Monday, June 27, 2016

The Musicians’ View

In assembling the latest Jam – celebrating 30 years of the magazine with the question, what is the future of jazz in Kansas City – capturing the views of musicians was critical. I chose to include one who has been part of the KC scene for over a quarter century and one who is relatively new.

The June/July Jam can be picked up (free!) all over town or can be downloaded as a PDF here. Or you can read the interview with Mayor James, the views of club managers, and the views of educators in the last few posts. Next week, excerpts will conclude with the article quoting the executive director of the American Jazz Museum. This week, here's the issue’s articles with the views of Hermon Mehari and Angela Hagenbach.


On August 28, 2009, the line to get into the Blue Room ran out the door and threatened to circle the block. Inside, Diverse was releasing their CD. The group, comprised mostly of UMKC jazz studies students, had won the Gene Harris Jazz Competition in June, 2008.

That night was when many in Kansas City recognized something special was happening in the jazz scene here. Some already knew. But others now understood that these young musicians brought special talent.

Hermon Mehari, a member of Diverse, remembers.

“It was a catalyst for original music in jazz. We were all pretty much working at that time individually. I feel like everyone from the get-go, all the players at UMKC, were immediately on the scene. Especially by 2009 I was being hired.

“During the competition I remember there was a lot of buzz about Diverse. Anything that gives Kansas City notoriety and the national spotlight, people around here get excited about.

“There wasn’t really a scene of young musicians with committed groups at the time, and especially committed groups playing original music. Now there’s a lot of that going on.”

Today, Mehari stands as a prime example of a young musician building a career in jazz in Kansas City in the 21st century.

“There’s a lot of potential to work here,” says Mehari, who moved to Kansas City to attend UMKC in 2006. “I’ve only seen ten years of it, but I feel like the scene here has always worked out in some way or another. It has its ups and downs but I think it’s on an upward trajectory in general, especially recently. If more players came here, it would be in concert with what I think is a growing younger audience. And I’m sure there’s going to be more venues opening up, and other places that maybe don’t have jazz yet will start having jazz.

“There’s enough work here. With the closing of Broadway Jazz Club and Take Five, the only thing that’s become more difficult is when I hear from people from out of town who want to come to Kansas City and play. That’s limited. One thing that has been a little more difficult is to accommodate touring musicians.”

Mehari has played a key role in enticing other outstanding jazz talent to move here and make Kansas City their base. He explains, “I kind of ushered in guys like Peter Schlamb, Karl McComas-Reichl and John Kizilarmut, who are incredible players who are not only part of the scene, they’re helping to push the scene. It means a lot that players like that would live here. It’s a testament to our scene. They love it. Those are guys who are also doing stuff outside of Kansas City on a regular basis. And all of that stuff is cool because it reflects on Kansas City.

“Peter and I have taken an initiative to start trying to bring people through here. I would never say that at the beginning the purpose is, hey, do you want to move here? It’s, let’s play. Then the love comes. I’ve brought Tony Trixier, who’s in Diverse now, maybe four times in the past four or five years. Recently Ben Van Gelder has come through a couple times. Travis Reuter, the guitar player, has partially moved here. Those guys talk about this place and all of a sudden young musicians in other cities are talking about Kansas City.”

But is Kansas City an environment that demands a musician plays more traditional jazz?

“It does in gigs like the Majestic,” Mehari says. “You’re mostly playing standards and swing. But with the Electric Tinks I play with Peter, we play First Fridays at the Green Lady, and it’s great. All original music and all electric music and it’s all top-notch players. I have liberty when I go to the Blue Room, I can do creatively what I want. And if I want to do the crossover stuff, I’m always open to play at clubs like the Record Bar or the Riot Room.

