Kansas City's American Jazz Museum started as a love song. It used to be a swingin' good time.
But now it has the blues. A city-commissioned report says it's a mess and needs to close while it reorganizes.
No. The city needs to improvise and look to the jazz museum's next-door neighbor, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and its president, Bob Kendrick. A decade ago, his was the museum nearing the chopping block. And now, it's thriving.
How did Kendrick take an operation that was approaching a loss of almost a quarter million when he took over in 2009 and turn a $300,000 profit three years later and grow visitors by the tens of thousands?
Certainly not by shutting down. Instead, Kendrick and his team took action.
"We didn't have time for a strategic plan," Kendrick tells me. "We needed a tactical strategy to infuse life and energy into our organization. We had to make ourselves relevant again. The museum had lost its luster and almost rendered itself irrelevant. It's important to me that we are a community resource preserving the history of the Negro Leagues, but it would be a total disservice if we did not live out the other aspects of the league, like positively impacting and empowering the community."
So the museum celebrated the history of the game with legendary baseball star Buck O'Neil's 100th birthday and attached itself to the Jackie Robinson movie "42," with stars Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford coming to town for a red carpet in 2013. But the museum embraced the present as well: getting out in the community and hosting events and parties, forging brand partnerships with Charlie Hustle, collaborating with the Royals to offer special game days, just when the Royals were starting to peak.
Kendrick became active on social media, gathering more than 20,000 Twitter followers (@nlbmprez). He's a frequent presence among the museum exhibits. He's connecting to the community the Buck O'Neil way.
He hopes to see this same type of revitalization of the American Jazz Museum.
"We share the same building," he says. "It's important that both of our organizations are running at a high level. I take no joy in seeing one or the other not operate at optimum level when both sides strive to do that. I'm optimistic they will develop a solid plan that will help infuse revenue and relevance. Music, like sports, is a universal language. What two things have united us more than sports and music in our society?"
Jazz isn't just music. It's more than black music, too. Jazz is one of America's great musical languages. Pulling the plug on the museum's bittersweet song is not the answer. The museum doesn't need to close for a year or remain open only on a limited basis, as others suggest.
Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, the jazz museum's executive director, does not deny she's made some mistakes. The consultant's report points to overspending and the $447,000 deficit from last year's failed jazz festival, among other things. But she wants to be a part of the solution and work with the city, artists and the community as a whole to grow from these losses.
"There were definitely missteps," she tells me. "We are not shying away from that. But I think there's a way to turn things around, and we do some extraordinary things here and I want to be a part of it. We cannot close the museum. We don't have to start over. But we do need to take a step back and and look at this again."
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art director Julián Zugazagoitia says the jazz museum is essential.
"Museums play a crucial role in educating the public about local culture, and they are both necessary and relevant as institutions that preserve our rich heritage and provide a refuge from the stresses of everyday life," Zugazagoitia says. "The American Jazz Museum offers a personal look at an important piece of Kansas City history, and the Nelson-Atkins champions institutions that provide a deeper understanding of our past as we move into the future."
In other words, the museum should keep its doors open.
The consultant's report also said stakeholders were concerned that the jazz museum is "seen as a Black institution" in the "unsafe 3rd District, which is historically the minority part of town, and influence doesn't go beyond the district."
But even the consultant had to admit none of that melanin is hurting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
This is not the first time we've heard this passive aggressive racist assessment of 18th and Vine. People said that was one of the main reasons last year's jazz festival was a fail. People were "afraid" of crime. Because a historically black district must be crime-ridden? Go away. From Jan. 1 to July 25 last year, police reported 66 serious crimes in the jazz district, but 157 in Power & Light and 243 in Westport.
There's nothing wrong with the museum being where jazz in this city was born, in a black neighborhood, cementing KC as one of the four pillars of jazz in the country alongside New York, Chicago and New Orleans. Its blackness is beautiful.
"I hope people do perceive us as a black institution," Kendrick says. "We document an African-American story that is part of American history, and that shouldn't be a deterrent to someone."
For Kositany-Buckner, there is no shame in the blackness of the American Jazz Museum.
"We will not apologize for being a unique platform," she says. "The museum needs to be embraced by all, not just the black community. We need to get the community involved, especially the youth. Jazz is a major asset, not just to black people, but everyone. And it helps highlight this city to the world beyond barbecue."
A city that prides itself on jazz cannot shut the doors on the people who birthed it or the museum where the music lives. That's out of tune.
Jeneé Osterheldt is a Kansas City Star culture columnist. On Twitter: @jeneeinkc.