June 11, 2004


18th and Vine can't be what it was, but...
by Deborah Young

In dim light a lone man paced back and forth behind the stage of the Gem Theatre. It was May 8, and people were filing into the auditorium. They’d come for the concert portion of the American Jazz Museum’s Fascinatin’ Rhythms Gala.

The growing crowd could not have been aware of the man’s presence in the shadows as he paced slowly forward, paused and turned to retrace his steps. In contrast, this man has been very visible in his quest to revive the 18th and Vine District.

In the late ‘80s, this pacer, the Rev. Emmanuel Cleaver, served as a city councilman. At that time, he pushed Kansas City to give millions to revive the district. As mayor in the ‘90s, he kept pushing. He even used city money to purchase one of Charlie Parker’s old saxophones for the Jazz Museum. He took much flack over that one. Other ideas have been called bizarre (for instance, his idea to have Charlie Parker’s body exhumed and reburied on the Jazz Museum site).

But after 15 years, he’s still hanging in there despite the criticism.. At the gala, he was eager to talk about why he believes the district should be revived.

“The 18th and Vine district means more to Kansas City than perhaps most people would realize. It gives our children and even their children a glimpse of the life and culture of African-Americans as they took hold of their lives in the 20th Century,” Cleaver said. “My hope is that we will create, or recreate really, as best as can be done in the 21st century, a portion of the rhythm and excitement of this district.”

Cleaver went on to say that he counts each special event held and each new restaurant built in the district as steps toward breathing new life into the area. But he’s well aware of the detractors.

“One local newspaper even did a cartoon that (said) it would never come into existence,” Cleaver recalled, quickly returning to the idea that progress has indeed been made. “Although it is not complete, I don’t think there’s any doubt that people can see where we’re going. I’m excited about what we’ve done over a short period of time because I remember how it looked when the only thing standing was the Kansas City Call newspaper. Now, on the weekends you can see the streets busy - not as busy as they were 35 or 40 years ago but busy - and people coming down here after church, as they did years and years ago, eating dinner, and on the weekend people going into the Blue Room. We are moving ever so closely inch by inch back to those glory days.”

But he advocates the city supporting the area while it’s on its way back to the glory days. “One of the editorial writers at a newspaper recently said that 18th and Vine had to become independent of city support,” Cleaver said. “It’s unfortunate that that sort of thing is thrown out. Nobody’s suggesting that Union Station become self-supporting. What people are talking about is how we can reauthorize the bistate tax so that we can continue to subsidize Union Station. That troubles me a little. We need to subsidize 18th and Vine until we don’t need to subsidize 18th and Vine anymore.”

Cleaver expresses excitement about reviving the district while some the city’s jazz pioneers are still alive. He sees this is an important reason for the revitalization project in the first place, honoring those who contributed to Kansas City’s jazz history.

“At least some of those people, like Jay McShann and many others, are having a chance to see that we respect them enough that we would struggle to rebuild this area.”

His theme of honoring the past carried over to the evening’s celebrations, which included honoring singers Abbey Lincoln and Nancy Wilson with the museum’s first annual jazz awards. Both honorees have decades of singing behind them and have been named Jazz Master Fellows by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The program featured two short videos about the veteran singers’ work, and the show’s participants praised them. At one point, Cleaver even joked about once wanting to marry Wilson.

But the concert wasn’t just about honoring the past. It was also about encouraging emerging artists, such as the four up-and-coming musicians who served as house band for the evening. All four musicians currently live in New York.

After the concert, one of the young performers (pianist Helen Sung) said that jazz has been relegated to “museum status,” and that she’s glad that the American Jazz Museum is trying to expose more people to jazz. She also said she felt privileged to play with more seasoned musicians.

Another young performer, bassist Miriam Sullivan, said she’s glad for opportunities to play jazz, because pop music is so prevalent but musically unchallenging.

After the evening was over, I contemplated the state of the 18th and Vine district. I couldn’t help reminiscing about the large white candles that sat atop tall, statuesque metal candleholders. I couldn’t help reminiscing about the white tent in the grass on the Jay McShann Pavilion behind the museum and how it glowed with yellow light. I couldn’t help reminiscing about the orchestra at the front of the tent, men dressed in white jackets and the sounds of their instruments spilling out of the tent and into the breezy night air.

In that atmosphere it wasn’t hard to imagine the streets of Vine in the 1930s and 1940s, bustling with life.

But then I think of today’s reality of silent streets and empty buildings. Without the special event there would have been no crowd, no music spilling into air.

The Vine district would have a better chance of drawing a crowd if the planners would spend as much time on acknowledging the present as they do on honoring the past – just like gala planners did for the concert. After all, many of the musicians and patrons, who were on Vine in the ‘30s and ‘40s, were in their twenties at the time. Young people bring life to an area, and they could bring life to the Vine District – if only their interests and culture were acknowledged there while also paying homage to the past.

Deborah Young can be contacted at or



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