“It’s a balance. You can’t gig exclusively on the local scene playing just creative music. You can’t make a living. It’s impossible. If my income was solely based on playing Electric Tinks, and Peter was trying to book it as much as possible, it wouldn’t happen. But that’s the great thing about jazz musicians, we are very versatile. It’s important that we know the tradition anyway. We all love the traditions. We play all of the old stuff and we put our spin on the old stuff, too. It’s not just rehashing it in museum-type ways. It’s bringing life to it. And we have the original, creative stuff, too.”

Mehari and his peers find Kansas City to be a good base.

“We talk about this a lot with my peers and we feel strongly about this. We feel like it’s a great scene and it’s a growing scene. It’s an affordable city. It’s a city with a lot of culture and unique things. And it’s a great community which makes it very appealing to musicians.”

Appealing enough for young musicians to continue joining Kansas City’s jazz scene?

“I think it’s going to keep happening.”


Last year, vocalist Angela Hagenbach marked 25 years on Kansas City’s jazz scene.

“My first steady gig was at the Ritz Carlton,” she remembers. “It was up in the ballroom. I played with Russ Long and Milt Abel [later, Gerald Spaits] and Ray DeMarchi. That was four nights a week for about four years. That’s where I honed my craft. It was wonderful because it was very glamorous and I was still modeling at the time. I got to wear gowns four nights a week, which was a model’s dream.”

At the time, Hagenbach says, “There were lots of festivals and lots of places to play. Someone like me could work seven nights a week if I wanted to, and several gigs a day. Through my work at The Ritz I got tons and tons of country club and private events which were very lucrative, and a lot times they were off nights. It really was great to bolster my income and broaden my fan base.”

But a singer today may find the opportunities more sparse.

“If they solely want to perform,” Hagenbach muses, “that could be a challenge. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of venues for vocals. It used to be vocal-heavy. But now it seems to be more instrumentally-heavy.

“One has to be creative if there’s not enough clubs available by thinking outside the box. Find a void and fill it. We need to have music here and I’m your girl. For example, I once started the luncheon at the Majestic because I wanted to do an earlier show on Wednesdays. I needed to work while my children were at school. I did that at a couple of places.”

And 25 years later, the pay has changed.

“It’s gotten worse,” Hagenbach maintains. “It’s homogenized. This is what everybody gets. If you want to take a leader fee, then everyone else is going to get less. I have a problem with that. It used to be, you would set your rate based on your ability to bring in a fan base and then you pay your guys a decent wage and you take a leader fee. There’s so much that a leader does in addition to perform. You get the gigs, promote the gigs, do the 1099, do the payroll. To me, that’s worth something. In a lot places, I had to even provide the sound system. That shouldn’t be free.”

Hagenbach is concerned about opportunities for veteran musicians.

“This is a city that has an abundance of talent. It’s startling how much there is. There’s people moving to town and these young people that are coming out of Bobby [Watson]’s program are very high quality players. It’s great that they’re going out and keeping the music alive.

“But on the same hand, the older musicians and the people in the middle have to remain viable. They have to keep the jazz community vibrant. There’s not as many opportunities for the older ones because it seems as though there’s a large group who will play for less money just to play, which drives down our ability to earn a living.”

But beside the challenges, Hagenbach also sees opportunities.

“It’s like any movement, the struggle continues. You’ve got it keep it viable and keep it vibrant and relatable. It’s not going to be easy because there’s all this new music coming out. But there’s a renaissance coming. The young people are helping to bring it. I want to branch out to the people who don’t even have jazz on their radar. This is something that we as a city can use as a selling tool. When you arrive at the airport, you should have no doubt that you’re going to get some seriously good jazz here.”

Monday, June 20, 2016

Education and Audiences

The educators surprised me.

They’re engaged in far more than developing the next KC jazz superstar. They’re introducing children to the music. They’re developing audiences. They’re bringing the best of the best to this city. They’re perpetuating our jazz culture.

This is the third week of articles culled from the latest Jam. It’s available available – free! – all over town or can be downloaded as a PDF here. The issue celebrates the thirty years of publication by asking, what is the future of jazz in Kansas City? This week, the articles that quiz a pair of KC’s key education leaders.


