Brandon Reynolds

Kansas City's place in American music history is inarguable. So why hasn't its jazz-based revitalization taken off?

Take a walk in the Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District in Kansas City, Missouri, and you’ll see some of the storefronts of that bygone time. Shops, cafes, clubs, all evoking those days of prosperity and depravity that contributed to one of America’s great renaissances.

Now look not even that closely and you’ll see that many of those storefronts are flat: they’re paintings, imaginary doors and awnings and windows. Behind them, boards prop up walls in weedy lots. These aren’t storefronts at all: they’re the backdrops for the 1996 Robert Altman film, Kansas City.

Altman was a Kansas City boy, and no doubt the myths of this “Paris of the Plains” had percolated in his brain for years. On film, though, it was a flop. The storyline — about mobsters and kidnapping amid the rise of jazz — was also flat.

The Jazz District, east of downtown, was once the heart of African-American life and culture in Kansas City. It was a community formed by the pressures of segregation and its proximity, for a while, to Prohibition-era excesses. After a long period of blight and urban decay, in 1997 the area kicked off a redevelopment push with the dedication of the American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum complex, the Blue Room jazz club and the Gem Theater, a 500-seat performance hall that was once a blacks-only movie theater.

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The Jazz District’s champion was Emanuel Cleaver II, then a city councilman, who in 1989 allocated $20 million of a $114 million capital improvements package to rejuvenating the area. (Cleaver would swoop in with money for the area a handful of times throughout the redevelopment process.) Disagreements over design and construction delayed the project, and then cost overruns delayed it even more, but by 1997 the Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District was established. Cleaver, then the mayor, rerouted $14.2 million more in federal money from an industrial district to the Jazz District. Now, 15 years later, more than 200 housing units have been built, and some restaurants have moved into the area. The museums are the anchors, and regular jazz performances by big names in the Blue Room and the Gem, as well as a Rhythm and Ribs Festival, have proven popular. But the weird thing about the Jazz District now is that in between these big, restored buildings, those flat, fake Hollywood storefronts remain, placeholders until something real can move in there.

“The revitalization process, at least in my mind, is not complete,” says Greg Carroll, the CEO of the American Jazz Museum and himself a musician. “There’s still blight in the community that needs to be addressed, in terms of unused buildings, facades that need to be dealt with, and that’s a long-term process.”

The Jazz District’s situation is common to American cities depopulated by the demographic themes of the 20th century: white flight and the rise of the suburbs. But it’s unique in that it’s one of those artistically significant places whose effects are still reverberating through the culture, as opposed to a place where something happened once, and here’s somebody’s bed and a couple of socks behind a red rope. Jazz is still around, of course, which presents some interesting questions for KC’s Jazz District, and for music history generally: What is the best way to enshrine a place where an art form, especially a living art form like music, evolved? And what is that place’s role, if any, in continuing to shape that art form?

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Kansas City’s destiny was shaped in large part by the libertine political machinery of the Pendergast brothers. Jim Pendergast established saloons along with political power in the late 1800s, and when he died in 1911, his brother Tom took over as political boss. Under Tom Pendergast, Kansas City became a Babylon of 20th-century excess. Much of the salacious detail can be found in the great Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop -- A History by Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix, but suffice to say that for decades, Kansas City may have had, as Edward Morrow wrote, “the greatest sin industry in the world.”

Gambling halls, brothels, nightclubs running 24 hours and, everywhere, music. Music could be found downtown and in the 12th and Vine area. During the ‘20s and ‘30s the abundance of clubs, and paying customers, insured a steady flow of musicians coming through Kansas City. In this environment of Prohibition-era excess, Kansas City jazz took form, evolving alongside the styles of New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. Charlie Parker, Count Basie, and Jay McShann got their starts here, helping shape a musical movement that was founded upon the sweaty, high-pulse soundtrack to drinking and sex. It evolved not as the background to those late-night pleasures, but as their accompaniment, their partner and equal.

It began to come apart in 1939, when Pendergast was indicted for tax evasion. Soon the vice machine closed up shop too, and musicians moved on to more receptive and fertile environments in bigger cities, where jazz went on evolving. The end of segregation in the mid-’50s meant African-Americans could migrate away from the district, as did business, and the area settled in for decades of decay. History had grown away from it.

