An American Arts & Culture Trail

Stop 1: Kansas City, MO

One of the tragedies of the depressing news of the past several months is that it has threatened to overshadow the legacy of all the amazing things that have been created in the 245 year history of this country. Indeed, I guess my primary purpose in writing this series is to do what I can to mitigate that threat. But nowhere does the risk of losing this connection to our past seem greater than in the arts. Human beings have created art since the beginning of our time on this planet, not because it put a roof over our heads or money in our pocket, but for a higher purpose – somewhere farther up Maslow’s Hierarchy

In the relative brief existence of the United States our nation has already contributed much to the global art gallery and this trail will celebrate those achievements across the spectrum of artistic expression. I cannot think of a more natural place for it to begin than the middle of it all…Kansas City.

Worth Celebrating

I could probably pound out a couple of paragraphs about why jazz is important and what its all about but that would be even dumber than describing what baking bread smells like. So, do me a favor. Put on a pair of headphones..make sure your device or computer is unmuted and then click on this link…you might need to wait through an ad or two and then close your eyes…I’ll see you in three minutes. Oh, and turn it up.

Didn’t that feel good? The American Jazz Museum opened up in Kansas City, MO in 1997. It is in the revitalized downtown neighborhood known as the 18th and Vine Jazz District and is one of a few museums in the area. The museum is currently open for visitors although there are some changes and restrictions to accommodate for Covid-19. I don’t expect to be in the Kansas City area again in the immediate future, though and perhaps you are not either and the museum also has a nice virtual exhibit called AJM@Home, which gives a very nice overview of its collection and the role of jazz in the city.

Jazz is a uniquely American art form and its importance has stretched across the nation so other cities could perhaps been the site of an American Jazz Museum. But Kansas City has a history with jazz all its own. Kansas City Jazz gets its own entry in Wikipedia. Legendary pianist Bennie Moten was from Kansas City as was saxophonist Charlie (Bird) Parker, who you listened to a minute ago. Count Basie became famous in Kansas City and together with the aforementioned artists and many others created a different sound that was unique to the area.

The musical differences between Kansas City Jazz and other styles are nicely expressed at the bottom of the Wikipedia page above but if you would rather listen to different styles than read about them then check out the cool page linked below. It was created to help musicians learn the differences between different styles on their way to playing them but the 10 Key Tunes (scroll down in the post) are just fun to listen to. Check your pulse if you are not inspired to listen to some more jazz by the end.

If you are feeling thus inspired, here are two more things to continue your journey. Last fall Kansas City PBS produced a program entitled Bird: Not out of Nowhere to commemorate what would have been Charlie Parker’s 100th birthday. I haven’t watched the whole thing yet but it looks awesome and will be on the Craib family viewing docket tonight.

Also, tomorrow, February 12th from 1 pm-2 pm Eastern (12-1 CDT) the Blue Room at the American Jazz Museum will be doing a Facebook livestream of its Jazz at Noon music series featuring the Will Matthews Organ Trio. The concert is virtual-only and free though a donation is suggested on the site. As a side note, the link on the Blue Room page appears to be broken but it looks like we will be able to find the concert here.

A Work in Progress

Like any large American city (KC was 38th among US cities in 2020) Kansas City has its share of challenges. The timing is good to write about them, though, since just last night the Mayor delivered his 2021 State of the City address. Quinton Lucas, in his second year as mayor, delivered the speech virtually this year. In his remarks, the mayor said, “I pose three important questions for us tonight…”

First: How do we learn from the past year about health, our economy, and our budget to move
more responsibly into the future?

Second: As we work to rebuild economically, how do we ensure equitable economic development
that will improve Kansas City for the next generation?

Third: How do we keep Kansas Citians safe, implement transformative, long-term violence
prevention strategies, and build community trust?

The impact of Covid-19 on the city was underscored by a heartbreaking segment of his speech when the mayor expressed his condolences for the families who have lost loved ones to the virus. He mentioned his sign language interpreter, who lost both her parents to the virus in the last week but continued to translate his remarks. If you do not have twitter on your computer or device you can watch this moving segment as part of this report.

The second question references a debate many communities are having about whether it is appropriate to use city funding for the development of attractions, such as stadiums, that are more often used by visitors than residents. The city is expected to refinance a large chunk of debt it took on help pay for the development of the Kansas City Power and Light District, which includes KC Live, a popular outdoor entertainment hub. Covid-19 has hit the area venues hard for obvious reasons but the Kansas City Star reported earlier this year that even before the pandemic the area wasn’t producing enough revenue to pay for the bonds used to build it.

Toward the end of his speech Mayor Lucas’ talked about the third of his questions above. Missouri had the third-highest per capita rate of gun deaths in the nation in 2020 and Kansas City was second in the state (to St. Louis) with 161 of those.

“More often than not, homicides are not random. They happen when there are no readily available support systems, mental health services, no alternative path for reconciliation, and, often, little trust in law enforcement,” Lucas said. (Our) ..” framework incorporated four areas of focus:

• Prevention, through impactful programs and opportunities that work to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, improve safe spaces, and remove economic barriers that impede individual success.

• Intervention: through identifying individuals most at-risk for committing violent crime and intervene with necessary resources to help set them on the right path.

• Law Enforcement and the Community: though accountability measures and increased outreach for law enforcement, encouraging communication and collaboration with the community on the most violent crimes.

• Administrative Reform: having fair and equitable laws and community trust in our legal institutions.”

The topic is getting a lot of attention in Kansas City. Next week the Kansas City Star is partnering with another local organization to produce a series of events entitled Gun Violence in Missouri: Seeking Solutions beginning with a virtual roundtable on February 17 at 1:30 pm EST (12:30 central time.) The host is an organization called American Public Square at Jewell. Anyone who has been following this blog for awhile will know why I admired the site at first click. It’s tagline is “Building Communities with Civil, Fact-Based Discourse. Sign me up.

Coming up next on the Project to Find America, we will launch the Parks and Rec trail with our first stop in the Northeast, Down East in fact, on the beautiful Maine Coast.

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