Twenty-five years ago, amid much pomp and circumstance, the American Jazz Museum opened its doors with a monumental three-day celebration, featuring some of the great names in jazz. National talent included Billy Dee Williams, George Duke, Dianne Reeves, Harry Belafonte, Al Jarreau, Tony Bennett and Pat Metheny appearing on the Gem Theater stage.
With such a great start, everyone was optimistic about a successful future for the museum and the resurrection of the 18th and Vine District that had given rise during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s to the style of jazz music that became internationally recognized as Kansas City Jazz. At one time, there were more than 100 nightclubs, dance halls and vaudeville houses in Kansas City featuring live jazz music. Legends like Count Basie, Andy Kirk, Joe Turner, Charlie Parker, Hot Lips Page and Jay McShann all performed regularly in Kansas City.
“It’s been a really powerful 25 years,” said Rashida Phillips, the American Jazz Museum’s executive director. “It was really important for us and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to continue to move forward the history, the culture and all of the contributions that African Americans have made to our history here in Kansas City and beyond.”
The Jazz Museum and the connecting Negro League Baseball Museum have consistently been one of the city’s major tourist attractions and they remain powerful anchors for the 18th and Vine Jazz District that has struggled to grow into the district many had hoped for. However, some may say AJM hasn’t fully lived up to its original expectations either.
While AJM is officially an independent non-profit organization, with an independent board of directors, for years it has operated pretty much as a child of the Kansas City, MO, city government.
The museum’s buildings – the museum, the historic Gem Theater, and the Blue Room, where you can hear live jazz performances – are all owned by the city, which invested heavily in the renovation and construction of the facilities.
Since their opening, the city has supported the museum financially, with a large funding amount approved each year as part of the city’s budget. The city’s contribution to the museum for fiscal year 2019 was $1 million.
Instead of working toward their sustainability, the museum’s board became comfortable with the city’s generous funding. Even if the board passed on the concept of sustainability, with the museum’s basics covered by the city, the board could have worked to raise funds to help grow the museum, improve and renovate exhibits or keep the museum a top-notch, state-of-the-art facility … but they didn’t.
LACK OF LUSTER AND MONEY
By the museum’s 20th anniversary, it was not the glowing edifice it had once been, and while the city’s funding had kept the museum open and operating, some of the exhibits were completely broken, some were not functioning correctly, and others looked worn, and in need of a facelift.
Overall the museum had become stagnant, uninspiring and did little to entice repeat visitors. At least, that was the opinion of museum management consultants who were hired by the city in 2017 after the museum found itself nearly $1 million in debt. Beginning in 2016, the museum had begun overspending its financial allotment, but their financial problems came to light in 2017 when the museum’s inaugural KC Jazz and Heritage Festival lost $450,000.
Among the recommendations in the museum consultant’s 64-page report were: a reboot of the museum’s staff and board leadership, conducting an inclusive strategic planning process, and contracting with exhibit designers to rethink the museum’s entire exhibitions. Before handing over the $730,000 the museum requested to get them out of the red, the city insisted on a total change in leadership. Then-director Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner resigned and a temporary board was put in place from May 2018 until November 2018, when a new permanent board was installed.
The museum’s executive director position remained empty from May 2018 to May 2019, when experienced non-profit executive Ralph Caro was brought in on an interim basis. Caro put his head down and went to work.
“Some displays weren’t working, and general upkeep went neglected over the years,” Caro told the Kansas City Star about some of the museum’s struggles. His main goal was to bring financial stability to the museum.
He followed the mantra, “If it’s not already in the budget, show me how you’re going to pay for it,” which benefited the museum in the end.
By the time the museum board had conducted a national search and brought in new executive director Phillips, the museum was in a much better position. However, in just three months, COVID-19 upended the world, especially tourist attractions like the museum.
Maybe COVID-19 wasn’t such a bad thing for a new director. It gave Phillips time to work on more of the deficiencies cited in the consultant’s report and time for planning with fewer demands on the museum’s day-to-day operations.
Thanks to federal funding, the museum wasn’t as hard hit financially from COVID-19 as it could have been. They were able to take advantage of Payroll Protection Funding, Shuttered Venue Funding, as well as receiving additional Pandemic Funding Relief from the Mid-America Arts Allowance.
When Phillips took on the museum’s CEO position, her goal was to move AJM in a new direction. Her main focuses still are on keeping the museum’s finances balanced and bringing in content and exhibits to help attract new and returning visitors.
One of the projects she believes has most helped spread the word about AJM and Kansas City, has been partnering with Disney to be featured in a traveling jazz exhibit.
After temporarily sending Charlie Parker’s infamous saxophone to EPCOT World for display in their jazz exhibit, AJM became a co-creator of Disney’s traveling “The Soul of Jazz” exhibit, based on the imagery from the animated Disney and Pixar film “Soul.” The traveling exhibit features Kansas City and other cities that had an influence on jazz as stops and looks at the history and legendary figures of jazz.
The traveling exhibit, which opened in New Orleans, LA, is now on display at AJM and will then move to New York City, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
The exhibit is running at AJM until April 24.
Last summer, the museum started Third Thursdays, which will be continued again this summer. Every third Thursday from June through September, AJM will feature a free concert at the back pavilion behind the museum and there will be free admission to the museum.
“It’s a really great way to invite our local community to come in and just enjoy entertainment and see what we’ve got going on,” Phillips said.
As the pandemic slows, Phillips said the museum has seen an uptick in visitors.
“Coming out of the pandemic, people are more comfortable doing short trips to the museum, so we’re excited about that,” Phillips said.
Integrating more technology, interactives and including a gallery highlighting Kansas City luminaries are just a few of the museum’s new exhibit ideas. Phillips also said the vision is for AJM to tell more of the full story of jazz.
Many people know that jazz began in New Orleans and grew up in Kansas City. There was a migration to Kansas City where musicians emerged on the scene or used it as a place to learn the music and their instrument before moving to places like Chicago or New York.
“It’s important for us to tell the full story and not just what happened in Kansas City, but talk a little bit about New Orleans, Chicago and New York and all of the bigger story and influence of the jazz story,” Phillips said. “The future will really look at opening up the museum much more to think about a bigger story.”
25TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
To celebrate the 25th anniversary, the museum is holding the “Believe in Legacy 25” fundraising and concert event on April 30 with the Grammy Award-winning Charles Mingus Big Band, set to perform at the Gem Theater.
Later in the fall, the museum is creating a new exhibit that will run from mid-September to April 2023. The exhibition will honor a quarter-century at 18th and Vine and look at how the American Jazz Museum tells the story of jazz. The new exhibit will include interactives for the community to share their memories and experiences on 18th and Vine and with jazz in Kansas City.
“We want to offer our visitors the opportunity to reflect with us and have those special moments they felt have been important to them around jazz and around the museum,” Phillips said.
The exhibit will also feature special pieces out of the museum’s archives that have never been seen before.