The best musicians are recruited.

“And one of the blessings that we get to sell,” says Dan Thomas, “is a vibrant jazz scene that is inclusive, that celebrates one another.”

Thomas is Associate Director of Jazz Studies and Co-Chair of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. He’s been at UMKC for 16 years and in his current position about six years.

“I do a lot of national recruiting,” Thomas explains. “I go out on the road and I’m performing with universities at their high school jazz festivals. If I perform at a club on the road, I hook up at a clinic somewhere to get in contact with the people who may not know UMKC’s name. There are a lot of institutions that have name recognition. We’re getting that now.

“Students are looking for contact. If I sweep through, I identify a few good kids. If I’ve given a good clinic, if I’ve played well, we’re connected now because jazz is a family. Then I can sell, for example, our bass instructor played with Thad Jones. I might invite him to come study at our jazz camp in the summer where you get a week-long workshop with our faculty, and they’re hooked. It takes sweeping moves where you make personal contact with folks.

“I spend 10 to 15 hours a week on the telephone and that’s all year long. Some of the studs that have made it onto our scene I’ve known since middle school.”

The number of jazz students coming into UMKC each year varies because, Thomas says, “we do enrollment management. If we have two trumpet players leaving, we’re only going to take two trumpet players. This year we’ve got 12 or 13 guys coming in. They’re all specific to what the program needs. They’re coming from all over the country. They’re amazing players.

“We carry 50-ish jazz majors, including undergrad and grad. Then we have several students who are jazz aficionados who participate in the program and need to participate in the program because we believe in the value of music education students. They need to have contact with us. If we don’t provide them with the opportunity, we’re just feeding the performance art. We need great music educators, too.”

UMKC’s program teaches five pillars of successful jazz musicians: performance, pedagogy, composition, arranging, and business and entrepreneurship.

“Duke Ellington traveled around and gave clinics,” Thomas says. “For us to as educators to say that all the money is in performance, it’s not. All the money’s in composition, it’s not. All the money’s in arranging, it’s not. All the money’s in teaching, it’s not. It’s all of it. Everybody gets to dial up their percentages and those percentages float. That’s the reality.”

The talent UMKC is bringing into Kansas City is some of the best. “The students that are looking at our school are bonafide jazz guys,” Thomas says. “They’re either going to be known relatively quickly amongst our scene or when they leave they’re going to be stars on their home turf.

“The depth of the program is significant. Every kid is amazing. They’re really talented kids who ten years ago would have been the star of the program. Now you’re looking at fifty or sixty of them.”

Convincing that talent to come to Kansas City can be hard. But, Thomas says, “once they get here, they realize how special it is.

After graduation, “the vast majority of students stay here. That’s a testament to our scene. There’s some doomsday folks who communicate about the lack of what’s going on in our scene. But Kansas City is a pretty phenomenal place that can absorb them.

“What’s unique about what we’re doing is that we’re trying to build unique artists. Because everybody is unique there is an opportunity for each one of them to generate revenue.”

Anyone who knows Kansas City’s jazz scene today recognizes that it is brimming with extraordinary young talent. But, Thomas notes, “Young folks have romantic ideas. They’re trying to prove something. That keeps old people young. You’ve got college age kids with seasoned veterans and there’s a healthy collaboration. Kansas City is not cutthroat and competitive. These students are so welcomed into the scene and they still have reverence for the old guard and what they can teach.”


Talk with Bill McKemy and it quickly becomes clear. Jazz education isn’t just about building musicians. It’s about building jazz audiences.

“We tour a 6-piece group,” McKemy begins, “sometimes adding a vocalist to that, to go to schools and do either general assemblies performances or specific hands-on music clinics with bands. We’ve been to Raytown South, Fort Osage, Hickman Mills, the Blue Valley districts.

“We’ve played in some gyms and some school auditoriums. On the top end, size-wise, a little over 400 kids at once.

