CULTURE HOP: Kansas City Jazz, the American Jazz Museum, & More

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"Ya Like Jazz?" - Barry B. Benson, the Bee Movie 


This quote is one of the most iconic pick-up lines in the history of movies. Well, that may be stretching it just a little, but it certainly does resonate with those even remotely fond of this particular musical style.  One thing there can be no argument with, is that our favorite bee certainly knows how to woo a potential jazz connoisseur by asking the serious question, so….....“Ya like Jazz?”  

For those that do,  there may be no better place in which to hear it than right here in Kansas City.  Our area may not be deemed the birthplace of jazz, but it certainly should be known as one of its primary parents.  We are a city full of a rich and exciting jazz history, with many places to explore and appreciate its origins and how Kansas City was a major contributor to this musical genre.  And if you aren’t familiar with jazz, our city is one of the best places to get your feet wet and start your musical education.  

All that Jazz

Jazz itself as a musical form originated in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s, and it drew its unique sound by being heavily influenced by the blues, spirituals, vaudeville and ragtime music that was popular at the time. It is sometimes referred to as "America's Classical Music". Our musical roots run so deep that Kansas City is known for creating its very own unique style of Jazz music - aptly named, “Kansas City Jazz”.   

The Kansas City musician’s unique blend of creative improvisation, heavier blues, and more frequent elaborate riffing (playing a relatively simple, catchy repeated phrase.) are the main characteristics that differentiates the unique sound of the Kansas City styles from other styles of jazz.  In the 20’s and 30’s, it was said that when you heard music that was made in Kansas City, you knew it.  The sound nestled nicely somewhere between Big Band and Bebop, with a “voice” all its own.  

In fact, one of the most popular “Big Band” leaders of the country brought the Kansas City style to greater mainstream popularity, Glenn Miller.  His  famous “In the Mood '' follows the lead from Kansas City style of riffing sections, and this song’s popularity with the rest of the nation's musical community represents just how far the Kansas City style had gained a foothold musically in the jazz scene during the 1930’s.  After all,”In the Mood” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1939, and is said to be one of the most influential musical pieces of all time.  

This is certainly not to say that Glenn Miller should get all of the credit for widening the city’s jazz popularity, because well before people were “In the Mood” , the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of leader and pianist Benny Moten, along with Harlan Leonard, Jack Washington, Ed Lewis, Lamar Wright, and Willie McWashington were creating tunes like the “Kansas City Shuffle” in the Kansas City musical style.    If that wasn’t enough,  Count Basie, who in 1929 signed with the Kansas City orchestra, was discovered by producer John Hammond, who marketed the band throughout the country,  further catapulting the sound's appeal on a wider level.  

Later, Kansas City native Charlie Parker, with his saxaphone, made his own mark on the Kansas City scene, through his contributions to the modern jazz solo.   His technique combined with his “unique style of phrasing and innovative style of rhythm” were legendary .  In a quote from Miles Davis, (one of the most influential jazz players of the 20th century),  “You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker. “  That is definitely quite a legacy for Charlie, and for Kansas City Jazz.  

Surprising Benefits of Jazz 

If you don’t already listen to jazz, there actually may be some more great reasons to do so. According to a few studies, it has been found that listening to jazz music can have some surprising benefits to your health. 

(**Of course, as wonderful as the genre is, it should NOT be used in place of the medications prescribed by your healthcare provider.)  

With this caveat firmly in place,  listening to jazz has been found to :

  • increase brain activity
  • lower blood pressure
  • Improve  memory, mood, and creativity
  • reduce the intensity and duration of a migraine headache.
  • Studies have also found that a 30 minute jazz listening session increases immunoglobulin, an antibody that protects against bacteria, viruses, and infection. This boost lasts for an additional 30 minutes after the music stops. Thus giving your immune system a boost.
  • Chronic pain sufferers may also experience less pain if listening to jazz on a regular basis.  

The American Jazz Museum

If you want to know more about Jazz’s hold on our fair city,  an especially incredible resource to learn and appreciate this musical style is the American Jazz Museum.  The museum was established in 1997 and found its home smack dab in the heart of the historic 18th & Vine Jazz District, located at 1616 E 18th Street, Kansas City. The location is very fitting, as it is literally where jazz scene of our city evolved into the Kansas City Jazz sound.  Its previous name was the Kansas City Jazz museum, but that did not encompass the range of history the museum holds, so it was changed to the American Jazz Museum.  It is one of the only museums that is devoted entirely exclusive to jazz and it's historical preservation.    The museum’s mission resonates with music lovers alike - “to celebrate and exhibit the experience of jazz as an original American art  form through performance, exhibition, education, and research at one of the country’s jazz crossroads, 18th & Vine.”  It has incredible exhibits on Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, Harold Ashby,  Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and so much more. 

Inside the museum patrons can enjoy: 

  • The Blue Room, a deeply impactful experience whether you are taking in one of the 20 live performances per month, or finding yourself engrossed in the memorabilia that surrounds it .
  • Gem Theater, originally known as the Star Theater, a 1912 silent movie palace which today hosts concerts, community events and live theater.   

Even students have opportunities to learn through: 

  • The Kansas City Jazz Academy where middle and high school students can improve their jazz skills through in depth instruction.
  • Jazz Storytelling - on the first Friday of every month, storytelling and jazz come together to bring toddlers, and early elementary school a great introduction to this musical genre through music, words, and innovative storytelling.  

More History in the Neighborhood

While in the historic 18th & Vine District,  block out enough time to take in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum which is located in the same building as the American Jazz Museum.  The museum chronologically charts the progression of the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1962.  It holds many interactive exhibits as well as an incredible collection of 200 autographed baseballs donated by Geddy Lee, the front man of the rock band Rush.  This museum is not one to be missed.  

The Black Archives of Mid-America is also located nearby at 2033 Vine .  The original firehouse that was home to the first black fire company within Kansas City,  now houses the educational resources and exhibits for the history of African American Culture within Kansas City. Infomtion on all facets of the community in music, art , theater, education, the military, medicine, sports, religion and community affairs can be found here. The firehouse is also home to "The Black Coffee Shop" which is the perfect place to sit for a bit of respite, a great cup of coffee, and the opportunity to learn even more about the history and culture of Kansas City. 

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