Overview:

A style of jazz driven by Bennie Moten, Count Basie and Charlie Parker, the music grew its roots in the city’s African-American commercial district centered much closer to 12th and Vine than the popular 18th and Vine Jazz District the city’s known for today.

I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come, I’m going to be standing on the corner, 12th Street and Vine, With my Kansas City baby and a bottle of Kansas City wine.

That song, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1952, has been recorded more than 300 times. It’s made Kansas City famous as a fun place to visit. A party city, with a cool kind of beat.

Even if you’ve never been to Kansas City, worldwide, people know 12th Street and Vine as the place to be. The song builds on the city’s history as an entertainment capital of the Midwest. Dating as far back as the 1920s, the city was known for its hundred-plus nightclubs and dance halls, flowing liquor despite prohibition and its Kansas City-style jazz.

A style of jazz driven by Bennie Moten, Count Basie and Charlie Parker, the music grew its roots in the city’s African-American commercial district centered much closer to 12th and Vine than the popular 18th and Vine Jazz District the city’s known for today.

The city’s jazz reputation attracted visitors from around the region and it was an economic boon for the neighborhood and the city. However, with jazz’s roots planted and raised in the heart of the city’s segregated Black community, it was integration that led to both the decline of jazz in Kansas City and the community that helped birth it.

However, thanks to records and recordings of some of Kansas City’s jazz greats, the City’s reputation as a center for jazz has never gone away. People still come to Kansas City in search of jazz, but not like they used to and they do not always find what they envisioned or what history has told them.

It’s a trend Anita Dixon-Brown, executive director of Creative City KC, the focal point for UNESCO Creative City KC, hopes to reverse.

Dixon-Brown says jazz shouldn’t be Kansas City’s past, it should remain one of Kansas City’s main economic influences of the future.

“We only have to see how Kansas City Jazz is revered globally to understand how we will benefit from promoting it and all music out of this region,” said Dixon-Brown.

For the past five years, Creative City KC has been trying to convince leaders that with a sound strategy, jazz music– especially jazz — can be a main economic driver for the community.

Jazz as an Economic Driver

To understand Dixon-Brown’s vision, think Nashville. 

That city has built a major economic driver around country and western music, with people traveling from around the world to attend the Grand Ole Opry and to drop in on one of the city’s many venues featuring live performances. Country singers travel there hoping to get their big break. Music is a major driver of Nashville’s economy that’s been enhanced and diversified by the recent addition of the National Museum of African-American Music.

That’s just one example. Think Memphis and Beale Street, New Orleans and the French Quarter, and New York and Broadway. In each of those cities, “culture and creativity” are large contributors to the city’s economy.

In New Orleans, tourism is now the city’s No. 1 industry, built around jazz, Cajun traditions and food. In Nashville, country and western music is one of the city’s top economic drivers.

The Struggle For Buy In

Scott Wagner was on the city council when Dixon-Brown approached the city with her idea of applying to become a UNESCO Creative City and what immediately felt was a “compelling” idea: putting jazz on display as a driver for why people would come to Kansas City.

“For me it’s a no-brainer, an idea that I hope doesn’t get lost.”

Like Dixon-Brown, he recognized the development of other cities as cultural music destinations didn’t happen by chance. Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans all had rich histories, but in each of these cities there was a strong and organized effort to capitalize on that legacy.

Still, Dixon and Creative City KC struggles to get buy-in from city leaders on building economically on the city’s jazz culture and history, something that is imperative to the concepts success.

“Kansas City-style jazz music can also generate a music economy but it must be strategically promoted as economic development,”  states Dixon-Brown.

The city must be given credit for its annual $1 million budgetary support of the American Jazz Museum and its support of UNESCO these last two years.

The strategy, Dixon-Brown says any strategy to grow a jazz economy must be a collaborative effort that includes tourism, venues, musicians, education and entertainment. It cannot be the responsibility of just one organization to promote and support this globally recognized creative asset.

While they wait for the buy-in to the bigger concept, with their limited budget, UNESCO is continuing its work promoting and building upon the City’s jazz legacy.

UNESCO Creative City KC

Dixon-Brown’s interest in promoting jazz dates back to when she was applying for a scholarship to study journalism at Lincoln University in Jefferson City and for a required application article she decided to write her story on Local 627 musician’s union and it importance in American History. Some of the musicians contribute, sharing their story.

Anita Dixon-Brown, Creative City’s KC, the focus point of UNESCO Creative City Kansas City.

“I won the scholarship and the brothers and sisters who were alive in the early 80’s made me promise to always take care of the music. It has been my mission ever since.”

When the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)  announced the opening of applications for the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) in 2004, Dixon-Brown new the concept aligned with what she promised the musicians she would work toward.

The 246 “Creative Cities” across the world have all identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development. The cities in the network work together toward a common objective: placing creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their development plans at the local level.

The designation is a special and fairly rare designation that other UNESCO Creative Cities proudly display with signs at their airports and on billboards. These cities also market the designation in similar ways around the city, region and nationally.

