Guest Commentary

Reimagine KC’s American Jazz Museum to reflect our city’s unique musical heritage

Visitors have long complained that the museum’s current displays are static and have no clear storyline, giving them little incentive to return.
Visitors have long complained that the museum’s current displays are static and have no clear storyline, giving them little incentive to return. The Star

The latest woes at Kansas City’s American Jazz Museum come as no surprise to longtime observers of the 18th & Vine Jazz District. The museum and the surrounding area have long strived to succeed as tourist destinations. Over the years, the Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation — the agency charged with developing the area — has failed to attract enough nightclubs, restaurants and other businesses to create a vibrant entertainment district on par with the nearby Crossroads and Power & Light entertainment districts.

In 1997, the museum opened with great fanfare and the promise of revitalizing the newly redeveloped district. City Hall and civic leaders strongly felt that Kansas City — one of four cradles of jazz, along with New York, New Orleans and Chicago — was the natural location for a museum celebrating America’s musical contribution to the world.

Planners rightly chose to locate the museum at the corner of 18th and Vine. During the days of segregation, that intersection was the heart and soul of the African-American community and the birthplace of Kansas City jazz. A veritable who’s who of jazz musicians — including Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, Lester Young and Charlie Parker — lived and worked in the area.

Like the ball field in “Field Of Dreams,” city leaders thought, “If you build it, they will come.” That adage has proven true with the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum, which has been well managed and successful at raising money. But not so with the American Jazz Museum.

Since the beginning, the museum has relied too heavily on funds from the city. Its three sources of revenue — the Swing Shop, Blue Room and Gem Theater — have consistently operated at a net loss. Its admission revenue and fundraising have lagged significantly behind peer institutions.

The museum’s current fiscal crisis stems from last year’s financially disastrous Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival. Overly ambitious and poorly executed, the festival lost close to $500,000 — the lion’s share of the museum’s operating budget. It also broke faith with the community and City Hall. Families in the neighborhood could not afford the high-dollar tickets, and checks issued to musicians bounced. City officials were blindsided.

This crisis and recent mismanagement of the facility finally compelled the city to hire a museum consulting firm to conduct an organizational study. The recently-issued report details systemic problems with the museum, and maps a clear path forward. It contains a number of good recommendations, including a wide-ranging reevaluation of the museum’s vision, visitor experience, collections, business model, organizational structure and leadership.

The recent resignation of the executive director and dissolution of the oversight board are good first steps in the road ahead for the museum. Its 23-member board was dedicated to supporting the museum, but it was too large to be effective. The new, smaller ad hoc committee being formed should be nimble enough to act.

However, instituting the report’s ideas will require more investment by the city. For example, the consultants call for replacing the museum’s permanent exhibits. Visitors have long complained that the current displays — celebrating the life and music of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, as well as Parker — are static and have no clear storyline, giving them little incentive to return.

The museum needs all-new exhibitions, created with contemporary technology, that will engage visitors by telling the story of jazz — and specifically Kansas City jazz. Our city is known internationally for jazz (and barbecue). The museum should be dedicated to telling the story of that rich heritage.

This new emphasis would also provide the museum the needed opportunity to rebrand itself: It should be rechristened the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City.

But Kansas City’s financial commitment should not be open-ended. The American Jazz Museum and the 18th & Vine Jazz District eventually will need to learn how to stand on their own financially.

Chuck Haddix is the curator of the Marr Sound Archives in the Miller Nichols Library at UMKC, the host of the Fish Fry KCUR FM 89.3 and the author of “Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime To Bebop-A History and Bird: The Life and Music Of Charlie Parker.”

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