The facade of the Gem Theatre dates from 1912, but behind it is a modern 500-seat performing space that is used for community events and special jazz performances. The Jazz Museum holds its excellent visiting artist series here.
This is a renovated area just to the east of downtown. It has had its ups and downs, mostly down. The city tried to revive it by reworking the fronts of some buildings. Now a lot are closed up, and some anchor businesses moved out. Try as they might, it is difficult to attract people, especially local. Some tourists show up here, but not much to do. The surrounding area is kind of a wasteland, with abandoned buildings, etc.
The Charlie Parker Memorial pays tribute to Kansas City, Kansas native, Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, undeniably one of the most influential saxophonists in the history of jazz, and one of the originators of the be-pop style.
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The Star Theater was constructed in 1912 as a movie house for African Americans. The facade was remodeled in 1923 and the name changed to the Gem Theater. Movies continued until the mid-1970's, then after being renovated, the Gem became a cultural and performing arts center. The Lincoln Building is located a half block west of the theater. The joint entrance to the American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is across the street.
The area around 18th and Vine in Kansas City was a jazz mecca in the 1920's and 1930's. The Lincoln building is to the right. The new Blue Room and Jazz Museum are in the background. When I was back in Kansas City in May 07, I noticed that someone had stolen the street signs over the stop sign. Too bad they could not respect this famous intersection.
In 2006, I finally made it over to 18th and Vine to visit the Kansas City Jazz Museum. They've done a good job by focusing upon a few of the most important figures in the establishment of the jazz idiom. It's the "Great Men and Women" approach to history, and it's certainly a valid one - though other might be valid as well. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Kansas City's own Charlie Parker all receive the major star treatment here - deservedly so. There are also several interesting interactive "stations" that give museum-goers the opportunity to experiment with "mixing" a jazz combo, or performing a jazz piece in different styles. But what I liked best were the films and recordings that caught the great performers in action.
The historic Lincoln Building is located on the southeast corner of 18th and Vine. In the days of segregation, it was one of the main professional buildings in the African-American community. It was refurbished a few years ago but needed an anchor tenant. Sprint made it a call center, providing jobs for ~80 people in the area. To see what it looked like in the 1940's, go to Lincoln Building Photo.
Once located in the Street Hotel, the Blue Room is now in a new location. As part of the Kansas City Jazz Museum, you may visit it during the day as part of the museum (use the museum entrance). However, in the evening it opens with live entertainment and a $20 cover charge. The night time, outside entrance is on the northeast corner of 18th and Vine. Happy hour is from 5 - 7 PM and is only $5. The Blue Room is now a non-smoking venue. It has been recognized by Downbeat Magazine as one of the top 100 Jazz Club's in the World.
"Kansas City, Missouri, the mother of swing and the nurturer of Bebop, proudly hosts the reflection of its dynamic musical heritage - the American Jazz Museum. Inside the American Jazz Museum, the essence and living spirit of jazz legends fill the atmosphere, as the story of jazz and her greatest performers is told through the sights and sounds of one the most interactive museums in the country." - the American Jazz Museum web site says it better than I can. It is a fascinating visit for anyone who appreciates American music or even just American history. There is even an area for the little ones: The Wee-Bop Room. Also see my entry for The Blue Room under night life in Kansas City. The Blue Room is part of the museum complex.
I CAN NOT RECOMMEND THIS MUSEUM TOO HIGHLY. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum should be seen by every person that enters this city for its educational, social and entertainment value. Gain a fresh perspective on the history of sports in the USA, as well as race relations. The centerpiece of the museum is "The Field of Legends." Little Leaguers can stand next to 12 live-size bronze cast sculptures of the most important players in Negro Leagues History. The museum shares a building with the Kansas City Jazz Museum; a dual admission may be purchased.
The 18th and Vine Historic District
This area was the hotspot for the city's jazz scene. During Prohibition, musicians were drawn to the city thanks to its loose laws on booze, the mayor at the time enjoyed his drink! From big band to The Bird, this was a Midwestern mecca for America's greatest musical art form. You can learn, and hear, all about it at the interactive Jazz Museum.
Across the way, housed in the same building, is a must-see for everyone, even non-sports fans, the Negro League Baseball Museum. A 'gentlemen's agreement' (hah) barred African Americans from playing professional baseball throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What did they do? They created their own professional leagues, and that legacy is lovingly preserved here. Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson; they were more than just athletes. This museum captures the quintescential American spirit of standing up to adversity and creating your own success. It illustrates that the glory of the USA is found in its multiculturalism, not its white-bred conservatism.
If you're lucky and show up at the right time you might have the chance to meet a bona-fide living legend: Buck O'Neil. Buck played in the Negro League from the 1930's to the '50s and was the first black coach in the history of major leagues, which he accomplished in 1962 with the Chicago Cubs. He never played in the big leagues, but he helped a lot of deserving guys get there. He was also on a committee that got a lot of seemingly forgotten Negro League stars into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Hopefully one day he'll make it there himself. He's been instrumental in making this museum a reality and is a wonderful, gracious human being.
Pictured: The Art Deco facade of the Gem Theatre, across the street from the museums. A lot of legendary musicians graced the stage of this place.
Kansas City is famous for jazz music. The area at 18th and Vine is famous within Kansas City for Jazz music. This building at 18th and Vine houses two museums inside of it. The Kansas City Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
In the lobby you buy your tickets for the two museums. One is to your left and one is to your right. The Jazz Museum has many displays with ear phones. You can put on the ear phones at each display to hear different styles of music and learn how jazz evolved. In the baseball museum you can learn about the Monarch's, a team that was once from Kansas City. I liked the story I read about the first shin guards made from barrel staves.
The 18th and Vine District
Back in the 1920's, somehow the American people became more Puritanical than usual and actually amended the US federal constitution to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcohol. This state of Prohibition led to some of America's worst organized crime, with crime syndicates led by Al Capone and others illegally bootlegging hooch. One town that didn't exactly fall in line with Prohibition was Kansas City. Mayor Pendergrast, one of the more corrupt politicans in US history, kept the taps flowing. As a result, Kansas City became a beacon for arts and popular music in the 1920's, and the 18th and Vine district became in many ways the birthplace of jazz. If it's not the birthplace, then it's the favourite playground.
The district has been reconstructed, and though it's kinda cheesy at the moment, it features a pair of museums that focus on KC's role in African-Americn history: the Kansas City Jazz Museum and the Negro League Baseball Museum. Both are well-presented exhibitions of greats from Stachel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Worth a visit to see and hear what early 20th century America was like.