So trying to rebuild it meant not just finding more business, but, essentially, finding a new identity.

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The Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation has wrestled with just how to make its project relevant. In 2005 there was a “visioning study” with both locals and development pros to determine all the current and potential uses of the District, not just jazz. “Probably the universal thing was that sense of community and that sense of belonging,” says JDRC president and CEO Denise E. Gilmore. “So what we’re striving to do is just that, is to recreate a sense of community, a neighborhood in which anybody that interacts with the District [has] the opportunity for the cultural amenities: jazz, baseball, dance ... business, education, in addition to the entertainment,” she says.

Whatever your opinions on culture-by-committee, the risks are well established: trying to answer everyone’s needs can be time-consuming to the point of stalling, and when something is finally delivered, it can be watered-down by the averaging effects of so many opinions. With KC’s Jazz District, part of the problem is that the city is willing to put money into it, but there’s no one forceful persona leading the charge on just how to do it. Impolitic as it may be to say, Tom Pendergast would be good to have around again.

It may be though that the memory of Pendergast’s reign itself is what gets in the way of Kansas City embracing its past. Musician, band leader and KC jazz ambassador David Basse suspects that the city has a problem with its own history.

“When the Pendergast era ended in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, there was a large faction of people in Kansas City that never wanted to see that again, and whenever it’s brought up, some people still get kind of queasy about the whole deal,” he says. “It strikes of a past that’s better left unknown or unexploited, whereas New Orleans has always exploited that past. Jazz started in a whorehouse; deal with it: That’s where they’re at.”

Basse thinks that Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, and New York draw people because they not only accept their wayward pasts, they celebrate them, and the things they produced. Kansas City, on the other hand, is more reticent to remind locals and tourists about that whole corruption/prostitution/gambling thing. “All of that stuff is not something that is easy for a city or a convention and visitors’ bureau or a Junior League to put out and say, ‘Come on out and experience this.’”

Put another way: To not have the excess is to not have jazz. He quotes a musician friend: “If you’re not willing to stay up and party all night, you’ll never have jazz in Kansas City, because that’s what it’s all about.”

The physical embodiment of this sentiment is the Mutual Musicians Foundation, a meeting hall and performance space just off 18th Street. The Foundation was the birthplace of the African-American Musicians Union, Local 627. Founded in 1917, it served as a rehearsal space and oasis for local musicians as well as big names, hosting all-night jam sessions on weekends. What makes The Foundation special is that it somehow evaded the pull of history when the Pendergast era ended and the District depopulated. It’s as if no one told them the show was over, so it never ended.

Which is how it comes to pass that every Friday and Saturday night to this day, people gather in the upstairs performance hall or mill around the white grand piano in the downstairs room, a wood-paneled affair covered with black-and-white photos of musicians past, many whose names are lost to history.

The Foundation just went on partying until fall 2006, when a police officer cited the place for serving alcohol after the 3 a.m. cut-off. The issue struck a chord, and by the following May, the Missouri House of Representatives passed legislation allowing it to stay open and serve alcohol until 6 a.m.

Anita Dixon, vice president of the MMF, explains it simply. “You’re gonna get real Kansas City-style blues-based jazz in this place. You’re gonna get everything that comes with it too, the liquor, the drunks, and that’s the deal,” she says.

Her view of the Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District is that it has to be about something more than just building up businesses as a way of making money off a bygone era. It has to embrace the spirit that shaped that era. It can’t be, in other words, just a nicely painted facade.

The JDRC’s Gilmore insists that business is slowly but surely moving in; they’re renovating an old hotel and some historic homes. Restaurant and music spot Danny’s Big Easy recently opened its doors. Jazz Museum CEO Carroll says they need to increase marketing efforts so that out-of-towners are attracted to Kansas City for its jazz history. Everyone agrees that, as Basse says, “if 18th and Vine is going to survive, they need five more clubs right now, or three restaurants and three bars or something like that. So there's something happening, so you can walk around, go from one to the other.”

Whether and how that will ever happen is an open question.

“You can't really legislate sin,” Basse says. “You can't start a string of bars and have them owned by the city or corporations and make them fun. You can't do that. You'll open one little corner dirty place and you sweep the floor and you start selling booze.”

All photos by Brandon Reynolds.

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