The American Jazz Museum
The American Jazz Museum celebrates the cultural, historical, and artistic contributions that occurred on the jazz scene in Kansas City. Located in the 18th & Vine historic district, and in the same area as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the American Jazz Museum showcases the cultural and musical explosion that hit Kansas City in the 1920s and 1930s. Additionally, the American Jazz Museum is the only museum in the world solely focused on the preservation, exhibition, and advancement of jazz music. The museum includes interactive exhibits, educational programs, a working jazz club (the Blue Room) and the Gem Theater (a 500-seat performing arts center). As a Smithsonian Affiliate, the American Jazz Museum also presents music-related exhibits from the Smithsonian Institute.
Backstory and Context
"With few anomalies," write historians Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix, "Kansas City's distinctive jazz style originated in the community centered around the intersection of 18th and Vine—Kansas City's other downtown."  In the segregated Kansas City of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, 18th and Vine was a vibrant hub of African American businesses, clubs, hotels, and restaurants serving a clientele excluded from the venues in Kansas City's white downtown because of their race. The American Jazz Museum, located in the 18th and Vine historic district, both celebrates the history of Kansas City jazz and the African American musicians, hotel owners, and restaurateurs who helped create it, and works to revitalize an area that, after the 1950s, experienced decades of neglect and under-investment.
During the 1920s and Great Depression, Kansas City earned a reputation as being a “wide open” city owing to machine politicians like Tom Pendergast. The Pendergast brothers defied officials, refusing to enforce Prohibition laws against the bootleggers and organized crime figures who supported him and filled his coffers. As a result of this reputation, and black political leaders who delivered the vote to Pendergast-affiliated aldermen, police allowed jazz clubs in this predominately African American neighborhood to operate. As long as the money flowed up to the political machine, liquor flowed throughout Kansas City. As a result, clubs attracted patrons and provided incentives for musicians throughout the country to come to Kansas City.
Many of the greatest jazz legends learned and practiced their craft at white-only clubs downtown in the early evening before returning to the Street Hotel for a meal. These musicians then performed a second set at the black-owned clubs of this neighborhood and the music sometimes continued on until the early morning hours. While many of these musicians moved on to other cities, the Kansas City Jazz district is celebrated for its role in producing the sound of American jazz.
The 18th and Vine historic district, where the museum is located, was home to influential musicians like Charlie "Bird" Parker, who lived and played in Kansas City before moving to New York. The district was the place where jazz legends like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald performed for African American audiences. The museum celebrates the district and preserves the legacy of Kansas City jazz. The museum shares the building with the Negro League Baseball Museum and visitors can enjoy both museums for a reduced rate by purchasing a ticket to both.
Emanuel Cleaver was the political sponsor for the revitalization of the 18th and Vine district. However, Culturalist Dr. Rowena Stewart oversaw the development of the American Jazz Museum in 1995. Stewart became the first director upon completion of the museum in 1997. When the museum opened, many hoped that this museum and the Negro League Baseball Museum would be self-sustaining. However, despite the neighborhood being one of the safest in the metro area, many white residents perceive the area as less than safe and this misconception has been passed on to visitors. Museum visitation has been less than projected as a result and the museum has needed to attract grant support and revenue from the city in order to stay open. The building the museum is located in is city-owned, and so are the artifacts displayed. The city provides one-third of the $1.5 million dollars of the operating budget. While visitors who attend the museum and patronize the neighboring Blue Room are likely to chuckle about the misconception of the area as unsafe, this family-friendly museum has lost many potential visitors. The racial divide that separated white and black jazz lovers in the 1920s continues nearly a century later.
- Diggs, Frank. Haddix, Chuck. Kansas City Jazz : From Ragtime to Bebop - A History. Oxford, UK. Oxford University Press, 2006.
About Us. American Jazz Museum, n.d. Web. 7 July 2016. 2.) American Jazz Museum. Guidestar, n.d. Web. 7 July 2016.
Visit KC, news.visitkc.com/facts/american-jazz
Experience KC, museumwww.experiencekc.com/18thandvine.html
American Jazz Museum, http://americanjazzmuseum.org