Monday, October 7, 2013

My Missouri: The 18th & Vine Jazz District

If you were a jazz musician or fan or a curator of cool, in the 1930s and 1940s, and were lucky enough to be in the Kansas City area, you mostly likely were hanging out at the crossroads of 18th and Vine, it was definitely the place to be.  These downtown streets housed not only row after row of jazz clubs, but also hosted some the most influential and talented musicians of the day. 

Kansas City Jazz is historical known as the blues brimmed bridge between the more structured big band orchestra music, like, say, Count Bessie joining with Bennie Morton's Kansas City Orchestra and the play what your hearts tells you, more free forming style of Bebop, championed by Kansas City's own Charlie "Bird" Parker. If you take a look at a map of the USA, Kansas City is almost dead center, and being the geographic heart of the country made it a very common stop while transversing this fine nation, no matter what form of transportation. This constant coming and going of people also meant the constant coming and going of the culture, and lifestyles of those people. This time, the early to mid 20th century, was also the time of the political boss Tom Pendergast in Kansas City. Under his control of the city, liquor and nightly curfew laws were largely ignored allowing the clubs to financially prosper but also for jam sessions to frequently last until sunrise, birthing the age of amazing, extended, improvised and competitive solos from the musicians. All this was the perfect storm for some glory days, some jazz filled beautiful glory days. 

But glory days never last forever. In 1940, Pendergast was jailed for tax evasion, and a crack down on the clubs began.  With nowhere to go, musicians stopped coming, adding in WWII and social and cultural issues of the days . . .  the music eventually stopped.  There were attempts to revitalize this historical area of the city, but by large, 18th and Vine became a ghost town, full of empty clubs and urban decay.  It always made me ridiciously sad to visit the Jazz District. You just knew that there was so many stories in those walls and streets.  So much music and life still imprinted there, if only you could just hear it. But true music lovers, never give up on the music that never gave up on them,  in 1997 the American Jazz Museum opened and the area seemed to be alive once more. 

I visited the Jazz Museum, which is in the same building as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, with a visiting music loving friend. The museum is pretty small, but filled my heart. From a fantastic intro video (I love, love, intro video at historical sites), to swoon worthy artifacts, including one of Louis Armstrong's trumpets and signs from some of the original jazz clubs, to a whole room dedicated to jazz on film, to so many listening stations, it is all just perfect and easy to take in without feeling overwhelmed. I believe that jazz, as well as most music, is to be felt, and walking around the museum and all around the Jazz District, I felt jazz, and like the Bible says, it was good.

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