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.