Standing on the corner of 18th and Vine in Kansas City Missouri is one of those pop culture bucket list mandates for jazz fans — in the same vein as standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona or crossing London’s Abbey Road barefoot is for rock n’ roll. It’s just one of those things you have to do.
The 18th and Vine reference is not one everyone immediately gets, but if you know jazz, if you can hum the tune to “Goin’ to Kansas City,” you recognize that the 18th and Vine Historic District here is some place special. At one time about 200 juke joints operated 24 hours a day there, pumping music into the street and creating a more mellow sound than that found in New Orleans. Sure, jazz was born in N’Orleans, but those who know this genre of music will tell you that Kansas City is where jazz grew up and gained an attitude.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You know good music when you hear it.
- You know all of the words to “Goin’ to Kansas City.”
- Good for night owls and jazz aficionados.
Why Kansas City for Jazz?
Jazz is certainly owned by New Orleans, but during the years of Prohibition when alcohol was harder to come by in most of the country, it was flowing freely in Kansas City, thanks to a crime boss named Tom Pendergast who was not intimidated by a little thing like the U.S. Constitution. So jazz musicians from around the world followed the alcohol and found their way to the jazz clubs of Kansas City, predominantly the 18th & Vine District. In so doing, they experienced a new freedom and energy that expressed itself through their music and became the Kansas City sound.
Where New Orleans jazz is dominated by brass, Kansas City jazz expresses itself with more piano and more bass. Part swing, part bee bop, Kansas City jazz is considered more bluesy. Some call it “cool jazz.” It’s an earthy, sultry blend of melody, rhythm and harmony that feeds the soul of Kansas City as sure as barbecue feeds its body.
The American Jazz Museum
The American Jazz Museum shares space with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in a complex called The Museums of 18th and Vine. Charlie Bird Parker’s saxophone is here and extensive exhibits on Ella Fitzgerald, Jay McShann, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, among many others. They all attribute much of their success to Kansas City and the freedom they had to explore and grow in their craft.
Pick up head sets and listen to what distinguishes their sound and the Kansas City sound from others. Listen in on jam sessions or take control of an audio board and see what a little more bass will do to a particular song. Then come back at night to the Blue Room for one of the best live jazz shows in the city.
Experiencing Kansas City Jazz
True understanding of Kansas City jazz comes after a night in the Blue Room, a part of the American Jazz Museum. This live performance venue was named for the nightclub in the basement of the Street Hotel, a popular Kansas City destination in the 1930s and 40s. The Blue Room hosts listening parties to help teach adults about the uniqueness of Kansas City jazz. Workshops featuring the music of Duke Ellington and other artists fill the calendar and across the street at the Gem Theatre.
Just around the corner from the Jazz Museum is the Mutual Musician’s Foundation, part union hall, rehearsal hall and jazz joint, which really gets hopping in the wee hours of the weekends. This place is recognized as the longest continuously operating jazz joint in the world and according to Playboy Magazine, one of the top ten bars in the United States. It’s so special that the state of Missouri has granted special dispensation to serve alcohol past 3 AM; the booze here flows until 6 AM. Each Saturday at midnight, the building is the site of a live radio jazz show on KCUR-FM, Kansas City’s public radio station.
A couple of other good places to hear jazz includes the basement of the Majestic Steakhouse on Broadway, the Drum Room of the Hilton President Hotel, and The Phoenix Jazz Bar.
- Keep conversation to a minimum at Kansas City jazz joints, otherwise you’ll receive some hefty frowns from regular patrons.
- Save money on admission to the American Jazz Museum by purchasing one for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum as well. Both museums tell the story of this community in another time.
- Cover charges are usually minimal – $5 to$10.
- April is Jazz Appreciation Month.