ABOVE PHOTO: Kansas City Monarchs mural at the YMCA.
By Renée S. Gordon
“Well I might take a plane, I might take a train, If I have to walk, I’m goin’ there just the same, I’m goin’ to Kansas City, Kansas City, here I come”
— ‘Kansas City Blues’ by Leiber & Stoller
A stroll through the 18th & Vine Historic District is a walk into a living, breathing, autobiography of a people, an era and a genre of music that is considered America’s musical contribution to the world. African Americans began moving into the area in the 1880s and twenty years later it was an established residential district with commercial venues to service the segregated population. The area, bounded by 18th St., Woodland Ave., 19th St. and The Paseo, was designated a National Historic District in 1991. www.18thandvinedistrict.org
Two major events contributed to making 18th & Vine a jazz mecca, Thomas Pendergast political career and the demise of Storyville. Almost simultaneously with the arrival of blacks to Kansas City came the arrival of Thomas Joseph Pendergast. He would go on to control city politics for more than 15 years and turn a blind eye to much of the corruption during his tenure. The lax law enforcement led to a proliferation of clubs, more than 30 along the historic corridor alone.
Storyville, considered the home of jazz at the time, was located in the heart of New Orleans. The 16-block, red-light district was created in 1897 by the city government hoping to confine prostitution to a limited area. In 1917 the Secretary of the Navy closed it because it provided too much access to vice for enlisted men in the region and the musicians who worked the houses and clubs were forced to move on.
It became apparent that there were clubs in need of musicians in Kansas City and it quickly became the place where everyone who was anyone played. The list of luminaries is long and stunning. They left their mark on the district, the city, the nation and ultimately, the world.
You can tour the area in an “improvisational” fashion, picking and choosing sites and attractions as the spirit moves you, or you can stay true to the theme and explore the historic district in a less random manner. Brochures, maps and guides are available and many significant sites are denoted with historic markers. Outstanding Black History Tours are offered by the Kansas City Tour Company. Two-hour walking and bus tours are available by reservation. (816) 286-5298 www.kctourcompany.com
The Black Archives of Mid-America was established in 1974 by Horace Peterson to interpret the black experience in the Midwest with an emphasis on Kansas City. The facility is a repository for artifacts, photographs and memorabilia as well as housing a museum. Displays are thematic and provide an excellent orientation to regional and local history. A visit here is crucial to understanding 19th and 20th-century Kansas City. Gallery highlights include a small cabin occupied by “Aunt Lucy,” the Alvin Ailey Archives and archival photographs. The BAMA opened at its new location in June 2012 with a special exhibit, “With My Eyes No Longer Blind.” www.blackarchives.org
Local 627 was organized in 1917, just after the closure of Storyville, as the Colored Musicians Protective Union and housed in a 2-story building erected in 1904. After hours jazz musicians would meet here and jam. The scene was immortalized in Pete Johnson’s “627 Stomp.” The modern Mutual Musicians Association is still in operation and is the only place in the state licensed to sell alcohol all night. There is live jazz every weekend, the doors still open at midnight and stay open until 5 AM.
In 1902 the YMCA was organized and in 1907 three small structures were constructed at a cost of $10,000. By 1910 a new building was needed, funds were raised with the help of Julius Rosenwald and the current building was completed in 1914 and named the Paseo YMCA. The building was open around the clock and offered meeting space, scout troops, classes and the only swimming pool for blacks in the area.
Eight African American baseball team owners met on February 13, 1920 at the YMCA to found the Negro National League. This historic meeting is commemorated with a large Kansas City Monarchs mural on the side of the building. Players who were members of the team were Ernie Banks, Buck O’Neil, Satchel Paige, and Jackie Robinson.
On the corner of 17th Terrace & Paseo, looking toward 18th & Vine, sits the Charlie Parker Memorial. The 18-ft. sculpture was dedicated in 1999. Robert Graham’s work consists of a 10-ft. head atop a base inscribed with the words, “BIRD LIVES.” You must stop and pay homage to, arguably, Kansas City’s greatest jazz musician and “Father of Be Bop.”
