It wasn’t until high school that Rashida Phillips really fell in love with jazz. As a vocalist and theater kid, she stumbled onto the part as a “Jazz Diva” for one of her school’s musical theater production. To help prepare for the part, she delved deep into the music of the 1940s.

Those were the days of great female jazz vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald with her be-bopping and scatting, and the emotional style of Billie Holiday. Add in the likes of Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan and no wonder Phillips became a jazz fanatic.

“I just fell, honestly, head over heels with all of the music that I was hearing, the melodies, the lyrics, the story and narrative,” Phillips said.

However, it’s more than her love for jazz that helped Phillips land the job as the executive director of the American Jazz Museum, located in Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine District. It was her “arts, culture, community engagement and broad educational programming experience, that stood out to the search committee,” said Niki Lee Donawa, as part of the announcement of Phillip’s selection in late 2019.

It was the kind of experience the museum’s board believes will – and is depending on – to help invigorate the troubled museum.

Museum Flounders

The American Jazz Museum officially debuted with a big bang in 1997. The three-day inaugural celebration included an event hosted by Billy Dee Williams and featuring regional and national talent including Dianne Reeves, Al Jarreau, Harry Belafonte, and Tony Bennett, just to name a few. The opening marked an important moment in a 50-year conversation about how best to preserve and build on the legacy of the Kansas City jazz scene. Also, a part of the museum is the Blue Room Jazz Club, which is a local hot-spot featuring live performances by jazz arts; and the 500-seat Gem Theater.

Despite its grand beginning, the museum has struggled the past few years with finances. In 2017, the museum was in so much debt, the board and Kanas City Council almost closed their doors. Driven in part by a poorly planned outside Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival, which was further hurt by bad weather, the museum found itself nearly $1 million in the hole.

After some very spirited debate and negotiations, the city agreed to increase its annual subsidy of the museum from $500,000 to $730,000 on the condition that the executive director and the board of directors resign.

In 2019, the new museum board brought in proven executive Ralph Caro to head the museum on an interim basis. Under Caro’s direction, the museum began to stabilize and income began to increase.

Rashida’s Vision for Newness at AJM

Philips, from St. Louis, rose to the top of a field of 20 candidates and took over as CEO in January, and just three months later along came COVID-19 and the museum was shuttered. Still that didn’t stop Phillips, who stayed focused on her goal of moving the organization in a new direction.

When she arrived, Phillips says the museum’s finances had been balanced out pretty well and now she’s focusing on ways to keep it that way, or make it better.

She says the museum’s permanent exhibit is fairly static and needs some revamping. Part of her plan to push newness and rebranding is to showcase pop-up exhibits to attract those who have already visited the museum and give them a new experience.

“I think a lot of folks who have loved us have come and seen what we have to offer. They feel as if ‘okay we've checked the box. It was a wonderful place to be,’” Phillips said. “We really want to take these pop-up opportunities to curate a collection, whether it's objects, or photographs, or artwork that really speaks to a kind of a new idea.”

One new pop-up staff are working on putting up this week is an Ida McBeth gallery that is dedicated to the legacy of Kansas City’s current reigning queen of jazz. The exhibit not only features McBeth as a jazz singer, but also celebrates her as a Kansas City local.

The museum just took down their Women in Jazz pop-up and finished their successful new tribute performing series featuring local artists playing songs by musicians like Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Jill Scott.

Earlier this month, the Mid-America Arts Alliance awarded the museum a $50,000 grant, which Phillips said the museum will use to better preserve their archives, and to create more digital collections, adding to Phillips’ vision of creating newness.

“Jazz was never meant to be contained. It's so important to honor our history, but we can expand that,” Phillips said. “So, opportunities to bring other music in and connect it to our jazz mission, I think is critically important.”

Upcoming AJM Programs to Look For

- Free Jazz Storytelling at the Gem Theater: Oct. 2 at 11 a.m. (Also streamed live)

- Free Neo Soul on the Vine: Oct. 9 at 11 a.m.

- Kansas City Jazz Academy: youth jazz education program for middle school and high school students. For students who already play an instrument, would like to learn how to play or are interested in singing. Need-based scholarships are available. Registration is available online: AmericanJazzMuseum.org/kcjazzacademy.

Jazzlyn Johnson is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice covering Kansas City’s African-American community.

Rashida’s Personal Favorites  

Rashida’s Favorite Jazz Artist – Somi. “She's got a really beautiful approach to music because it's very international. It's pulling on African influences and it's pulling on jazz influences and just the way that she brings it all together, it's just really healing and soulful. I always kind of look to Somi just to have kind of that moment of just not even escape, but just feeling like I'm kind of in another place,” Phillips said.

Rashida’s Favorite KC Spots - Baramee Thai Bistro, Blue Nile Cafe, Island Spice Caribbean, The Green Lady Lounge, and the Black Dolphin

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