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.
An interactive studio and mixing station give visitors a chance to select the instruments for various tunes and understand some of the complexities involved in jazz performance. Stewart says the studio, designed in part "to remove the myth that jazz is something you just play," is one of the museum's most popular stops.
"I think people thought [the museum] was going to be like every other jazz gallery in the country, that it would be just photographs," says Stewart. "There are a lot of wonderful galleries and there are a lot of wonderful archives, but our primary goal is to become a place that harbors and presents jazz."
Leonard Brown, a musicologist at Northeastern University in Boston, was part of the team that pulled together the history and music at the museum. He and others had to decide which songs to put in the listening stations, which bits of history to include and what to leave out.
"What I tried to do was present the information about the music and the musicians in a way that gave the proper respect and integrity to them," says Brown. "[Music] was so much a part of our experience. It was a way to express what was happening to you."
Since opening in September, the museum, the Gem Theater and the Blue Room jazz club have brought about 17,000 people each month into the old district around 18th and Vine streets. Yet there isn't much else in the neighborhood, not even a restaurant. Some of the facades from Altman's recent film "Kansas City" remain, giving the streets an odd, Disneyesque feel.
Pam Whiting, the museum spokesman, says the city has $14 million available for the area's economic development. Sylvia's, the famous Harlem restaurant, is supposed to break ground next month.
"The overarching vision," she says, "is you have once again a thriving district that celebrates the history and culture through the museums, that keeps it alive through the Gem and makes us a lot of money as a tourist attraction."
Pub Date: 6/12/98