“But we’ll also go in and work with just the music students and work on the songs that they’re working on in jazz band. We’ll also give them instrument clinics and improvisational clinics while we’re there. We’re able to go hands-on. The teacher in that situation is having their message reinforced. The kids are right there with Hermon Mehari and Rich Wheeler and Ryan Lee and all of the great players on the scene.

“The kids are enthusiastic and fired up about jazz, generally with lots of questions and a high level of engagement.”

McKemy is the Director of Education and Public Programs at the American Jazz Museum (and an incredible bassist).

On September 10th, he launches a new program for students age 3 to 18 at the jazz museum. It’s Jazz Academy.

“There are three main components,” McKemy explains. “In the mornings we’re going to have general music classes for ages three through sixth grade. Those classes will be a mixture of movement, music and other activities. The system is designed to engage kids at play rather than sit them in rows and teach them. It’s designed to get them having fun with musical instrument-type toys, and eventually building not only their musical skill but the way that they engage something that’s fun and playful.

“It also teaches as a key element reliance on their own ear. They learn to hear and to trust what they hear.

Improvisation is incorporated from the start. “The thing we want to accomplish,” McKemy says, “is that improvisation isn’t something they learn after they become an advanced musician. It’s just something that you do with whatever you can play. If you can hit two drumsticks together, you can improvise.

From 1:00 to 3:00, McKemy continues, “we’ll have combos, big bands and improv classes. Rotating in with the improv classes, we’ll infuse history about the music, about Kansas City’s role in it and about its cultural significance.

“We’re hoping to build the audience as much as we’re building bright young folks to play music.”

The staff includes Clarence Smith, Stan Kessler, Marcus Lewis and John Kizilarmut. On a rotating basis, Bobby Watson, Dan Thomas, Matt Otto and Hermon Mehari will also participate.

The third component, McKemy says, will be “an education-themed jam session in the Blue Room from 3:00 to 5:00 with the kids from the academy and whoever else wants to drop in for it. We’ll have as mentors the Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz and other players to offer encouragement and show the kids the way.”

Three sessions a year are planned to coincide with fall, spring and summer school terms.

For the students, the program is free.

“It’s free but we also want to instill a sense of ownership of the program and pride in the Kansas City community,” McKemy adds. “We’re going to ask the students to pay it forward by participating in community outreach performances. We’ll go to assisted living facilities or community events and perform. We want to be able to teach some life skills to the kids and show them the value they’ll get from performing community service.

“We won’t turn anyone away. I would be satisfied if for that first term we have 40 or more kids. I’d like to see 100 or more kids. Or 200 or 300. I’d like to have that problem.”

McKemy brings an even larger goal. “In Kansas City, in terms of talented musicians, we have an embarrassment of riches,” he says. “But historically, we have done just a so-so job at connecting the actual living resources of jazz with the kids. We can’t afford to let the resources go to waste. We need to have Brian Baggett and Ryan Lee and Clint Ashlock and Charles Perkins and Gerald Spaits sharing what they know. It has to be across generational lines and racial lines and economic lines.

“I think it’s correct for our city to have the best jazz education that exists. We should be on a par with New York, Chicago and New Orleans at a bare minimum.”

Monday, June 13, 2016

Clubs With Views

Now let’s hear from the clubs.

This is the second week of excerpting articles from the latest issue of Jam, on the streets now (it’s free) or downloadable from here. This issue celebrates the magazine’s thirtieth anniversary by asking, what is the future of jazz in Kansas City? Last week quizzed the mayor on 18th and Vine. This time, John Scott from Green Lady Lounge and Gerald Dunn from the Blue Room offer insights into their operations.


Stepping into the Green Lady Lounge feels like stepping back into the 1940s. Dim lighting, red walls, red drapes and faux-classic art lining the walls all build a classic ambiance. This must be what a jazz club in Kansas City used to feel like.

