It makes sense in every way that Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz District should be the scene of a world-class music festival. And the first Kansas City Jazz & Heritage Festival, which begins Friday, May 26, is the most ambitious effort yet to make it happen.
The festival promises three days and nights of music from soul and pop to jazz and blues, delivered to you from five stages in exactly the right place: the historic home of Kansas City jazz, where the heart still beats.
The headliners include, among others, soul singer Lalah Hathaway, pop music and TV star Brandy, world-renowned jazz artists including pianist Chick Corea, drummer John Scofield, violinist Regina Carter and drummer Brian Blade, and a constellation of Kansas City-connected artists who are known around the world: singers Karrin Allyson, Oleta Adams, Kevin Mahogany and Deborah Brown and alto saxophonists Bobby Watson and Logan Richardson.
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The organizers want the Jazz & Heritage Festival to become an annual tradition — and not just for us locals. The idea is to create a festival that also becomes a destination for tourists, like the New Orleans event from which the Jazz & Heritage name is borrowed. And they’re out to make a big splash on the first attempt.
This festival has had some precedents. The Rhythm & Ribs festival, unveiled in 2005, was a hopeful attempt that ran into some problems. By 2013, it had morphed into the cumbersomely named Kansas City’s 18th & Vine Jazz and Blues Festival. And that one quietly disappeared, last held in 2015.
But the idea of a festival in the Jazz District wouldn’t and shouldn’t go away. Organizers have used the time since 2015 to research other successful festivals and craft plans for this larger event. The idea is to go big, reach further, try harder. And to give people plenty of reasons to come to 18th and Vine for the day and the evening.
Of course, uncertainties loom.
Is Memorial Day weekend the right time to present this festival? (Other possibilities have been tested: Rhythm & Ribs started in June, then was moved to October.) Will the weather cooperate? (It’s a rain-or-shine event. Two of the stages, the Gem Theater and the Blue Room, are indoors, but together they’d seat about 700 people before the fire marshal intervenes.)
Then again, there’s all that music, all that energy — more jazz than you’re likely to see in one place in this town until, we hope, the festival’s second edition.
Yes, it’s about heritage. But it’s also about hope — for the art form’s future, and for the festival’s.
And there’s one other thing. It’s also about being able to brag years from now that you were present at the very first of many Kansas City Jazz & Heritage Festivals.
The Kansas City Jazz & Heritage Festival runs Friday, May 26, through Sunday, May 28, in the 18th and Vine Jazz District, along the Paseo from Truman Road to 19th Street and along 18th Street from the Paseo to Highland Avenue. Tickets to the main stage begin at $25 per day, and prices vary from stage to stage. A weekend pass is also available. The Community Stage at 18th and Highland and vendor areas are free and open to the public.