As the American Jazz Museum turns 20, ‘The Legacy Plays On’

Exhibit Chronicles the Museum’s Extraordinary History

Before the American Jazz Museum opened in 1997, it could be difficult for jazz lovers to connect with the golden era of Kansas City jazz in the 1920s and 1930s. In the late 1990s, outstanding local musicians performed regularly at clubs around town — just as they do today — providing proof plenty of how lively the jazz scene is here for a metropolitan area as small as ours. But where could one go to experience the magical era represented by musicians like Jay McShann, Bennie Moten, Charlie Parker and Marylou Williams?

It is within this context that viewers might view “The Legacy Plays On: 20 Years of the American Jazz Museum,” through Dec. 31. The exhibition recounts the formation of the museum and the first 20 years of its history through informational panels and selected artifacts and works of art from the museum’s permanent collection.

Taken as a whole, the exhibition amply demonstrates that each branch of programming is vital to the museum’s mission “to celebrate and exhibit the experience of jazz as an original American art form through performance, exhibition, education, and research at one of the country’s jazz crossroads – 18th & Vine.”

The exhibition was organized by former Director of Collections Michael Sweeney and Interim Director of Collections Cailin Carter. Carter began working at the museum in January 2017, and when Sweeney departed earlier this year she was named Interim Director of Collections.

The show is made up of five sections. “Origin Stories” examines the rationale and logistics behind forming the museum. “Advancing the Art Form” features the venues and performance-related events that the museum uses to champion live jazz and expand the audience for jazz. “Celebrating Art and History” presents works of art that the museum owns, and recalls the numerous temporary art exhibitions the museum has mounted to provide visitors with alternative ways to experience the “ideals, rhythms and emotions” of jazz. “Preserving Stories” illustrates the museum’s role as steward of the material culture related to jazz. Finally, “Community Engagement” highlights a variety of programs that the museum offers to educate the public about not only the musical aspects of jazz, but also the culture of jazz as an agent of social change.

In the “Origin Stories” portion of the exhibition, exhibition organizers point out that the vitality of the jazz district in the first half of the 20th century should be viewed against the backdrop of institutionalized racism. The informational panel for this section of the show asserts “Because of legalized segregation in Kansas City, the neighborhood surrounding 18th & Vine was the primary location of African American commerce.”

When segregation relaxed some in the 1950s and 1960s, African American businesses and communities expanded into other areas of the city, and the 18th & Vine neighborhood began to lose some of its concentrated energy. By the 1980s and 1990s, the Black Economic Union began redeveloping the neighborhood to attract new businesses. Horace M. Peterson III, founder of the Black Archives of Mid-America and a prominent community leader, advocated for the neighborhood to become a center for arts and culture, as it had been in the past. Emanuel Cleaver II, former KCMO city councilman and mayor, procured funding to continue reviving the area, and staff and administrative processes were put in place to forge the museum. Under the banner “The Legacy Plays On,” the museum opened in 1997 as the Kansas City Jazz Museum.

A striking black-and-white poster with an image of a saxophone player and vocalist singing into a microphone hangs near the opening of the exhibition. The image is surrounded by text that urges the viewer to “Save the Wails” and “Support Kansas City’s Blues & Jazz Heritage.” The poster was created at Muller + Company in the late 1990s to build support for the foundation of the museum, as about 1/3 of the museum’s budget comes from public sources. The City of Kansas City, Missouri, owns the artifacts collected by the museum and the building that houses the Jazz Museum (as well as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum). A private non-profit corporation, the Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation/18th and Vine Redevelopment Corp., originally managed the museum’s programs and assets. (When the KC Jazz Museum rebranded as the American Jazz Museum, American Jazz Museum became the manager, and the redevelopment entity and the museum reorganized into separate non-profits.) Brochures, flyers and program notes from special events round out this section of the exhibition.

