It’s been around about 100 years, but in that time, jazz has morphed into various subgenres such as free jazz, Bebop, Afro-Cuban, avant-garde and of course, traditional. The subgenres are diverse, but no matter the style, the American Jazz Museum staff and leadership want to make sure that all jazz, from its earliest incarnations in the early 1900s to the music being produced in 2013, is treasured.
Chief Executive Officer Greg Carroll brings adoration for the jazz world each day he comes into work, takes his chair at an arts task force meeting or sharing the museum’s story. It’s a broad, gregarious passion that fills a room like Charlie Parker playing Summertime on his sax. He has been leading the American Jazz Museum for six years. “When I come into the room, just by my presence, I hope people think about the museum,” he says. “I want people to see the American Jazz Museum and the vision that we are a premiere destination.” The components of the museum include the Gem Theater and the Blue Room.
Carroll quotes the mission comfortably. It’s a mission to celebrate jazz through performance, education, exhibits and research. “We are working to be that significant stop in understanding jazz. The vision is to make the place extremely relevant and world class. We want to be a catalyst and connect people with jazz and those people are youngsters, young professionals and more … not just those 50 and older.” Marketing manager Chris Burnett says the museum was originally called the Kansas City Jazz Museum. “Considering the scope and the amount of materials on the Internet, I would daresay we are international,” he says.
Carroll brings the heart of an educator and the passion of a musician to his role as chief executive officer. “I wear three hearts. The middle heart is that musician who enjoys playing an instrument, sitting at the piano and playing or conducting a clinic for band students. That heart fuels the right heart which is the executive. This is the person who looks at the financial statements and moves the organization along. The heart on the left is the educator. I have learned so much through the educational lens. I am a different CEO because of that. I provide orientation and leadership, with an educator’s heart and that passion is always burning.”
His joy comes almost daily as he witnesses school groups sitting in the atrium, enjoying jazz storytelling; or, when he witnesses museum patrons who are seeing an exhibit or enjoying an artist and there are all smiles among them because there is such a love for the music. “When I see artists interacting on stage or I see patrons enjoying life and being enriched, it’s worth all the other stuff.” Another role is to be chief cheerleader. “I look for what is in the best interest of the American Jazz Museum. It is implicit in my job to be a community connector and that means to be in the community, not just in the neighborhood.”
The American Jazz Museum’s department of collections & exhibitions specializes in several areas, including: preserving and perpetuating the history of the 18th & Vine area, honoring jazz masters, digitizing its enormous collection of jazz on film, pursuing new acquisitions and artifacts for the permanent collections and presenting a variety of changing exhibits tied to the jazz experience and aesthetic. There are permanent collections and the Changing Gallery which gives space to local and national artists, traveling exhibits and more. Carroll continues, “In terms of exhibits, jazz is still young, and because of that, there are not as many exhibits, so we may have to self-curate and look for loaned artifacts too. We might even some day commission visual artists.”
Then there is the Blue Room, an award-winning jazz club featuring live music four nights a week, but also a part of the permanent exhibit at the American Jazz Museum. The Gem Theatre is the larger venue where the staff has brought such legends as Benny Golson, Chick Corea and Nancy Wilson. “Sure we would love to have Sonny Rollins. Then I would like to see more crossover artists like a Santana or a Bonnie Riatt. Then I would like find a platform for emerging artists. We are seeing schools graduating incredible talent and there are not many venues for these musicians to hone their craft,” Carroll says.
As the museum hits 16 years in existence, perseverance coupled with creative vision will be part of the American Jazz Museum’s future. “I try not to put all of my stock in quantitative measurements. A concert is not necessarily a failure if it doesn’t sell out. I want qualitative and that includes all facets such as presentation and enrichment. Sure back at the turn of the century, jazz was the popular music of the day and everyone went to dance or concert halls to see and hear the new music. It was the pop music of the day. However, today if a hall seats 500 and there are only 300 in attendance, that is not a failure. Jazz is now a niche; it is an acquired taste and not everyone is going to be a jazz lover or even a museum lover. However, we must be aware of our purpose to keep this very important art form alive and well,” Carroll says. “We are a small piece of a larger pie that includes educational programming at schools, jazz festivals, museums, cultural centers, faith-based organizations … all these aim to help keep jazz relevant.”
The other hope for the future is to work collaboratively with the groups in town that promote jazz such as Café Trio, Phoenix Grill, Take Five and Green Lady. “When some jazz venues are successful, others ultimately benefit and are successful. We have a cool opportunity to lift each other up. However, I am not sitting back and watching to see who comes, whether it’s patrons, artists, those who are helping behind the scenes, Kansas City’s historians … I want to see all the positive energy collaborating within the community at large and all of this fueled by the understanding that art makes us all better.”
Burnett says the American Jazz Museum staff will work even harder to share the message so that when people think of Kansas City, it’s barbecue, jazz and the American Jazz Museum. Carroll says the symbiotic relationship with the city is important too. “This is the city’s museum and we have to work even harder to share that statement.”•