All around Kansas City: Jazz lives in Kansas City

Tyren Rushing

Long before being placed on the National Register of Historic Places, 18th and Vine District was a significant part of Kansas City and jazz music history.

The 18th and Vine area grew originally because of the hand-in-hand correlations of segregation and the Great Migration of southern blacks to urban areas. Many blacks from the South felt there were more job opportunities in larger cities and began to form their own communities in northeastern and midwestern cities. Kansas City was one of those urban hotspots. The area surrounding 18th and Vine was considered the black area of town, as Kansas City was very segregated at the time.

Eventually the area became the hub of black commerce, socializing and entertainment within the city.  The entertainment aspect of the district is how 18th and Vine developed its reputation for being on the forefront of jazz music and fun.

According to www.kclibrary.org, “During the Prohibition era, when Kansas City was under the control of political boss Tom Pendergast, the 18th and Vine area also became known for its rollicking nightlife, personified by the jazz music that accompanied it. The soulful sounds of future legends, such as Bennie Moten, Big Joe Turner, George and Julia Lee, Count Basie, and Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker could be heard from the nightclubs.”

Thanks to the political machine run by Pendergast, many historians have noted Prohibition essentially never took place in Kansas City. Gambling, prostitution and liquor all flowed frequently and were fueled by the rambunctious sounds of jazz music.

The beginning of desegregation proved to be a double-edged sword for the district. With Kansas City growing outward and as more career and living options became available, blacks started to move into other parts of the city. By the 1960s, jazz clubs and all of the other businesses were closing in the district as more and more residents left.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the area was vacant. Abandoned buildings, rubble and vacant storefronts were all which remained of the once bustling community.

Then in 1989, Councilman Emanuel Cleaver II and the Black Economic Union spearheaded a plan to save and revitalize the district. According to www.kcjazzhistory.org,

“The ‘rebirth’ of the District started with the passage of a sales tax revenue package – ‘The Cleaver Plan’ – which included funds for the renovation of the 18th & Vine District. This funding would (1) renovate the GEM Theater, a 1912 structure currently being used as a performing arts center and (2) construct a new facility which now houses the American Jazz Museum, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the Horace M. Peterson Visitors Center and the Blue Room (i.e. jazz club/museum exhibit).”

While the area is not as popular as it was during its peak through the 1920s and 1940s, the area offers plenty of dining and entertainment options.

The annual Jammin’ at the Gem Performance series kicks off Sept. 29 at the historical Gem Theatre. The opening show will feature Chick Corea, Gary Burton and the Harlem String Quartet.

The Rhythm & Ribs Festival on Oct. 13 will be a chance for people to experience two Kansas City treasures: barbecue and jazz music. Arturo Sandoval, Joe Louis Walker, Claire Davis and Brian McKnight will headline the main stage while two other stages will feature local and regional acts.

For history buffs, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum offer combination tickets for $10. Operating hours for both museums is 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 12-6 p.m. Sunday.

The legendary Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue still sits on the corner of 17th and Brooklyn Avenue and offers sizeable portions at reasonable prices. Danny’s Big and Easy offers fresh Cajun cuisine, while the 9th Inning Sports Bar and Grill serves  wings and a variety of other foods.

Nightlife at 18th and Vine ranges from live poetry readings at the Jukehouse on Mondays to live jazz five nights a week at the Blue Room. Danny’s Big and Easy also has live music for its night time patrons and the 9th Inning is a popular destination for watching sporting events.

The district has seen its shares of ups and downs over the years, and thanks to the efforts of many it is on the upswing again. With more help, one day the district could return to its glory days.

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