Sunday, February 26, 2012
Kansas City's Counterfeit Jazz
The namesake of this blog is displayed in a case at the publicly-funded American Jazz Museum in Kansas City's Jazz District. The institution isn't located at the corner of 12th Street and Vine. The famous intersection no longer exists. Want to see Charlie Parker's childhood homes? They've also been leveled. Many of the most historically valuable properties in the Kansas City area are gone. Even though I openly mock the city's decision to spend $144,500.00 in taxpayer dollars on a plastic sax once played by Bird, I applaud the motives that inspired the purchase.
Rather than a case of too little and too late, I see the efforts described in Brandon R. Reynold's The Jazz District Authenticity Problem essay as a noble last-ditch effort to formally acknowledge and preserve a portion of what remains of Kansas City's formidable jazz legacy.
Patrick Jarenwattananon of NPR's A Blog Supreme encouraged Plastic Sax and KCJazzLark to respond to Reynold's piece with locally-based insights.
As Reynolds suggests, redevelopment at 18th and Vine has been halting. Before I offer my jazz-oriented explanation of why the the top-down approach to civic engineering has resulted in a disappointing amount of progress, I'd like to surprise longtime Plastic Sax readers by offering a heartfelt tribute to the American Jazz Museum.
Just last night a capacity audience packed the museum's nightclub for Benny Golson's second appearance at the Blue Room in less than a year. It was precisely the sort of event that could only transpire under the auspices of the American Jazz Museum.
While the museum's displays may not inspire repeat visits, its entertainment programming and outreach efforts have added immeasurably to my quality of life. I've met Randy Weston. I've experienced performances by brilliant musicians including Roy Ayers, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Lionel Loueke, Christian McBride and Nicholas Payton. I've attended panel discussions featuring underappreciated artists like Ben Kynard. I'm grateful that the museum continues to provide these invaluable opportunities.
I just wish more people recognized jazz's intrinsic rewards. Unlike barbecue, Kansas City's other ballyhooed gift to the world, jazz simply isn't attracting hordes of eager consumers in 2012. While the Blue Room has been a constant beacon of quality, the past few years have been tough ones for Kansas City's jazz fans and musicians. Even as the indie rock, hip hop and fine arts scenes have become all the rage, the jazz environment has endured a series of humbling setbacks. Unlike the infighting that's weakened support for the Mutual Musicians Foundation and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, most of the challenges faced by the American Jazz Museum aren't self-inflicted.
Kansas City's deep-seated racial divide is the other primary reason the Jazz District has failed to thrive. The town remains segregated. Last night's Benny Golson concert aside, a lot of people are simply unwilling to visit a part of town that they associate both with crime and with people of a different race. No amount of urban planning can rectify biases of that nature.
Time, however, has a a way of changing such perceptions. And there are reasons to be hopeful. Thanks in large part to Bobby Watson's work as the director of jazz studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, dozens of promising young musicians are bringing fresh ideas to the scene. I'll pit Kansas City's top two dozen jazz-based musicians against the talent pool of any North American city other than New York, New Orleans, Chicago and Los Angeles.
I have to believe that enthusiastic audiences will eventually embrace the relevant, #BAM-friendly music being performed by these young innovators. Hopefully, the proper infrastructure will be in place in the Jazz District when that day finally arrives. Kansas City's Jazz District may then seem less like a contrived counterfeit and more like the authentic article.
(Original image of sign at 18th & Paseo by Plastic Sax.)