Nearly 20 years after its launch as a Kansas City cultural asset, the American Jazz Museum remains somewhat in the shadows. While the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum — its neighbor in the complex at 18th and Vine — routinely gets national exposure, the jazz museum’s public profile is less prominent.
Even in a city whose heritage is built on the uniquely American music, the museum’s ability to gain traction with Kansas Citians and visitors alike remains a formidable challenge.
The museum’s leaders and its energetic and passionate board members know this. They are in the midst of a long-range planning effort to sharpen its role in the community and boost its capacity to operate effectively, attractively and self-sufficiently.
So when Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte proposed a city budget that slashed the American Jazz Museum’s city funding by 25 percent, it was nothing less than an alarming trumpet blast.
“Now is not the time,” C.S. “Trey” Runnion III, chairman of the museum’s board, told The Star’s editorial board. Such a severe budget cut, he said, “would take us off at the knees.”
The City Council’s finance committee is scheduled to take up the matter Wednesday morning, a week before the budget comes up for a final council vote. Councilman Scott Wagner, a committee member, expects to hear serious discussion about the museum’s mission and its role in the 18th and Vine Historic District. And he was sympathetic — as he and other council members should be — to the museum’s cries for help.
“My feeling,” said Wagner, “is you can better prepare an organization to take these kinds of cuts when they’re prepared over time. But it’s hard to absorb in one fell swoop.”
Wagner lauds the museum for increasing its revenues from philanthropic sources and events, but Runnion and Greg Carroll, the museum’s executive director, acknowledge their goal for self-sufficiency remains down the road. The city currently provides 37 percent of the museum’s budget, down from 60 percent when it opened in 1997.
Museum officials also credibly contend that they’ve been dealt the unfair burden of carrying much of the 18th and Vine district on their shoulders.
The city has much to answer for regarding the dearth of commercial investment in the area. It has been 20 years since some vacant storefronts got Hollywood face-lifts for the making of Robert Altman’s jazz-oriented movie “Kansas City.” Those fading, peeling facades remain as a sorry testament to inaction, lack of interest, unproductive turf battles and civic disregard for the historic legacy of the area. It was Kansas City’s onetime “black downtown” and the vibrant, “wide-open” district that helped launch the careers of Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Jay McShann and so many others whom listeners around the globe regard as the heroes of Kansas City jazz.
The American Jazz Museum deserves a chance to improve its standing in the community and its ability to tell the vital story of Kansas City’s musical history. Few people here know about the museum’s rich collection of early jazz films, which await proper funding to continue a preservation and digitization project. Not enough take advantage of the concerts, poetry slams and other programs that enliven the museum’s Blue Room club.
If the threatened budget cuts stand, the outlook for the museum and the jazz district will only get worse.
Some encouraging notes have emerged lately, including a rising notion that the future eventually can bring development along 18th Street, which will connect the jazz-district island to the growing Crossroads Arts District.
To reiterate, now is not the time for the city to give up on the museum. “Now’s the time,” as Charlie Parker famously put it, to embrace it and 18th and Vine.