Recreating the golden era of jazz Rebirth: The neighborhood around 18th and Vine streets is in the early stages of a renaissance, and the Kansas City Jazz Museum is one of the reasons why.

Sun Journal

June 12, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Years before Wilbert Harrison sang about "goin' to Kansas City," a generation of jazz musicians made this town the place to be in the Midwest.

The best jam sessions were here. Count Basie and Lester Young were here, along with a young man named Charlie Parker, who later set the jazz world on fire.

"In those days, any African-American entertainer who could not play on 18th Street was not considered major league," says Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver. "There is no prominent jazz musician who did not come to 18th and Vine."

Though those glorious days of the 1920s and 1930s are long gone, their memory lives in the Kansas City Jazz Museum. The museum, the first to consider jazz and its impact on a national scale, opened last fall in the heart of the city's black district.

A few years ago, locals described the 22-block area around 18th and Vine streets as dilapidated, blighted, bombed-out and desperate. The only business left was the Kansas City Call, a black newspaper where civil rights champion Roy Wilkins once worked as a cub reporter.

The neighborhood had suffered the same ravages and upheavals that hit black neighborhoods from Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore to Central Avenue in Los Angeles. The decline began with the end of segregation.

"That, of course, meant blacks could go and shop anywhere. They could go to attorneys anywhere," says Cleaver. "Gradually, 18th and Vine lost its luster and its appeal."

Businesses closed, people left. The once-thriving neighborhood became a ghost town. Then, eight years ago, a local historian and archivist approached Cleaver with the idea of redeveloping the area that had been the center of life for the 30,000 blacks who lived in Kansas City a half-century ago.

In its heyday, 30 nightclubs filled the district. Celebrities like Duke Ellington and Joe Louis stayed at Street's Hotel. Everyone ate at Elnora's Cafe. Robert Altman, the filmmaker, rode streetcars from the white side of town to take in the night life.

"It was an area rich in entertainment, rich in African-American culture and, frankly, rich in Christian institutions," says Cleaver. "On Friday and Saturday night, 18th and Vine belonged to the hip crowd. But on Sunday, it belonged to Jesus."

If the Kansas City Monarchs were in town, though, the neighborhood's five churches began services an hour early. Nobody wanted to miss the first pitch. Next to jazz, baseball was central to black life in Kansas City. The Negro National League was founded here in 1920.

For eight years, Cleaver built coalitions and gathered support for the redevelopment project. Political battles raged over spending money east of Troost Street, the city's Mason-Dixon line.

When the fighting ended, the city had $24 million to spend. Old buildings were razed. The Gem Theater, dating from 1912, was saved. The city gutted the interior and put in a state-of-the-art performance center. Across the street is the Horace M. Peterson III Visitor Center, named for the man who brought the idea to Cleaver. There you'll find the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Kansas City Jazz Museum.

A tour begins with an oral history film taking you back to the 1920s and 1930s, when political boss Tom Pendergast ruled the town. Kansas City was wide open. Work was plentiful for blacks who had left the South in the Great Migration.

In the museum's documentary film, "Jazz Is," bandleader Jay McShann recalls his pulse quickening with excitement whenever rolled into town and heard Big Joe Turner's booming voice shouting the blues. Max Roach, the legendary drummer, says the district was a conservatory and each club was a classroom.

The museum is a stunning space, in colors of vibrant red, purple, lime green, lemon yellow. Booths are curvilinear and kidney-shaped, like something seen in a hip 1950s cartoon spoof of the bebop, beatnik life.

Listening stations offer the sound of bassist Walter Page's band playing "Squabbling" in 1929, or Count Basie's band playing "One O'Clock Jump" in 1937.

Exhibits dedicated to Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker are filled with artifacts such as Fitzgerald's American Express card, and one of Armstrong's trumpets. Rowena Stewart, museum director, says her favorite item is the acrylic alto saxophone Parker played during a 1953 concert that, because of its lineup of stars, many consider the greatest ever.

"It is the one artifact that we have been able to gather about our native son that is so important in terms of the music world," says Stewart, whose projects include the Motown "Hitsville USA" house in Detroit. "It is wonderful when I realize we have that very horn."

Also on display is a copy of Parker's contract for the concert. He picked up $200, plus 21.7 percent of the musicians' share of the net profit. In another part of the museum, a wall of album covers features Charles Mingus' "Ah Um" and other classics released when the covers incorporated modern art styles.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.