Arts & Culture

American Jazz Museum looks for stability with new interim director

Ralph Caro had visited the American Jazz Museum several times as a guest. But the first time he toured as interim director, he went in with a more critical view.

“Some displays weren’t working, and general upkeep went neglected over the years,” said Caro, who was named to the interim post in May. One easy fix: Chipped paint was replaced with bright new colors.

“I’m looking to see how we can improve the facility itself,” Caro said. “I’m looking at hazard slips, risk-management type of things. How can we enhance this experience?”

But aside from the cosmetics, he said his main job is to bring financial stability as the city searches for a permanent director for the troubled museum.

In 2017, the museum suffered a $447,000 deficit from its first-ever jazz festival — losses the city covered. This year’s city budget included $1 million for museum operations.

In 2018, a consultant had recommended the museum close for up to a year and reorganize. Instead, Mayor Sly James appointed a new board of directors in November. This spring, Caro took over for director Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner with a six-month contract while the city searches for a permanent replacement.

Ralph Caro is interim director of the American Jazz Museum. File photo

Caro is a businessman, the franchise owner of Ask Carol-Kansas City, which helps senior citizens find appropriate housing. “It can be a pretty tough system to navigate when you don’t have experience in Medicaid or Medicare,” he said.

Before that, he was the chief operating officer of Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center and CEO of Swope Parkway Health Center. He grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas and his MBA at the University of Missouri.

Caro said he operates the museum with this mantra in mind: “If it’s not already in the budget, show me how you’re going to pay for it.”

The educational program Jazz Storytelling used to operate every Friday with 75 to 100 children. It is now held monthly. Birthday Beat, a celebration of national and local musicians’ birthdays, was cut completely.

But the museum still plans to celebrate the birthday of Kansas City jazz great Charlie Parker with four programs over the month of August.

“For too long, people have been operating under history,” said Caro. “Just because we did it in the past, doesn’t mean we need to do it going forward.”

He said he doesn’t want to look back at the mistakes. “I’m not concerned about the past,” he said. “I’m more concerned about the museum becoming self-sufficient.”

He and the museum have set their sights on the new mayor and city council members taking office in August.

Eric Bosch, the former city architect who helped with the revitalization of the 18th & Vine District, sees hope and momentum. “Neighbors, business owners and visitors think that city hall is serious about doing something down here,” he said.

Alongside renovation and revitalization efforts, the museum would like the city to better market the district. “People travel from around the world to come here as a destination stop,” Caro said. “We just happen to be located in Kansas City.”

Vocalist Ida McBeth will perform at the American Jazz Museum on Aug. 2. File /The Kansas City Star

Charlie Parker events

Kansas City jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker was born Aug. 29, 1920. The American Jazz Museum will celebrate his birthday with a month of free activities. All are in the museum’s atrium unless otherwise noted.

Aug. 2: 5 p.m. social hour, 6 p.m. performances by saxophonist Ernest Melton and keyboardist Desmond Mason, 7:30 p.m. performance by vocalist Ida McBeth.

Aug. 16: 7 p.m. poetry by Mary Moore, 8 p.m. beatbox performance and workshop by Luke Harbur, 8:30 p.m. poetry by Glenn North.

Aug. 24: 5:30 p.m. art showcase by Ron Chaney, owner of Ethnic Art Gallery, and artist Alexander Austin. Artwork will be for sale.

Aug. 29, Blue Room: 5:30 p.m. panel discussion about the life of Charlie Parker, hosted by Chuck Haddix and Clarence Smith; 7:15 p.m. tribute jam with the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

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