Memorial to honor jazz museum’s founding director

Rowena Stewart was the first executive director of Kansas City’s American Jazz Museum. She died Sept. 19 at age 83.
Rowena Stewart was the first executive director of Kansas City’s American Jazz Museum. She died Sept. 19 at age 83. The Kansas City Star

Rowena Stewart, founding executive director of the American Jazz Museum, will be honored in a memorial tribute Thursday at the Blue Room, 1616 E. 18th St.

Stewart died Sept. 19 in her hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., where she moved after retiring from the jazz museum in 2002. She was 83.

Stewart’s career included the directorships of the Harriet Tubman House in Boston, the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, the Motown Museum in Detroit and what is now known as the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

In 1995, she moved to Kansas City to oversee the development of the jazz museum. In 1997, she became its first executive director.

“She was a very strong woman,” said Karen Anderson, who was hired by Stewart to be her executive assistant. “She had a vision for this area and the district and the employees. She wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to grow. She was a teacher. She was a historian.”

Anderson said she spoke to Stewart every two weeks after she retired and before her death. She said Stewart would call to ask about the employees and the museum.

“She was a very caring person,” Anderson said.

She said the Blue Room was an appropriate venue for the memorial because Stewart had pushed for the museum to include a place for musicians to perform.

Anderson organized the tribute along with Suzetta Parks and Gerald Dunn, who manages the Blue Room. She said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver is expected to speak, as well as Heather Brown, former assistant city attorney who is now executive director of the Tax Increment Financing Commission. Anderson said the program would include a video clip of Stewart discussing her vision for the 18th and Vine Jazz District.

“Rowena was the right person at the right time,” said Parks, who never worked at the museum but helped plan events to draw attention to 18th and Vine. “She was a strong advocate for accurate depictions of African-American culture. So it was through that lens that she made sure things were presented properly and accurately. … She really did a lot to begin that resurrection” of 18th and Vine.

The memorial tribute is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. More information is on the jazz museum’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ americanjazzmuseum.

Robert Trussell: 816-234-4765, @roberttrussell