Helmer, Robert J.




HL: Goin’ to Kansas City

HL: Museum rediscovers Kansas City’s hidden past.

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The Kansas City Jazz Museum opens a portal to the area’s hidden past. At one time, Kansas City was nationally known as one the most influential jazz communities in the country. Jazz greats such as Count Basie and Charley Parker cut their teeth and learned their groove in the streets of a younger, swinging Kansas City. Artists from Chicago and New Orleans – cities which have preserved their jazz districts – came to Kansas City to pick up the newest styles and sounds.

Kansas City was a meeting place where rag, blues, gospel and even a touch of bluegrass spawned boogie-woogie piano, swing and bebop. Kansas City’s place as an important railroad center brought a constant flow of new ideas.

But then it went away.

As the area sprawled into suburbia, the lifeblood of downtown drained away. What was once an area for whites and blacks to come together to hear jazz became industrial and populated by very low-income families. Kansas Citians let fifty years of history – from the prohibition era to the corruption of city government by the Pendergast political machine – slip into obscurity along with the music that provided the soundtrack of an era – Kansas City Jazz.

In the 1980s a movement to recover Kansas City’s past picked up steam. The areas around 18th and Vine and Grand Central Station were two relics area residents rediscovered and sought to preserve.

The Kansas City Jazz Museum had its genesis in a proposal by then-councilman Emanuel Cleaver in 1989. The council approved a capital improvement program valued at $114 million. The package provided funds for the redevelopment of Brush Creek, completion of work on the American Royal complex and set aside $20 million for the 18th and Vine project; construction was slated to begin in 1990.

The museum project, however, remained in limbo for six years while the council deliberated over design and location details. In 1996, a finalized plan was approved and construction began; the museum opened in September 1997.

Organizers had hoped to wean the project off of municipal subsidies by attracting 200,000 to 300,000 visitors annually. Attendance, however, has yet to reach capacity. The city currently provides $800,000 of the museum $2.5 million budget; the museum is struggling to raise the rest from private donors and merchandising.

Several factors have kept attendance low. The district lacks the sorts of restaurants which would draw suburbanite visitors and hotels to serve tourists. The location is also problematic; though historically accurate, the museum is difficult to find and is surrounded by neighborhoods some consider the most dangerous in Kansas City.

Visitors who do take the time to drive to the 18th & Vine district will be rewarded. The outer architecture is an impressive tribute to the style of the 1940s. On entering, visitors are almost overwhelmed by the sense of history. Casually spread through the museum are artifacts of Kansas City jazz’s heyday: instruments, photographs, and exposure to the sounds of Kansas City through the years. The memorabilia spills over into a recreation of a K.C. jazz club circa 1930, the Blue Room, named for a popular club of the era.

The museum also has exhibits directed towards children.

The museum features displays on many of the most influential names in jazz history including a saxophone once played by Charlie Parker which was purchased for $145,000.

The Kansas City Jazz Museum is located at1616 East 18th St. Kansas City, MO as part of the 18th & Vine district. Admission is $6 for adults and $2.50 for children under twelve. $8 buys access to both the jazz museum and the adjacent Negro League Baseball Museum.