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Goin’ to Kansas City

It was like a scene out of The Godfather or Goldfinger, only it was on the storied corner of 18th and Vine. Representatives from no less than 16 Kansas City jazz organizations had gathered for a press conference in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on the last morning in August. On the small-scale infield, amid the life-size statues of nine “black ball” immortals, the participants took their turns at expressing frustration over the City’s lack of ability to capitalize on its two biggest drawing cards: jazz and barbecue.

Anita Dixon, director of the Cultural Conventions and Visitors Services, called the meeting. The array of jazz activism in the city is quite impressive. Not only are there the expected concert presentation and education entities, but there are groups that provide aid to musicians and their families. Dean Hampton’s Coda organization, for example, steps in when musicians and their spouses can’t afford to be buried. Dixon used the platform to call for ideas from the participants on how to bring tourists into Kansas City.

“Anywhere in the world,” Dixon asserted, “people know two things about Kansas City: jazz and barbecue. They come here from all over the world and want to put their hands on something that says ‘Charlie Parker,’ ‘Count Basie,’ ‘Lester Young’ or ‘Mary Lou Williams.’ And what do we have to show them? Precious little. We have to use those two things to bring people to Twelfth Street, the way New Orleans uses its jazz and food to attract visitors.”

Dixon was the prime mover in the Goin’ to Kansas City Jazz Plaza, dedicated in Aug. 2005. The refurbished park at 18th and Vine has a beautiful and informative weatherproof timeline of the story of Kansas City jazz. When the city council shrugged its shoulders at Dixon’s proposal, businessman Ollie Gates, owner of the Gates Barbecue chain, ponied up $135,000 of his own money to get things started. With Gates as her patron, Dixon’s actions toward restoring and maintaining the legacy of the city that put 4/4 blues-based swing on the map have added weight.

Yet the level of frustration among the jazz community is palpable. The ten-year-old Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation, charged with rebuilding the historically black Twelfth Street District, has little to show for its efforts. It can point to the atmospheric Blue Room and the magnificent Negro League Museum on 18th as accomplishments. Yet the baseball museum shares the same building with the American Jazz Museum, which can’t seem to find purpose. In August, the Jazz Museum displayed an informative exhibition on, of all things, the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The Museum’s six-figure-a-year director, Juanita Moore, was recently dismissed.

George Wein has expressed interest in staging an annual Kansas City jazz festival. “If he could do that,” offers Assistant to the City Manager Greg Baker, “it would be the jewel in George Wein’s career. So much of the new development could be tied to that festival. We have the Rhythm & Ribs festival, but the people who put that on don’t have the know-how that George does. He operates on a scale that they can’t imagine.”

At the press conference, the meeting was called to order, so to speak, by Shar Valleau of the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors, a concert and aid group. She stepped to the microphone and succinctly crystallized the mood of the room. “We suffer in this city,” she said in articulate, measured tones, “from an inability to hug ourselves. We don’t love what we have here enough to want to share it with the world. Our ‘brand’ is jazz and barbecue and everybody knows it. If we present a simple, cohesive, memorable brand and then carry it through, everywhere-from the moment you get off a plane at the airport to the city’s borders-and you see jazz, jazz memorabilia and the names of the legends who are still being emulated everywhere in the world, we’ll be able to sustain the Twelfth Street District and wean ourselves from government and corporate welfare.”

The Redevelopment Corporation had gotten word of Dixon’s press conference and, the night before, had hastily called its own rump media gathering across the street. The media briefing was to announce the selection of its Master Developer Team, a contingent from Columbus, Ohio, for yet another round of 18th and Vine District refurbishment. The post-conference image of designer suits on one side of the street and less ostentatious garb on the other offered a striking visual contrast.

Since that morning, a judge has ruled in favor of an independent contractor, Rick Gill, whose extensive work on behalf of the JDRC has gone unpaid. Gill was awarded a two-million-dollar judgment that he has yet to collect. The JDRC is in the process of moving its assets into another new corporate entity, it is speculated, to avoid payment to Gill. A new suit by Gill is being prepared and, at press time, efforts to secure an interview with JDRC president Denise Gilmore were unsuccessful.

Sonny Gibson, Kansas City jazz’s unofficial historian, has a perspective on JDRC: “They’re not interested in bringing tourist money in here. If they wanted to, they could. They tried to get everything they could for nothing. If an entity or a person has a counterfeit conscience, then it’s based on deceit. You’ve got a whole organization run by people who know nothing about jazz. How are we going to preserve the jazz legacy that way?”