Kansas City recently become the only U.S. city to be honored for its music heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
“We know that Kansas City’s jazz has had global impact and this is now being recognized internationally,” said Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner in a press release.
Kansas City’s jazz legacy is certainly worth honoring. The designation comes amid a $7 million redevelopment project in the 18th and Vine District, which includes the American Jazz Museum, the Blue Room, the Gem Theater and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
It also comes amid something of a jazz revival among a new generation of musicians, venues and fans. A visit to the Green Lady Lounge any weekend night provides evidence of that.
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But jazz is just one component of Kansas City’s music world, a pastiche that includes a vibrant and bustling live-music scene that attracts nearly all of the major tours; community and public-radio stations that regularly feature bands and artists from Kansas City and Lawrence; and a mayor, Sly James, who, in an interview with The Star last year, said that “music is the soul of this city.”
Nowhere was that more evident than Saturday night, the second night of Apocalypse Meow, a benefit for Abby’s Fund, which is administered by the Midwest Music Foundation.
The fund honors the memory of Abigail Henderson, who co-founded the foundation as a means to raise money to assist musicians facing financial difficulties because of medical emergencies. Henderson died in 2013 after a five-year fight with cancer.
Saturday’s benefit was the 10th Apocalypse Meow, and in those 10 years, the foundation has handed out tens of thousands of dollars in assistance to recipients dealing with a wide array of medical issues, from chronic illnesses to cancer to broken bones.
Saturday night’s event featured seven music acts on two stages at the RecordBar. It also featured a short film about the MMF, including testimonials from musicians who have received assistance from Abby’s Fund.
On hand at the benefit was RockDocs, a collaboration between the University of Kansas School of Medicine and the Community Health Council of Wyandotte County that provided health screenings and advice on health issues and the Affordable Care Act.
A musician’s lifestyle often does not include health insurance or other benefits, the MMF film pointed out; and if it does, the insurance often doesn’t adequately cover medical expense.
Someone who gets stricken while on the road can face exorbitant medical bills, especially if a trip to the ER is involved. And that’s where the MMF steps in to provide some relief.
There is plenty about Kansas City’s music world to be proud of, starting with bands and music artists who are succeeding beyond Kansas City. Tech N9ne, Janelle Monae, Mac Lethal, Samantha Fish, Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear, Radkey, Making Movies, the Elders: all have established themselves in cities across the country and, in some cases, overseas.
Jazz trumpeter and UMKC grad Hermon Mehari spends much of his time in Paris, also home of singer-songwriter and former Kansas Citian Krystle Warren. Prairie Village native Joyce DiDonato is a Grammy-winning opera singer; jazz vocalist Karryn Allyson, a former Kansas City resident, is a five-time Grammy nominee. All have made it clear that you can start a music career in Kansas City and flourish elsewhere.
But at the heart of a local music community are the musicians who regularly play the clubs and bars and other venues in Kansas City and Lawrence, who tour regionally on occasion, grab the occasional gig opening for a touring band and produce recorded music that is often on par with big-label recordings.
And many are fortunate to break even financially, given the costs involved in producing a record and buying or repairing instruments or financing a road trip. These are the folks who deserve whatever assistance they need to sustain their art and craft, to keep them solvent and on stage and in the studio. Life in Kansas City would feel significantly diminished without them.
Kansas City’s UNESCO designation is worth celebrating, but we should also celebrate and honor our local music community as a whole and noble projects and organizations like the A-Flat Orchestra, the Band of Angels program and especially the Midwest Music Foundation.
Fittingly (or ironically) Saturday’s closing band was Split Lip Rayfield, a punk/bluegrass trio from Lawrence. Split Lip was a quartet until 2007, when guitarist Kirk Rundstrom died of cancer – another grim reminder of how much regular health care and health insurance is needed in the music world.
Before Split Lip’s set, Mayor James addressed the crowd and aptly praised the MMF for pursuing its noble cause and Kansas City for its generous spirit, which transcends its music history.
“When a group of people like you come together to provide things for people in need, you’re doing not only good citizenship, you’re doing God’s work,” James said. “I appreciate the way you work because this is so typical of Kansas City: People coming together and working together to help others and get good things done.”