“Celebrating Art and History” features art, exhibition posters and other collateral materials to recount some of the art shows that the museum’s “Changing Gallery” organized over the years. This part of the show shines brightest in handsome black-and-white photographs of trumpeter Wallace Roney and vocalist Nnenna Freelon by photographer Bob Barry, who donated a large body of his work to the museum after his 2013 exhibition there. An extraordinary large painting by Anthony Ramos owned by the museum hangs just around the corner, entitled “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (an homage to one of Ella Fitzgerald’s much-loved early recordings).

The “Preserving Stories” section of the show focuses on the role of the museum as steward of important artifacts. Near the Ramos painting, large vitrines display two eye-catching garments: a copper-colored dress worn by Ella Fitzgerald, and a golden robe and mask worn by a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra, which has performed at the Gem Theater Cultural & Performing Arts Center, the jazz museum’s concert venue across the street.

On the other side of a large wall, three objects from “Preserving Stories” have been named “Visitor’s Choice” objects. This community curating initiative invited visitors to vote for their favorite pieces. Visitors chose well by selecting a stunning cloche hat that belonged to Bettye Miller, a leading vocalist who performed for many years in Kansas City and beyond with her husband, the bassist Milt Abel. In a small adjacent display case, two dog tags worn by the legendary and revolutionary saxophonist John Coltrane command our attention. Across the room, locals picked a copy of the menu for the Piccadilly Room at the Pickwick Hotel as a sentimental favorite. In addition, a video plays on a loop as part of the “Preserving Stories” section, offering a glimpse into the portrayal of African Americans in film in the first half of the 20th century that is both fascinating and troubling. The film clip comes from the John Baker Film Collection, made up of over 2,000 reels of film, as well as photographs and other items. The city of Kansas City purchased the collection from Ohio attorney John Baker in 1984, indicating that city leaders have been interested in promoting Kansas City’s jazz heritage since long before the museum was founded.

In “Advancing the Art Form,” the museum presents itself as an important organizer and presenter. Framed posters from numerous concerts by nationally prominent musicians in the “Jammin’ at the Gem” series surround the viewer. A small area with photographs and memorabilia has been dedicated to the Blue Room, the museum’s excellent intimate jazz club. In a vitrine nearby, programs from symposia focused on Charlie Parker and Marylou Williams remind visitors of the scholarly aspects of the music.

With the “Community Engagement” portion of the exhibition, the museum illustrates its ties to local organizations, individuals, schools and businesses. A remarkable portrait of Duke Ellington by prominent Kansas City-based artist Lonnie Powell is on display, while a nearby display case features the results from the Duke Ellington Youth Project, a series of educational programs held in collaboration with local schools. Poetic contributions by youths at Paul Robeson Middle School are particularly delightful.

The show offers a few especially nice moments when related objects are displayed close to each other. Virtual conversations develop between Lonnie Powell’s Duke Ellington portrait and the Duke Ellington Youth Project material, and again with the proximity of Anthony Ramos’ “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” to Ella Fitzgerald’s dress.

Such gratifying moments become much more possible when a collection has grown to critical mass. “The Legacy Plays On” does an admirable job of demonstrating past accomplishments, but perhaps more importantly, the exhibition provides tantalizing hints of great things to come as collections management staff settles into new roles and begins to work with the collection more closely.

“The Legacy Plays On: 20 Years of the American Jazz Museum,” continues through Dec. 31 at the American Jazz Museum, 1616 E. 18th St. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. For more information, 816. 474.8463 or americanjazzmuseum.org.

Photos by Jim Barcus

About The Author: James Martin

James Martin

James Martin is an independent consultant, curator, educator and writer based in the Kansas City area. Most recently, he served as guest curator of “Chromaphilia,” an exhibition of Kansas City Art Institute ceramics department alumni, on view at the KCAI Gallery through June 4. Since 2001, he has focused on working with art located outside of typical art venues, such as public art and corporate and hospital art collections.

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