The Kansas City jazz scene was one of the country’s most vibrant hubs of blues and improvisation, home to such pioneers as Jay McShann, Bennie Moten, Count Basie, and, of course, Charlie Parker, the architect of bebop.
If the scene isn’t what it once was—how could it be?—it’s still more than healthy. “A lot of guys move to Kansas City in search of work,” says Gerald Dunn, general manager of the Blue Room, Kansas City’s premier jazz club. “I think cats are able to do all sorts of gigs. It’s sort of like it was back when they used to call Kansas City the ‘Paris of the Plains.’”
In his role at the Blue Room, part of Kansas City’s American Jazz Museum—which, like the club, opened in 1997—Dunn (also the director of entertainment for the museum) tries to make sure that the local scene remains in good shape. In his 23 years at the club, which is open four nights a week, he’s worked on cultivating talent, booking local and regional acts above all, including the Scamps, Karrin Allyson, and Peter Schlamb, among many others.
The Blue Room isn’t the only institution that supports the Kansas City jazz scene. Dunn credits Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the former mayor of Kansas City, with helping to nurture and develop the city’s jazz infrastructure, which includes a Jazz Walk of Fame as well as clubs such as the Green Lady Lounge and Black Dolphin.
This club stands apart, however, because of its association with the museum and because the Blue Room takes its name from a club that once existed in a hotel in the city’s 1930s jazz district. Despite this emphasis on history, the club does provide space for experimentation, and Dunn books a diverse array of styles that go beyond jazz, but the mandate is to encourage innovation in the jazz tradition.
As Charlie Parker’s centennial nears—he was born on Aug. 29, 1920—Dunn is planning to highlight the life and work of Kansas City’s most influential jazz export. If Parker were alive today, Dunn says, he would be “more into innovation” than just bebop. With that in mind, the Blue Room has scheduled a jam session, hosted by alto saxophonist Logan Richardson—a Kansas City native—that will take place the first Monday of every month until Bird’s 100th birthday.
In August, Dunn adds, a partnership between the club, the museum, and the Smithsonian Institution will culminate in a citywide celebration of Parker’s legacy, including performances and educational symposiums. Dunn also wants to raise awareness about Parker’s drug use, as a warning to musicians to take their health seriously.
Still, the parting message of the Blue Room’s centennial celebration will be about Parker’s artistry. “He’s just always pushing the boundaries,” Dunn says, “and I think that’s what he should be known for.”
The same could be said of the Blue Room—and the Kansas City scene in general.
Blue Room Facts
- The Blue Room, part of the American Jazz Museum, is located at 1616 E. 18th St., Kansas City, MO 64108; phone (816) 474-6262
- Open four nights a week, Monday and Thursday through Saturday
- The venue takes its name from a renowned club that once existed in the city’s jazz district in the 1930s
- Entertainment director Gerald Dunn tries to book mostly local and regional acts
- Go to americanjazzmuseum.org/blueroom for the schedule