That’s all by design. It’s owner John Scott’s vision or, as he puts it, his point of view.

“It’s the club’s responsibility to get the patrons in,” Scott explains. “When I hear club owners say, we want that band to get butts in seats, I don’t think that’s a useful phrase, and I don’t ever want to hear anybody representing Green Lady Lounge to use that phrase. It’s beyond the ability, generally, of a band in the jazz genre to put butts in seats.

“There’s a lot of things marketing-wise that can make a jazz musician or a jazz band popular. If you go somewhere where they don’t get a lot of jazz, then maybe a jazz band can put butts in seats. But in Kansas City there’s jazz everywhere. It’s so rich. It’s like gold to the Mayans.

“So that can’t be the primary draw. You cannot expect amazing, world-class jazz musicians to draw people into a barn. The club has to have a certain aesthetic. It has to have a point of view.

“That point of view comes from me. The look, the paint, the color, the accessories, the dark lighting, all of those things to me are pleasing. For a lot of reasons I’ve incorporated them into the bar. Some of them are very pragmatic. The drop ceiling is both an aesthetic, useful thing, and it’s practical, relatively inexpensive. It connects the two sides of the building which were cut in half originally. This building has been around since 1889.”

That point of view equally encompasses the music.

“The first year was a sampler platter of a whole variety of kinds of music,” Scott says. “I was listening and trying to figure out the Kansas City sound. What is it in the past? What is it now? What is it going to be in the future? And what do I want to help give a home to?

“I learned to really dislike pick-up gigs, where people are just kind of filling time on stage. I wanted bands. I wanted people who play together on a regular basis to bring their best. I don’t want jam sessions. This is not the venue for that. This is a place where people come, experience the ambiance and there’s a band that plays together and is also producing original content.”

Often that content includes an organ. You will not find a piano on the club’s main floor, unless a musician has brought his own keyboard. Instead you’ll see a Hammond B-3 organ. A favorite ensemble in the room is OJT. They’re the classic organ trio with Ken Lovern on organ, Brian Baggett on guitar and Kevin Frazee on drums.

Scott describes OJT as “a kind of a north star, a point to guide everything else by. It’s a sound that I feel combines a dirt road kind of blues and a real jazz sophistication. OJT is a Kansas City sound to me that combines swing with a lot of sophistication.”

Yet Scott also looks beyond classic jazz ensembles. Another favorite is vibraphonist Peter Schlamb’s eclectic group Electric Tinks.

“To me, Electric Tinks is not experimenting,” Scott says. “It’s progressive. It is pushing the genre. You can see from where he’s pulling but he’s doing a lot of original stuff. His musicianship is fantastic. And talk about a point of view. They’ve got a great a future and I’m incorporating them into our rotation.”

Whether you agree with it or disagree, John Scott’s point of view is working. He pegs half his customers as coming from outside of Kansas City.

“Kansas City jazz is something that already exists out there, this brand,” he says. “We just realize the product and give it justice, give it support and help market it. People come to Kansas City and if they hear on Huffington Post or some Facebook feed, or however they heard about Kansas City jazz, and then they hear about Green Lady, associate it with Kansas City jazz, then they seek it out. That’s what’s happening.

“Green Lady is an evangelical jazz club because we’re not just preaching to the people who already know they love jazz, but rather I believe in getting people exposed to jazz and I believe they will like it.

That point of view extends to Scott’s vision for growing Kansas City jazz.

“If there isn’t a jazz scene, then you take a shotgun approach. But when a scene is vital and rich, clubs can more narrowly define, deeply and richly, what your take on the Kansas City sound is. Evidence of a rich scene would be that each club books a more focused part of the overall scene.

“Other private people need to come along and join the scene in earnest. If they don’t think it’s commercially viable, they’re wrong. If they want some help, I can help them. That doesn’t mean making it just like the Green Lady but it does mean having an aesthetic that is unique to you and consistent in your point of view and care.

