American Jazz Museum’s New Executive Director Will Lead Push to Prominence

photo by Jim Barcus

Rashida Phillips: “It’s Absolutely a ‘Must See and Experience’ Destination.”

Harold Smith: What makes the American Jazz Museum different and a “must see” place for jazz enthusiasts?

Rashida Phillips: Certainly, the AJM has a lens on what Kansas City has contributed to the industry and to the music. This being a territory town for folks like Count Basie and such, this was the kitchen, a laboratory for many of those bands. So, the museum here offers a different lens for the music.

In this year of the Charlie Parker Centennial, we have his horn downstairs, the Grafton saxophone. I just took another listen to Jazz at Massey Hall. It’s a fantastic album with so many of our icons on there, and just to know that Charlie Parker played that particular horn at that particular concert is just phenomenal.

HS: Why should a person who knows very little about jazz visit the AJM? How would it benefit them?

RP: It’s American. I mean, we’re talking about the roots of American culture, history and what it means to be an American. We think of baseball, but we also think about jazz.

I know Ken Burns created series on both of those years ago, and they still stand true to time. Jazz is really our art form, and we really need to take a stake in what this music is. Even internationally, we have a prominence. We certainly get international crowds here who are interested in what the music means to the world culture.

HS: What are your goals as head of the AJM?

RP: Short term is to get to know this city, meeting with staff, board members and interested stakeholders across the community who want to see the AJM succeed.

I know we are at a big turning point. And I also want to give recognition to Ralph Caro for helping stabilize this institution during the interim.

We are on steady ground but also need to push forward. We are in a new decade now. There’s a lot to be said about the placement of culture in the arts and entertainment industry to keep Americans forward thinking, forward moving. We’re innovators here. So, I would like to see this museum recapture and uplift the spirit and energy embodied in the music, not just locally but nationally and internationally.

Being a Smithsonian affiliate, we’ve got a blueprint for best practices and a gold standard for a quality museum. I think of the importance of preserving our great American artifacts, and the importance of celebrating that history is critical for our community, and the world, quite frankly.

My vision is to continue building so more folks can come experience the verve of jazz.

HS: What changes can be made so that visitors will come back to the museum again and again?

RP: I’d like to take a closer look at our programming as a way to move beyond static exhibitions and keep the experience of visiting fresh. So, coming back and reviving the ideas and the energy around what we have here is richly important because jazz is ever changing. No song or experience is ever the same.

Of course, our Changing Gallery exhibit space is a wonderful opportunity to explore a revolving experience, and with Charlie Parker as a priority Kansas City icon for this year, I’m thinking about the best ways that we can celebrate his life and his centennial.

We have wonderful programs like Jazz Storytelling and Jazz Academy progressing, and we’ll look to further partner with community organizations to further strengthen our cultural ecosystem here in Kansas City. I like to imagine more vibrancy and energy circulating through as we build upon newer and returning audiences.

HS: Are there particular visual artists or traveling exhibitions that you would like to exhibit in the Changing Gallery?

RP: It’s a work in progress and a larger effort for us to connect with other institutions and like organizations on the potential of curating shared or new exhibits. I’ve taken a tour of the other museums in Kansas City and would like to explore more partnerships. The Louis Armstrong Museum (in Queens, New York,) comes to mind also. It’s a wonderful place to get an authentic view into Armstrong’s home life. So, to see how we can connect our permanent exhibition to what they have on board there would be wonderful. And we’re looking into partnering with New Orleans Jazz Museum for a special exhibition feature soon.

Performance in its own way represents a living exhibition of talent. We’ll look to feature a slate of artists who interact more deeply with the museum and our mission. I would like to see more contemporary folks come through, including more interdisciplinary opportunities, such as partnering with Alvin Ailey, and other art entities doing interesting things.

HS: Kansas City has a vibrant and diverse Black artists scene. Do you have any plans to specifically work with local visual and musical artists of color?

RP: I sure hope so. That’s something I am bringing from Chicago and that I was used to, working across communities, especially in the Black and Brown neighborhoods and with cross genre artists. So, I have a special interest in interdisciplinary artists because I don’t think young people involved in creative making always see and experience such distinctions.

HS: Are there any particular jazz musicians that you would like to see perform at the AJM?

RP: Oh man, I’ve got a wish list that could go on for miles. Immediate ones that come to mind are Kamasi Washington, a favorite of mine, a West Coast saxophonist with full and broad strokes of sounds. I’ve been listening to the Bad Plus with Orrin Evans on piano. They bring an alternative mix to the elements of piano, bass and drums — a little bit of rock, folk, jazz, some blues in there. Their music can be cerebral, but at the same time you can really find yourself in between there. I’d love to have them.

