Friday, August 17, 2007

Open Letter To Gregory Carroll, The New Executive Director of the American Jazz Museum

Welcome to Kansas City, Mr. Carroll. Congratulations on your new position as Executive Director of the American Jazz Museum.

By all accounts, you're an outstanding addition to our community. Everyone who knows you speaks very highly of your energy, enthusiasm and excellent reputation in the jazz world.

I'm a longtime Kansas City-area resident and avid music fan. I launched a Kansas City jazz site,, a few weeks ago because no one was providing the information and opinionated insights I'd been seeking. You won't see any advertising at the site; I'm simply motivated by my love of the music.

I realize that as executive director of the museum you oversee a wide array of functions, but this letter is limited to ten specific suggestions for the American Jazz Museum.

I visited the museum for the first time in years last week. It was only because I felt compelled to check on the status of this site's namesake, the "plastic sax," that I returned. I've been to the Blue Room innumerable times, but the museum itself is just not a "do-again" institution. I'd like to see that change.

The place looked fine, but little had changed since my last visit. Rather than complain about the museum's deficiencies, I've compiled a list of suggestions for improvement. Some of my ideas are simple; others might be difficult to Implement. Some of my proposals will need funding. I'd like to think that this financial hurdle can be overcome. Many institutions would jump at the opportunity to donate products and services. Just as the ticket counter of the museums' lobby bears a plaque indicating that it was financed by the Kemper's foundation, new exhibits in the jazz museum could be similarly labeled (exhibit "courtesy of Sprint", for example.)

Each of my concepts is designed to make the museum more vital, relevant and exciting.

This is the most difficult- but most important- of my suggestions. As you know, jazz is best appreciated as a live medium. Even the most vibrant exhibits imaginable can't compare to a live demonstration. Ideally, a group of musicians would perform every day at a designated time- say 2 p.m.- in the area below the neon signs. They'd discuss and explain the material between each piece. Start by contacting all the musicians listed at My list is easily the most thorough and diverse compilation of links of Kansas City jazz and jazz-related artists ever accumulated- and these are just the ones with web sites. If not enough professionals are willing to contribute, try reaching out to high school and middle school bands. All of them would be honored to play at the museum. If implemented, this concept would make each visitor's trip truly memorable.

Visitors to the adjacent Negro Leagues Baseball Museum are given a brochure guide; visitors to the jazz museum receive nothing. A potential source of revenue is being missed. School children on field trips aside, the museum is mostly visited by tourists- exactly the demographic that every local restaurant, hotel and attraction hopes to reach. A few advertisements would support vital text about Kansas City jazz, recommended music and videos, directions to Charlie Parker's grave, etc.

The museum is designed so that guests can navigate the space independently. Still, wouldn't it be better if an official greeter patrolled the museum at all times, even if they mostly answer rudimentary questions like "How do I get to Bryant's?" and "Where's the bathroom?" Where will you find this volunteer staff? By my calculations, you're open 51 hours a week. You'd need 68 three-hour shifts per month. Put me down for two of those. I'll bet that the Jazz Ambassadors will fill at least half of the remainder. That leaves just 32 more shifts to fill.

In spite of the presence of the great Max Roach (may he rest in peace), the film playing in the screening room is somewhat tedious. Not a single visitor stuck with it longer than two or three minutes while I was there last week. That experience inspired me to come up with a "movie night" concept. One night each week, transform the room into a combination movie theater and cocktail party. Look to Kansas City's Screenland Theater as a model.

There are so many great jazz films, from fictionalized dramas like Round Midnight and Bird to documentaries like Let's Get Lost and Jazz On a Summer's Day. Different films would attract different audiences- The Benny Goodman Story would pull in one crowd while a Cecil Taylor concert video would be attended by an entirely different set of people. Sure, most of these titles are available via Netflix and Amazon, but the attraction would be to see them on the museum's unique big screen, with a group of like-minded people. A post-film discussion could be moderated by an expert.

You don't need me to tell you that it's all about video today. A universe of priceless jazz videos are available on YouTube. Anyone with a computer has access to footage of Kansas City greats past and present. Why not share these treasures with visitors on video monitors? Each screen might feature a menu of a dozen Kansas City jazz musicians' videos. Royalties and copyright issues can surely be worked out with artists and their estates. All should be pleased to have their art showcased at the museum.

On a related note- didn't the city spend a significant amount of money to acquire rare vintage jazz films? What happened to that material? How come it's not shown at the museum?

I'm reluctant to bring this up again- it led to an absurd dust-up with the museum's previous director the last time I mentioned it- but two display cases in the museum needed small repairs last week. Items had fallen to the bottom of their display cases. It just looks bad. Also, I suggest keeping a large supply of extra headphone cushions in stock. At least half the headphones in the museum lacked them last week. I presume that kids pocket them, but their replacement value can't be more than a few cents per unit.

Why not personalize the museum by giving area jazz fans a space for their memorabilia? A new display case would hold the contents of a person's collection- it could be photos, autographs, album covers or even just an essay about their relationship to the music. This exhibit could be placed near the "Kansas City jukebox" room and would rotate monthly. It'd be a lot of fun.

What possible purpose does not allowing cameras into the museum serve? Frankly, there are so few original artifacts in the museum that potential damage from flashes is negligible. And the neon club signs are a natural camera opportunity. The resulting proliferation of images on the internet would only help promote the museum.

What fun would a list be without an entirely outlandish idea? The museum already makes a fine effort to reach out to its youthful visitors. I propose that you go straight to the source of one of today's most popular youth culture phenomenon. You're probably already familiar with the hugely successful video game Guitar Hero. Try extending an invitation to Harmonix Music Systems, a division of Viacom, to partner with them in the creation of "Saxophone Hero"? They're already expanding the brand and they just might be seeking expert advisors on such a project. Who knows where it might lead? In addition to the recognition the museum would receive from the association, it's conceivable that you'd wind up receiving royalties on future sales. And that's to say nothing about the popularity of a Saxophone Hero game booth at the museum, or how this concept holds the potential to generate a new generation of jazz fans unlike any other medium.

I'll be at the Mutual Musicians Foundation around 6 p.m. if you'd like to discuss any of these proposals with me later today. Look for the guy with hair maintenance issues.


Unknown said...

You have officially lost it with #10.

Anonymous said...

You're a thoughtful man, happyinbag. Constructive criticism, rather than bitching -- imagine! Hope the new director hears you.

Pappy said...

Bill -- loving this latest blog, no question. Like you, I visited the museum a few years back and really found it lacking. They'd do well to heed your suggestions, particularly in the video realm (that being my real interest)... they could have a mock Panoram set up and show KC-related soundies, for starters! Shoot, I'd move back to KC to program something like that! - Dave