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Jazz in Kansas City is not like jazz in New Orleans or in any other great American music city. It’s a little more bluesy, a little heavier on the keyboards and bass, not so bold with the brass. They call it “cool jazz” here, jazz that’s a little gentler on the spirit.
In case you didn’t know, Kansas City is where jazz grew up. After its birth in the Big Easy, the music migrated to KC and became a smart-aleck teenager, with attitude and a vision for the future. That’s what they say in the clubs, anyway. They also tell a good story about how it got here. Anybody who’s lived in this town for very long — and I’ve been here more than 25 years — has heard about Tom Pendergast. He was our Al Capone, our Bugsy Malone — our crime boss back when crime still paid (or maybe it’s just that America’s big-time crooks today are on Wall Street instead of the Mob).
Not a lot got in Tom Pendergast’s way. Certainly not a little thing like Prohibition, that “Noble Experiment” from 1920 to 1933, when alcohol consumption in the United States was illegal. Prohibition just wasn’t a big deal in Kansas City, so when the juke joints elsewhere shut down, when there was no more booze — an integral ingredient of a good night of jazz — the great musicians ended up here. Louis Armstrong. Charlie “Bird” Parker. Ella Fitzgerald. Jay McShann. Duke Ellington. Count Basie. That’s when the local music scene erupted. At one point, more than 200 juke joints operated 24 hours a day.
A Kansas City Jazz Tour
The city, in the heart of America’s Midwest, is bisected north and south by the Missouri River, and east and west by the Missouri/Kansas state line. Many popular attractions, such as the 18th and Vine Historic District, the high-end and high-rise Country Club Plaza, several museums, the former warehouse district that’s now the Crossroads Arts District, are on the Missouri side of town. Funky little neighborhoods in between these major districts provide an alternative to the ever-expanding suburbs on the Kansas side.
Some 40 jazz clubs once thrived in the 18th and Vine neighborhood. Today, this district struggles to regain its vibrancy, but come the evening hours, especially on weekends, the vibe changes as music pours out onto the street from joints like the Blue Room, part of the American Jazz Museum. Opened in 1997 in conjunction with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (see below), the jazz museum tells the tale I just told, only in greater detail. It also allows you to become a part of the music — to sit in on keyboards in a jam session or choose the rhythm or chords of a particular piece via various listening stations and composition rooms. It’s a place where you come to understand jazz terminology and, in particular, the feel of Kansas City jazz.
During museum hours, the Blue Room (at top and left) is another exhibit, its walls, bar, and cocktail tables trimmed with old playbills and album covers. But at night, the entrance through the museum is closed, and access to the Blue Room opens from 18th Street. Considered one of Kansas City’s earthier jazz joints, it charges no admission Monday and Thursday nights, and on Friday and Saturday nights the cover is just US$10.*
Across the street is the historic Gem Theatre, where a number of music events are held, including the “Jammin’ at the Gem” jazz masters’ concert series. And just around the corner, the Mutual Musician’s Foundation, part union hall, rehearsal hall, and jazz joint, really gets hopping in the wee hours of the weekends. On Saturdays at midnight, it’s also the site of a live jazz radio show.
One of the edgier clubs in town is Jardine’s on Main Street near the Country Club Plaza; it’s a little louder, a little hipper than other jazz venues. Two of the classics (and my favorites) include the on West 8th Street and the nearby Phoenix Jazz ClubMajestic Restaurant over on Broadway. For an overview of who’s playing at these and other clubs, visit the Web site of the nonprofit group Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors.
Hotels From Hilton to Bargain
Many legends — Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra — have played the Drum Roomat the recently renovated Hilton President Kansas City. This hotel is right in the center of everything, and rooms begin at $175.
A nice independent property is the Southmoreland Bed and Breakfast on Country Club Plaza, with 12 rooms named and decorated in honor of local historic figures (from about $130). Or if you’re really on a budget, try the Best Western Inn on Southwest Boulevard, where you’ll pay less than $75. That leaves you plenty of money for barbecue, steak, some Boulevard beer, and other soulful flavors of Kansas City.
More Kansas City Sights
There are plenty else worth coming to town for these days. A downtown redevelopment effort has created a sports arena and performing arts center to rival any in the U.S. The once-abandoned warehouses of theCrossroads Art District are now home to one of the largest First Friday art walks in the country, and the recently expanded Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art dazzles with its Chinese art, American Indian gallery, and Hallmark photo collection.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum tells of the time when baseball was a segregated sport, and how some of the game’s best players came up through the Negro Leagues. TheCollege Basketball Experience, which isn’t really a museum, celebrates history, too. The men’s NCAA basketball tournament was founded in Kansas City, and 11 Final Fours have been held here.
Containing the most comprehensive collection of World War I artifacts in the world, theNational World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial honors veterans and General John Pershing, a Missouri native who was head of U.S. forces. Exhibits include uniforms, weapons, other gear, a bombed-out French farmhouse, and a hand-dug 90-foot trench. Finally, don’t miss the Arabia Steamboat Museum. In 1856 the grand Arabia riverboat hit a snag in the Missouri River and sank. The boat and its treasures are now displayed in the River Market area — on dry land.
*To convert this and other U.S. dollar amounts to other currencies, see Tripatini’s Currency Desk.