“We have excellent, amazing musicians in Kansas City who, given the right environment, will really spread the love of Kansas City jazz.”


Gerald Dunn has worked at the American Jazz Museum since the day it opened. But he originally turned them down.

“I was living in New York at the time and had just come off touring the south of France for the whole month of June with Illinois Jacquet’s big band,” Dunn recalled. “I started working in Harlem, subbing for different bands, subbing at the Cotton Club. I felt at the time that if I left I would lose those connections.”

The museum asked again. He talked the offer over with his parents.

“My dad said, ‘Let me help you out. You have no more times to call to borrow money.’”

Today at the museum Dunn is Director of Entertainment and Blue Room General Manager.

The Blue Room, Dunn said, “started out only booking local musicians. We wanted to build a strong relationship with the community.”

Dunn remembers discussing jazz with veteran musicians like Jay McShann and Eddie Saunders. “Listening to them talk about why people played the music,” he said, “what music meant to them, what music meant to their friends, that gave me a good foundation of understanding what to look for.

“The older guys set a level of consistency. When you saw the Scamps perform on the stage, they brought an experience to you. The tunes that they sang, you could feel the song, you could feel the lyrics because they lived the lyrics. Those songs excited them. When they were playing from the stage, you were seeing that excitement. When it’s coming out of their horns, it’s exciting, it’s happening.

“Sometimes Eddie [Saunders] would be one of the grumpiest guys on earth, but once he put the horn in his mouth it became happy songs.

“I tell some of these stories to the young guys so that they can see there are legacies that they are a part of.”

In a city brimming with young jazz talent, nearly all wanting to play at the fabled corner of 18th and Vine, Dunn is looking “at how people are willing to work with others, how people are willing to respond to the crowd, how they’re willing to present themselves to the crowd.

“Make sure you have enough variety in your repertoire to be able to entertain the crowd. You can play original music, and that’s cool. But as people are coming in to understand you as an artist it’s good to be able to accommodate them and give them something that they might be able to grasp.

“It’s not always playing the best solo. A lot of times it’s being able to release the audience. Give them a break. Lay something in their lap. Get into their soul. Make them feel like clapping is what they want to be doing.”

Dunn has worked to understand who comes to the Blue Room.

“It’s people who want to have a Kansas City experience. They read about it and they want to experience it. We’re conscious of trying to bring in diverse crowds and bringing in the most diversity when it comes to artists.

Moving forward, does the Blue Room need to evolve?

“We’re changing now,” Dunn responded. “We’re constantly moving. The scene forces you to change. You can’t stay the same.

“We’re opening up to other communities. We’re opening up the neo-soul community. We’re opening up to the Latin jazz community. Those pieces are infusing into the jazz pieces. Some of the younger jazz guys have a lot of those pieces. Fusion is a part of Dominque [Sanders]’s music. Hermon [Mehari] plays with some of the neo-soul acts.”

And when a young musician with a non-jazz background approaches Dunn, “I don’t have to say, you can’t play here because you don’t play jazz. Come in, check out what goes on, and see how you can contribute to what’s going on. Let’s see how you can fit in. Let’s find ways to include you.

“We pay respect to the traditions of Kansas City jazz. And we pay respect to what kids have access to now.”

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Mayor on 18th and Vine

Nary a post in May. Let’s get this blog back on track, starting with the mayor.

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.

You can download the issue from the Jazz Ambassadors web site 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?

MAYOR SLY JAMES: It is first and foremost going to be an opportunity to engage 600 to 1000 kids a year in baseball as a vehicle for a lot of different things. It will teach kids the skills needed to play baseball, and some who have talent will move higher than others. But all who are there will be in contact with people who know the game, know how to teach the game, and follow a basic philosophy that’s been promulgated by [Kansas City Royals General Manager] Dayton Moore and the way that he built the team. You’re looking for certain things and you’re teaching certain things, like team before self. Character is important. Leadership is important.

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.