Who/What is Kansas City

If you look at the image Kansas City conveys through its marketing, it appears to be a little of this and a little of that; some breweries, barbecue, maybe some sushi, nothing that makes it stand out from other Midwestern Cities many say.

The question is, “how does Kansas City develop a much stronger and more marketable identity?  The City has invested a lot of money in building an identity, and recently rolled out a new promotional slogan, “The New Midwest.”  While unique, the slogan does very little to clearly define what the city is.

The question is how does Kansas City develop a clear, unique, positive and sustainable identity that can serve as the foundation of a vibrant tourism economy.

How to Get There

Becoming a New Orleans, Nashville … a city that uses its culture as an economic driver requires effective planning and an implementation schedule. Through participation with and training from UNESCO, Creative City KC has identified four key pillars that must be a part of any plan to make jazz a factor for sustainable development in Kansas City: education, entertainment, preservation and tourism.

Education

Education is important for the development of the next generation of jazz musicians. Without passing the heritage on, it will die.

New Orleans has developed a quintet of programs to help develop jazz musicians, including the Heritage School of Music which offers more than 200 students free music lessons. Not only do kids age 8 to 18 learn how to play music, but many are given new musical instruments to keep. The New Orleans Recreation Development Commission gets involved with a free music education outreach program that includes two campuses and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation sponsors free pro audio workshops for teenagers to learn everything from running sound for live concerts to producing records.

“I don’t think we would be so bold as to suggest that any one of our programs is singularly responsible for the continuation of the culture,” said Scott Aiges, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s director of programs, marketing and communications. “But we do what we can!”

Entertainment

When you come to Kansas City, or even individuals who live in Kansas City, you often have to ask people where to find Jazz.

If you don’t know somebody who knows somebody, it’s hard to know live jazz in Kansas City still exists. The opposite can be said for Nashville.

When you arrive in Nashville, there are a number of stages, both large and small, set up with people playing live music in the airport, which helps set the tone of Nashville as a music city.

In addition, helping jazz grow in Kansas City means paying musicians a living wage.

“I don’t know how our musicians locally do it,” says Dixon Brown. “A sound music strategy will gear the city to employ them to make a real living. We have to be able to pay these people who shore up our music industry.”

Tourism/Jazz District Focus

Jazz as an economic driver must include tourists and multiple things around jazz for tourists. Like other cities mentioned earlier, their music attracts tourism.  In New Orleans, tourism is the city’s number one industry.  

UNESCO sees the Jazz Museum and the Jazz District as the focus point for a Kansas City jazz economy.

The City has invested in the area and the Creative City team sees a stronger jazz focus by the city as a driver that can help shore up the district. The district is centrally located with a direct shot to the airport, the city’s sports complex, downtown, the Crossroads and even the Plaza. which can easily help connect jazz tourism to the rest of the city’s great assets.

Preservation

Kansas City has some great jazz history that are crumbling or being torn down but after a slow start, several projects are underway in the Jazz District or approved, many involving preservation of existing facilities .

UNESCO applauds the city for recent creative efforts and incentives to encourage private development in the district, since driving a jazz economy must be a public/private partnership.

One of the projects already underway will restore the historic Boone Theater on 18th Street that opened in 1924.

Renovation of the historic waterworks buildings on Vine is almost complete, with several tenants already in the building. The same development group has plans to renovate the historic castle across the street and to build a 60-room hotel behind it.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum recently announced a renewed effort to open the old Paseo Street YMCA as the Buck O’Neil Research Center. 

The city also has an agreement to renovate the old Crispus Attucks Elementary School. As proposed, the renovated facility would include an art museum, 45 artist studios, banquet space and an outdoor event space.  Ground breaking on that project was held just a few weeks ago.

What businesses say they need to make the district work economically is more than tourists – they need residents in the area with money to support area businesses. Several of the new developments include a mix of market-level and affordable apartments above ground-floor commercial space – the best of two worlds.

The idea is synergy: more diverse things attract a more diverse audience.

That’s the concept demonstrated by Nashville when they added the National Museum of African-American Music to their cultural mix. Everything becomes an off-shoot of the original idea.

Think Orlando, which began with Disney World but now has multiple spinoffs and a booming tourist economy.

Planning is the Key

If UNESCO can get the city’s buy-in, the next step is developing an implementation plan.

UNESCO Creative Cities is moving ahead with plans for a few small projects to demonstrate how jazz can be an economic driver. 

“We stand on the musical shoulders of giants.  Our reach is international.  We can be the center point of the world when it comes to jazz and music in this country.  It is  time to come together and make it happen,” says Dixon-Brown.  

This is an updated version of an article that originally ran in the Aug. 5, 2022 print edition of The Community Voice

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Bonita Gooch

Since 1996, Bonita has served as as Editor-in-Chief of The Community Voice newspaper. As the owner, she has guided the Wichita-based publication’s growth in reach across the state of Kansas and into...