The three-day festival, intended to place Kansas City on the international jazz festival map, resulted in performance checks that bounced, $150,000 owed to vendors and a black eye for the fabled 18th & Vine District.
It was an enormous setback for a jazz district that keeps try-try-trying to become a more popular part of Kansas City’s arts scene.
But this bleak news could have been avoided if not for the lousy festival turnout. Some 4,500 people attended, which festival experts say is not nearly enough to push such an ambitious undertaking into the black.
Why so few people? Yes, we understand that jazz has been largely relegated to a niche audience. It’s not for everyone. (Your loss, not ours). Still, other jazz festivals draw audiences many times larger. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this year drew 425,000 for the seven-day event, the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival attracted 205,000.
Jazz festivals in Chicago and Detroit have drawn huge crowds.
Toss that same lineup into Penn Valley Park, and the crowd count would have soared. Bill Brownlee, who reviews music for The Star, suggests that a popular music act can pack a venue in the Crossroads. But take that same act 10 blocks east to the Gem Theater in the heart of the 18th & Vine District, and the crowd withers away.
Brownlee’s theory: It’s fear of crime. Many Kansas Citians don’t fear it west of Troost. But go east, and it’s a different story.
“I’d say more than one-half of the white jazz audience over the age of 60 would not voluntarily go to the jazz district because of the perception of crime,” he said. “They’re not racist. They’re just afraid.”
History shows there’s evidence backing that up, at least in the past. Back in 1979, a survey that the Black Economic Union commissioned of nearly 1,000 people found that half the whites interviewed and three-quarters of blacks were “nervous about the assumed dangers” at 18th & Vine.
“Assumed” is a key word. Today, 18th & Vine is far safer than Westport or the Power & Light District, according to crime stats. From Jan. 1 to July 25, police reported 66 serious crimes in the jazz district, but 157 in the Power & Light District and 243 in Westport.
So if crime is the chief concern, it’s misplaced in the historic jazz district.
“The 18th & Vine District is a safe place to be,” writes editor Larry Kopitnik in this month’s Jam Magazine. “But decades-old perceptions remain …”
Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver points to another issue: racism. “There’s no crime (at 18th & Vine), so what else is there?” he asks.
A lot of people don’t mean to be racist, Cleaver said. But for some, hesitancy to visit the district is linked to the notion that it’s a predominantly black area.
New Orleans seems to have gotten past this. So has Memphis, the congressman said. But not Kansas City.
“It’s amazing that after all these years, we haven’t erased very much,” he said.
What are festival organizers to do? The 1979 study recommended launching a major campaign to convince residents the district is safe.
But advertising the district as relatively crime-free is awkward. Moving the jazz festival to Penn Valley Park would amount to a surrender in the ongoing efforts to revitalize 18th & Vine.
The best hope now may be the development of the Urban Youth Academy baseball fields just north of the Jazz Museum that will draw thousands of new visitors. That, and good ol’ Father Time.
For now, don’t count on another major jazz festival next year, at least not on the same scale. The evidence is clear: Not enough people will drive over to 18th & Vine. What a shame.
Crime by the numbers
Police statistics show that the area near 18th and Vine is safer than some other popular entertainment districts.
The number of serious crimes, including incidents such as assaults and auto thefts, reported from Jan. 1 to July 25 this year:
18th & Vine District: 66
Power & Light District: 157