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.
Theyd come for the concert portion of the American Jazz Museums
Fascinatin Rhythms Gala.
The growing crowd could not have been aware of the mans 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 Parkers
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 Parkers body exhumed and reburied on the Jazz Museum
But after 15 years, hes 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
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 hes 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 dont think theres any doubt that people
can see where were going. Im excited about what weve
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 its 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. Its unfortunate that
that sort of thing is thrown out. Nobodys 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 dont need to subsidize 18th and Vine anymore.
Cleaver expresses excitement about reviving the district while some
the citys 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 Citys 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 evenings
celebrations, which included honoring singers Abbey Lincoln and Nancy
Wilson with the museums 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 shows participants praised them. At one point,
Cleaver even joked about once wanting to marry Wilson.
But the concert wasnt 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 shes 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 shes
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 couldnt help reminiscing about the large white
candles that sat atop tall, statuesque metal candleholders. I couldnt
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
couldnt 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 wasnt hard to imagine the streets of Vine
in the 1930s and 1940s, bustling with life.
But then I think of todays 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 email@example.com or publisher_editEKC@kcactive.com.