Roots of Jazz in Cowtown: Museum Hearkens Back to Era of Boisterous, All-Night Jams That Put Kansas City's Mark on an American Art Form

By Stoulil, Matt | National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 2004 | Go to article overview

Roots of Jazz in Cowtown: Museum Hearkens Back to Era of Boisterous, All-Night Jams That Put Kansas City's Mark on an American Art Form


Stoulil, Matt, National Catholic Reporter


Past the dated red brick buildings on 18th Street east of downtown Kansas City, Mo., one can feel the faint palpitations of what was once a musical mecca. As you pass Paseo Boulevard, you find yourself at 18th and Vine, the epicenter of what was once the jazz hotbed of the Midwest and arguably the nation. In this neighborhood, Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Jay McShann, Lester Young and Charlie "Yardbird" Parker honed their craft and became artisans of America's classical music--jazz.

City boss Tom Pendergast made sure that Kansas City remained "wide open" through Prohibition and the Great Depression. This meant that liquor flowed around the clock and the dancehalls were jumping all night, allowing for Kansas City's jazz scene to flourish, keeping the musicians in work and Pendergast's palms greased. Though his conviction for tax evasion charges in 1938 ended the era of corruption that supported this burgeoning stable of Kansas City artists, the blues-heavy, ragtime-tinged swing sound from Cowtown left an inimitable mark on the jazz genre.

What stands today in this historic African American neighborhood is a museum multiplex, a restored theater, a nightclub fashioned after one from the past, and some new restaurants and businesses, all nestled in by new housing developments.

Old storefronts are unoccupied but decorated like businesses of days past, advertising neighborhood amenities like soul food and tailoring. Just around the corner at 1823 Highland St. stands the Mutual Musicians Foundation, the old music union hall from the '30s and '40s that to this day hosts all night jam sessions every Saturday and Sunday morning starting around 1:30 a.m. (See related story on Page 6a.)

The Gem Theater, with its restored 1912 features, was once a movie house. Now it is a 500-seat performing arts venue with state-of-the-art sound and lights that hosts the annual "Jammin' at the Gem" jazz series, among other events. It faces the main entrance into the museums from the south side of the street.

After the ambience of 18th Street has taken one back to a forgotten era, it's time to enter the museums at 18th and Vine. After passing under the lighted figures paying homage to black musicians, athletes and everymen, the visitor is presented with some options for perusal. The main anchors here are the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (see accompanying story). Also, the Horace M. Peterson III Visitor Center offers a video history of the neighborhood, as well as photos, ballot boxes, military uniforms and various other items and exhibits that highlight the richness of the area and its people. Lastly, the Changing Gallery hosts various traveling art exhibits. Currently, the gallery is hosting "Close Up in Black: African American Film Posters" through July 4.

Though the Negro Leagues museum finds a welcome home in the neighborhood (the Negro National League was founded in Kansas City in 1920), the American Jazz Museum feels more like the main attraction. The only museum in the world devoted to jazz, trough numerous interactive exhibits it tells the story of the art form and the performers who championed it.

As you enter the museum, you are presented with a short film called "Jazz Is," featuring local hero and pianist McShann, as well as drum virtuoso Max Roach and jazz diva Shirley Horn giving their personal insights on the music and its place in Kansas City. The film also gives a brief history lesson for the jazz novice, showing the roots of jazz in African rhythms, improvisation and black field hollers, as well as in blues and ragtime music. …

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