Now’s the Time to Take the Jazz Museum to the Next Level

Rashida Phillips joined the American Jazz Museum as executive director in January 2020. (photo by Steve Paul)

Rashida Phillips arrived in Kansas City in January 2020, expressly chosen to set things right at the American Jazz Museum, which has proven to be a wobbly anchor of the 18th and Vine district.

A museum professional with experience both as a musician and a jazz historian, Phillips brought solid chops and positivity to the role of executive director. Then, as we all know: pandemic.

Well, the museum managed to make it through 2020, accessible mostly online. It even offered centennial tributes to Charlie Parker and an end-of-year fundraiser. Now Phillips maintains both her drive and her vision to bring its operation and its message to new levels in the coming months.

Phillips remains committed to modernizing the museum’s offerings and emphasizing how the relics of music can be used to understand the present and shape the future.

“Contemporary is key,” she tells me during a socially distanced visit in January. The philosophy applies to live and streamed music, to art exhibits, to constant rethinking of the museum’s holdings and how to update and renovate its historical galleries.

“It’s time for us to up the game,” says Phillips.

Phillips need only look across the museum building’s atrium to see what success and wide popularity can look like. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, under the leadership of Bob Kendrick, has become a revered institution locally and around the world.

Jazz has always been a harder sell than baseball, but in a lot of ways they go together. Their shared history, especially in the lore of 18th and Vine, cannot be forgotten. Like baseball, there are stories to tell about race, accomplishment and social history. But unlike baseball, the story of jazz and how it resonates in the present involves abstractions and details that can’t be itemized in scorecards and fleeting championships.

So the story of the American Jazz Museum, now approaching its 25th year, comes through the quality and the clarity of the stories it can tell about the music and the people who make it.

“As we continue to grow and gain national and international followers,” Phillips says, “we’ve got to do more of a concentrated job on the content.”

That means “really digging into the collection,” she says. One new staffer is devoted to cataloguing the museum’s material assets in unprecedented ways, and there’s a new effort to attract more donated objects.

One of the museum’s long underutilized assets is the John H. Baker Film Collection, comprising hundreds of hours of visual jazz recordings from the 1930s and ’40s. Nearly 20 years ago, an NEA grant supported a project to conserve the films, but that made only a small dent in the effort to catalog, digitize, research copyrights and share the collection in meaningful ways.

“We still have thousands of films,” said Phillips, who wants to seek more outside funding to renew the preservation effort and, especially, to introduce more of them to the public. “It’s a huge asset that belongs to the city.”

The museum’s reconstituted board has aligned with Phillips’ goals. “She has the qualities of great leadership,” says Mark Sappington, board secretary, “and inspires the board to think imaginatively and to focus us all on the significance of Kansas City jazz for both the United States and the world.”

Phillips is emphasizing connections with local musicians and the neighborhood as well as collaborations with cultural and civic partners. She wants the museum involved in discussions about the growth of the city, whether the topic is the new airport, or education, or community health concerns, or neighborhood development. As a place that educates and nurtures young talent and invites meditative moments of solace and inspiration, Phillips says, “We provide a social service.”

For a new exhibit in the museum’s Changing Gallery, she tapped Kansas City writer and gallerist Natasha Ria El-Scari to explore “Jazz and the Black Aesthetic.” The exhibit opened Feb. 4 and continues through April 25.

“There is an African principle called sankofa,” El-Scari told me via email, “which loosely means, ‘it is not taboo to go back and fetch it’; it refers to history and lessons already learned that we need to look to for wisdom. The artists of Black Space Black Art are looking at both the past influence of jazz (all being from KC) as well as what the future of jazz can mean.”

As a transplanted St. Louisan who took professional detours to New Jersey and Chicago, Phillips seems genuinely thrilled to be in Kansas City to help fashion those kinds of cultural experiences.

“Every day I come here,” she says, “is a joy.”

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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