Back in the 1920s and 1930s, the Kansas City area became home to a unique kind of jazz developed by musicians of African American descent. This kind of jazz took after ragtime and the blues music tradition. Back then, Kansas City was known as a ‘wide-open town’ what with the immoral acts (such as the circulation of illegal alcohol, prostitution, and gambling), that were going on within the city. This was especially made possible by notorious political boss Tom Pendergast who certainly got his way in that era. This, and the fact that Kansas City had various up-and-coming airlines and several railroads passing through it, paved the way for the boom of nightclubs and creative spaces in which jazz thrived. 

Kansas City Jazz was developed by musicians who were not all born in Kansas but were based around Kansas City. In fact, in the total population of Kansas City in 1930, which was 399,746, only 10% consisted of African American individuals. One of the individuals who personified Kansas City jazz the best was Bennie Moten. He was an excellent band leader who assembled talented players from other bands. His orchestra, The Bennie Moten Orchestra had almost 100 recordings. He recruited great players like Count Basie, who joined his Orchestra in 1929. Another talented player was Charlie Parker who transitioned Kansas City Jazz to the modern jazz style known as bebop.

A Smithsonian Affiliate, The American Jazz Museum in the 18th and Vine neighborhood was made as a tribute to jazz masters like Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Big Joe Turner, and Charlie Parker, among others. It’s filled with exhibits of these jazz icons. While September 2022 is the official date of the museum’s 25th anniversary, the celebration began earlier this year. On April 30 this year an outstanding exhibit called “Believe In Legacy 25” was put up for the anniversary, where seven-time Grammy-nominated Mingus Big Band held a special concert at the historic Gem Theater. They were also honoring composer/bassist Charles Mingus by celebrating his music. 

Another special exhibit was “The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure,” which was based on “Soul,’’ an animated movie by Disney and Pixar about a middle school jazz teacher. “We just were so thrilled to work with Disney and be showcased as one of the original spots of jazz,” said Taylor Smith, the museum’s senior manager of marketing and engagement. The exhibit also featured jazz legend Charlie Parker’s Grafton alto saxophone. As the celebration of the museum’s forthcoming anniversary continues, an event known as “In the Yard” will be held as a tribute to Charlie Parker’s birthday which is on August 29. The event’s name is a creative play on Charlie Parker’s nick-name “Yardbird.”

According to Taylor Smith, The Blue Room (named after the 1930s Street Hotel Club), which honors the founders of Kansas City jazz, has been getting a lot of attendance post the Covid-19 pandemic. He said, “People are so excited to get back to live jazz.”

Anthony Tilghman

Anthony Tilghman, is an 3x Award-winning Photojournalist, Education advocate, Mentor, and Published Author with years of experience in media, photography, marketing and branding. He is the Winner of the...

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