vine, and you’ve got an idea for shakes and ice cream or hamburgers and hot dogs, or bandaids and cigarettes, whatever it is you want to sell, now all of a sudden you’re saying, this might be viable. How about a coffee shop? Anything. Just get some retail activity down there so that you’re always generating activity on the street.
But that also requires that we continue to build out housing. We have to have the rooftops in order to be sustainable for those times when people aren’t there. If I live in the area and there’s not a coffee shop on the street, then I’m going someplace else for my coffee. If there is a coffee shop, then me and the other people who live in the same area might bump into each other there, have a conversation. Now we’re talking neighborhood. Now we’re talking cohesiveness. When you have people come together as neighbors in a cohesive way, good things happen. That’s what we’re shooting for. That’s the plan and the target.
JAM: When the improvements proposal was first discussed last year, you expressed concerns, perhaps about what kind of private funding it would leverage.
MAYOR JAMES: My concern was simply this, and it remains a concern regardless of what project it is: having money is not a plan. Have a plan and then figure out how to finance it. What we had was money but no real plan. It doesn’t make any sense to have money out there and say, we’re going to use this to help 18th and Vine, or we’re going to use it to help Brookside, or anything else. What are you going to do with it? Is this best idea? Who’s vetting this? What are you going to need? Is this sustainable on its own down the road, or is this something that’s going to be a one-shot wonder? All of those things need to be answered and that planning is still in the process.
I want to separate two things. Number one, I want to separate my desire to see 18th and Vine completed in a way that is responsible, that creates jobs and activity, and brings it back to something approaching its original glory. I want to see that happen. But I am going to always be critical of the way we get there in order to make sure that we’re being efficient and that we’re actually using money to accomplish the goals that we need as opposed to shooting at a false target.
When we get the planning done, and it becomes clear what the money is going to be used for, how it needs to be allocated, then I’m for it. But until there is a complete plan and it’s been vetted and everybody is on board, I’m going to reserve some judgement on it, which is totally different than the overall goal of seeing the improvements. That’s not going to change. This is something that Councilman Reed has been championing and, although I agree with the ultimate goal, I want to see more meat on the bones before I join.
JAM: Do you have a reaction to the specific projects that were announced?
MAYOR JAMES: I don’t have a reaction to specific projects. My reaction to any project of this type and scope is, is it catalytic and is it sustainable? I don’t want to do something where in five years it’s going to be, hey, we need another ten million dollars or, hey, we need to do something different here because it’s not working. I want to see all of that taken care of on the front end. Sustainability is huge and being catalytic is huge. We want things that cause other things to happen. We want things that say to people outside, look what’s happening here, maybe I ought to join. Then you’re having the influx of private money that’s going to supplement it and make it a much more vibrant area.
I look at the money coming from the city as a point of leverage. We need to leverage those dollars into other things that bring in private investment because that’s how you’re going to build wealth in the community. That’s how you’re going to build minority businesses and minority pride in a minority neighborhood that does the things that it used to do. Those are my goals.
JAM: Is it appropriate for the jazz museum to continue to receive substantial funding from the city?
MAYOR JAMES: Depends on what you mean by substantial. I do think it’s appropriate for us to ask the jazz museum, when are you going to be able to live without it? The jazz museum is in the same building as the Negro Leagues museum. They’ve been heading in different directions financially. Why?
There’s new leadership at the jazz museum in Cheptoo. I have a heck of a lot of faith in that lady. I think she is going to turn things around. So my position basically would be, let’s not hamper her ability to turn it around by making her budgetary problems so severe that’s all she’s able to concentrate on.
However, there has to be an understanding that, hey, we expect you to be able to be self-sustaining at some point, so what are you doing to work in that direction? I think that’s a fair thing to do. It’s a fair thing to do with Negro Leagues and I think they’ve done it. So if one can do it, the other can.
That’s especially true now that I think there’s going to be more people in that area. There will be a lot more foot traffic in that building when the the urban youth baseball academy starts. It’ll be a lot of kids going to the Negro Leagues museum, but it’ll be a lot of adults there with those kids who will want to see both museums. It’s an opportunity to do some cross-marketing. It’s an opportunity to make some sales that may not have been made. It’s an opportunity to do programming. When you know there’s going to be big crowds, you draw people in. There’s all sorts of opportunities there. I have every belief that Cheptoo will recognize those opportunities and seize on them. I know she’s planning a jazz festival for next year. That’s marvelous and a good thing to do.
JAM: Do you like to get out and hear jazz?
MAYOR JAMES: Oh yeah, I do.
JAM: Who do you like to hear?
MAYOR JAMES: Bobby Watson. I’ve asked Bobby Watson to play at two states of the city. I love going to 12th Street Jump. I like Hermon Mehari. I love Joe Cartwright. I think he’s a fabulous pianist. One of my favorite all-time musicians, period, is Pat Metheny. I love Pat Metheny. There’s a lot of good musicians. I also like blues, so I listen to a lot of blues.
JAM: Is there anything you’d like to add in conclusion?
MAYOR JAMES: I think we’re looking at the beginning of a renaissance at 18th and Vine, which is why I want to make sure it’s done right. I want to make sure that as we’re rolling this out, it’s being done in such a way that it will excite people and engage them and cause them to come down, and keep that spirit growing. It’s all at our fingertips. When it happens, it’s going to explode and it’s going to be a vibrant area. I’m also keen on the economic activity phase because it should be an economic center in the community. It’s not functioning quite at that level yet but we have an opportunity to shape it in a way that it will.