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.
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