June 1, 2015
Charlie Parker, Big Joe Turner, Ella Fitzgerald, and Orin “Hot Lips” Page. These internationally renowned musicians are forever linked to Kansas City‘s 18th and Vine neighbourhood, the place they became some of history’s greatest jazz icons.
Kansas City’s rich and distinctive jazz history started in the 1920s and 30s along 12th and 18th Streets downtown, the hub of the city’s African-American community back in the day. It was here that large numbers of black musicians who couldn’t find work in other cities because of racial segregation laws came, sharing their extraordinary talents in the area’s numerous nightclubs, vaudeville houses, and dance halls.
Although experiencing its own vestiges of the Free vs. Slave state border wars in neighbouring Kansas just across the state line, Kansas City enjoyed a more “colour-blind” landscape, where Prohibition-era alcohol laws were politically manoeuvred to bolster the city’s “wide-open” town image.
What happened next made music history.
It wasn’t long before the iconic 1950s tune “Kansas City Here I Come” became the city’s (unofficial) calling card. But it’s an apt catchphrase for the many now venerable legends that did flock here, ultimately creating what is now the Historic 18th and Vine Jazz District.
The harmonious rhythms sang and played by everyone from Claude “Fiddler” Williams to Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, and a host of others resulted in a vibrant, thriving jazz scene that at its peak produced more than 200 venues featuring outstanding jazz music every night of the week.
Today, several distinctive venues in and around 18th and Vine still proudly continue that legacy.
The Blue Room, named after a former 1930s District hotspot, is the Midwest’s quintessential jazz spot featuring a wide array of local contemporary, national and prominent international artists.
Chock-full of jazz artefacts, vintage photographs and memorabilia, the club is also part of the American Jazz Museum, which celebrates the careers and legacies of Charlie “Bird” Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and other jazz greats through hands-on, interactive exhibits, dynamic gallery spaces, performances, exhibitions, education and research.
Just down the street is the Kansas City Blues & Jazz Juke House. Here, patrons quench their melodic appetites with live “home-grown blues and jazz with a side of delicious food,” plus karaoke, open mic and poetry nights.
In 1904, the Black Musicians Union Local 627 was founded here. The original building, listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the Kansas City Landmarks Commission Register, became the home of the Mutual Musicians Foundation, where performers gathered after their gigs for jam sessions lasting all night and well into the pre-dawn hours. That ritual continues every weekend as an open-to-the-public jam session, earning the Foundation the distinction as “the longest running jazz place in the world.”
The Majestic Restaurant, a classic Kansas City steakhouse, is located downtown on the site of a Prohibition-era speakeasy listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The lower-level club draws locals and visitors alike to hear some of the best jazz acts in the country.
Also originating as a speakeasy saloon in the late 1800s, the Phoenix Jazz Club is another city favourite, featuring live jazz and blues grooves six nights a week. The Broadway Jazz Club offers the musical stylings of some of the city’s most popular jazz musicians in a very relaxed and community-oriented venue every Wednesday through Saturday.
Both a retro cocktail lounge and a clandestine stone basement hideaway, The Green Lady Lounge should also be on your list. This elegant yet casual jazz lounge highlights Kansas City’s rich jazz heritage and legacy seven nights a week with live performances by some of the city’s finest jazz musicians.
Header Image © VisitKC
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Have you been to Kansas City’s Historic 18th and Vine Jazz District? Where are your favourite places to go in the area? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Lysa Allman-Baldwin