Parker is buried in nearby Lincoln Cemetery. He died at the age of 35 and was interred next to his mother. The cemetery is open during daylight hours.
Constructed as a silent movie theater in 1912, the Star Theater was transformed into the Gem Theater in 1913. This baroque-style edifice was an important performance venue for the black community and, after restoration, the Gem Theater & Cultural Performing Arts Center continues to be so. The iconic, neon marquee provides a place for great photo ops. www.gemtheatre.com
The American Jazz Museum, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the Changing Gallery, the Blue Room and the Horace Peterson III Visitor Center are housed in a single complex on 18th Street. The large atrium is a performance and event space. A theater off the atrium presents a 12-minute film, “The Journey,” that tells the story of the neighborhood through the eyes and voices of those who live there. The Gallery and Visitor Center are free.
The American Jazz Museum presents jazz history through the stories of four of its greatest artists, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Each artist is showcased in their own gallery filled with memorabilia, photographs, listening stations and personal items.
Each article tells a story and my favorite is the one illustrated by the first object in the museum, a white plastic saxophone belonging to Charlie Parker. Parker was, in his lifetime, considered one of the world’s greatest jazz musicians and the Canadians invited him to participate in a concert with other great American jazz artists at Massey Hall in 1953. Just before they were to take the stage the other musicians discovered that Parker, known to need money to satisfy his personal appetites, was without a sax.
Someone was dispatched to locate one but, because of restrictions on metal, they could only locate a plastic one with an awful sound. Parker took the stage, played the plastic instrument and one of the musicians recorded the concert. The resulting album is considered one of Parker’s greatest performances and proof of his legendary ability. He never played that sax again but he did keep it. When the instrument came up for auction the primary bidder against the museum was Clint Eastwood.
A special area has been designated for viewing portions of the 1.5-million feet of jazz film, 700 hours, in the John H. Baker Jazz Film Collection. The collection includes many never before seen performances, some dating from the 1920s.
The Blue Room is part of the museum tour during the day and an active blues club in the evening. It is named after the club in the Street Hotel and modeled on a 1930’s nightclub. The tables are of particular note because they function as display cases filled with memorabilia. Downbeat Magazine named the Blue Room one of the “Top 16 Blues Clubs in the World”.
The Jazz Museum’s Rhythm & Ribs 18th & Vine Jazz Fest is the best jazz festival I have ever attended. Shows are presented throughout the historic district and the area is filled with vendors, food offerings, jazz lectures and family friendly activities and museum admission is included in festival admission. www.americanjazzmuseum.com
Upon entering the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) through a turnstile you are immediately immersed in the world of the players. The circular, chronological, self-guided tour begins with a 15-minute film, “They Were All Stars,” viewed in a stadium-like setting. Walls are covered with photographs, clothing and artifacts while everywhere you look there are life-sized dioramas and interactive stations.
The stories told in the 16 exhibit areas are of men who played for love of the game and being barred from playing in the majors created leagues of their own. Every American needs to hear the stories of Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Moses Fleetwood, Cool “Papa” Bell and countless others. The climax of a visit is a walk onto the Field of Legends to stand beside 10 of the greatest NL players to take the field, immortalized in bronze.
The museum’s gift shop offers licensed NLBM merchandise. www.nlbm.com
No trip to Kansas City is complete without dining on food that touches your soul. Gates Barbecue has been family-owned for more than 65 years. It began at 19th & Vine and has expanded to six locations. It lives up to its award-winning reputation. www.gatesbbq.com
Magnolia’s Restaurant opened earlier this year and has already established itself as a culinary force. The restaurant features southern coastal cuisine created with fresh, regional foods. Take my advice and try the shrimp and grits. www.magnoliaskc.com
People have dreamed of going to Kansas City since the 1920s. Make it your dream and make it come true. Planning tools are available online. www.visitkc.com
I wish you smooth travels!
“Exploring Historic Dutch New York” is an ideal travel guide for visiting these oft-overlooked sites. Included information on the history, culture, art and architecture make your trip significantly more meaningful and the book makes a wonderful Xmas gift. It is available online at www.mcny.org/shop and www.amazon.com.