On the morning of the last day of spring, Daniel Edwards casts a hopeful look at an abandoned daycare center. High weeds and forlorn-looking play equipment loom large, but Edwards sees much more.
Edwards envisions this site, located in the Wendell Phillips neighborhood near 25th Street and Michigan Avenue, as the future home of a jazz recording/performing studio.
“This recording studio will be the creative inspiration for how we rebuild the neighborhood,” said Edwards, who grew up not far away. “As the Crossroads has become known as the visual arts neighborhood, Wendell Phillips should be known as the performing arts neighborhood. We’re rebuilding this neighborhood with jazz at the center.”
The 32-year-old Edwards has sustained a lifelong love affair with jazz. Jazz and classical were the sole inhabitants of his childhood musical realm, and he started playing saxophone in the fifth grade. He performed in the jazz band at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, a longtime presence in this neighborhood.
Edwards got out of practice on the saxophone when he attended the Missouri University of Science and Technology, where he earned a degree in architectural engineering.
But he retained his devotion to jazz and the Wendell Phillips neighborhood, which is located just south of the 18th and Vine Jazz District.
“Building space is in my background,” Edwards said. “When I drive around places like this and see overgrown weeds and vacant properties, I’m saying, ‘why does that happen in some parts of our town, but it doesn’t happen in other parts of our town?’ If artists can improv and collaborate and create, how do we use that principle of jazz to reimagine our physical spaces in our community?”
Edwards and his wife, Ebony Edwards, are reimagining the Wendell Phillips neighborhood as a global jazz mecca. They started the Record to Rebuild, International Jazz Legacy Project (also known as JazzLP) and MovementKC/Urban Building Project initiatives. In 2015 they received a Kemper Foundation grant that sent them on an overseas jazz research project.
Daniel and Ebony attended more than 20 jazz performances in six countries and nine cities. They interviewed 43 musicians, along with venue and production staff, media and fans.
They found great enthusiasm for Kansas City jazz, but very few of the enthusiasts connected the jazz with Kansas City. “The world plays our music, but we haven’t done a good job of explaining that we created that in Kansas City,” Edwards said. “And it’s not until they come back and see it and touch it, and experience the neighborhood and community, that they’ll get to know that.”
Edwards wants his endeavor to complement the work of the American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine, which has struggled in recent years. “The museum has accomplished a lot that is positive,” he said. “They’ve kept the legacy alive. We’re here working with artists in order to help them live out their dreams.”
Last year JazzLP launched its first artist-in-residence program, led by singer-songwriter Krystle Warren and award-winning trumpet player Hermon Mehari. The program has spawned local interactive concerts, featuring storytelling and Q and A, and more are in the works.
Edwards and Ebony have made an offer to buy the old daycare center site and hope to close on the transaction by Aug. 31.
Their next step would be to redevelop the property into a studio. “Jazz is a living organism,” Edwards said. “We want to create something that’s recording-based, and not just reflection-based or historically based. There are always going to be new works and artists pushing the envelope, creating and experimenting with new sounds.”
Edwards said commercial real estate development needs a high density of surrounding residential development in order to thrive. So in addition to the studio, he wants to develop housing in the Wendell Phillips neighborhood, which is home to more than its share of vacant lots. He and Ebony have acquired 43 vacant lots in the neighborhood so far. They want to live there with their two daughters, Evan and Ezra.
Edwards wants to develop 1,000 houses in Wendell Phillips over the next 10 years. He was working on obtaining financing for his development plans at press time.
Edwards foresees neighborhood residents linking up with the recording space. “We should have hundreds of performance spaces in this neighborhood,” he said. “When we turn this into a recording studio, we want to run recording cables from the houses for artists. They can just track it right in here.”
If all goes according to plan, the studio would serve as the nucleus of the neighborhood and a beacon to the rest of the planet.
“We can record it and stream it across the world,” Edwards said. “Our midnight hour is morning rush hour in Denmark. If we start to stream this content and these recordings across the world, then we’re bringing the world back into this story with us.”
Jazz — from Kansas City to the world and back, more vibrant than ever. After years of work, hopes and dreams, can this vision come to life?
Above: Daniel Edwards and his wife, Ebony Edwards, founders of the Record to Rebuild, International Jazz Legacy Project, are reimagining the city’s Wendell Phillips neighborhood as a global jazz mecca. Their plans include the creation of a jazz recording/performing studio in the building behind them at 2445 Michigan Ave. The couple has two children, Evan (left) and Ezra (right). (photo by Jim Barcus)