HS: What are your ideas for using the museum to bring an awareness of jazz music and its influence to students and young musicians?

RP: Well, certainly, we have the Jazz Academy program that builds skills and musicianship for young people. We continue to work with the school systems to not only have students come visit here but we want to get further into classrooms ourselves. Jazz Storytelling has ventured out and about from time to time. I have a rich background in arts integration, where we use the arts as an engagement tool alongside core classes.

I’d like to see jazz related to math, science and other subjects. I think these can be the best ways to teach and get students interested in all around learning.

HS: What changes do you think would draw residents from the suburban areas to the city specifically to visit the jazz museum?

RP: Changes. We need to get more folks through our doors. I can see that the city is working quite a bit on incentives throughout districts to pull more folks back to the city center, and this neighborhood needs to continue to be included. It’s absolutely a “must see and experience” destination.

I’d love to offer an extended experience with people coming to visit 18th and Vine. Not just as patrons of the museum, but eating at neighboring restaurants, visiting next door at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and creating a total package for an expanded evening, even a weekend experience.

HS: The museum has an impressive permanent collection. What artifacts do you find personally interesting?

RP: Yes. One that I have a particular affinity for is the Mary Lou Williams exhibition case in the Blue Room. It’s because I had my hand on that case as a grad student. I have a master’s in jazz history research, and along with valued classmates and lead archivist Annie Kuebler at the Institute of Jazz Studies, we were instrumental in helping to organize Williams’ complete collection including those artifacts. I was pleasantly surprised to see them on display here. They are very special to my journey.

HS: The new mayor, Quinton Lucas, has expressed a commitment to supporting Kansas City’s arts scene. What are your plans to work with the Mayor’s office to improve the effectiveness of the museum?

RP: We share that commitment. I was with a stakeholder group yesterday talking about the city’s role in not only helping to develop a current cultural plan but also developing a strong strategic plan for the music infrastructure scene here, the arts infrastructure, as well as the district.

I would like to learn and share in what the city is thinking about building tourism and ways to sustain our local artists, museums and cultural centers.

HS: Kansas City’s barbecue scene seems to go hand in hand with its jazz scene. Are there any particular barbecue restaurants that you find impressive?

RP: My parents have enjoyed Gates Bar-B-Q, but I’m not a carnivore, I’m a pescatarian so barbecue shrimp, even barbecue tofu would be good for me. I’m looking forward to venturing out and trying local places.

HS: What changes at the AJM can help stimulate and revitalize the entire 18th and Vine area?

RP: I’d like to see what the next planned district phases are. My understanding is that phase 1 has been completed with some of the infrastructure rebuilt and some investment in sustainability. I’d like to see what Phase 2 is. I don’t want to see the city abandon the extended project and feel as if they have done a sufficient amount of work here. We’ll look to strengthen our partnership with the city along with other core institutions in the area to raise more support, visibility and pool resources to help each other.

It is a huge draw and continues to be a huge draw for tourists and locals alike. So, I’d like to see the city continue to put a spotlight on this area, along with better accessibility through planning, safety and transportation.

HS: What can we expect to see accomplished during your first 90 days and your first year at the helm of the American Jazz Museum?

RP: Listening, learning, meeting and greeting across our community, not just the big heavy hitters but also the folks in the neighborhood. I’d like to reach out to the community more to find inroads and incorporate their ideas into our programming, getting this place to a heightened state. So, certainly, listening is a big piece of what I first want to do here.

I think we have a wonderful opportunity with the Charlie Parker Centennial to put a spotlight on Kansas City as a whole, and not just with his iconic status but also with his philosophy of insatiable curiosity and a continual drive to take in as much knowledge as he could — a craftsman who was always seeking. I think we have to put more muscle into this immediate legacy of Charlie Parker because his ethic demanded it.

I look forward to working with the board and moving into a strategic plan phase to think about what the next 10 or 20 years will look like. We must maintain fiscal stability. We must make sure we remain current and present a continuum from past exhibitions to future history and exhibitions. We must continue to present world-class local acts, including national and international artists. We must become one of the premier destinations for anyone coming through Kansas City for recreation or business.

We’re a great treasure, here on 18th and Vine. But we’ve got to revamp to become more vibrant and engaging.

HS: Finally, does your employment at the AJM mean you will become a fan of the Chiefs, Royals and Sporting KC?

RP: Well, I’ll always love the Cardinals. I’m from St. Louis and we lost our Rams. But I am enjoying the high from the Chiefs. My interest is piqued.

HS: Thank you for your time.

RP: I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here. There’s a lot of heart and soul here. Stay tuned because without a doubt we have much more to say and play.

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

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