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New Jazz Festival Pays Tribute to Kansas City's Musical Past

An American jazz landmark will host a new music celebration this weekend (June 17-19). The 2005 Rhythm and Ribs Jazz Festival will take place around 18th and Vine Streets in Kansas City, Missouri, the same neighborhood that helped launch the careers of legendary musicians like Count Basie and Charlie Parker. The festival is another sign that a city that helped shape American jazz is now busy reclaiming its heritage.

The spirit of jazz greats like Count Basie's "Kansas City Seven" helped inspire the Rhythm and Ribs festival, where the music that made the city famous will be served up alongside its legendary barbecued ribs. Rick Hughes, President and CEO of the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association, helped organize the event, together with the American Jazz Museum and other local groups. "This weekend is a real culmination for jazz in the community, the rich history we enjoy," Mr. Hughes says. "We found ourselves without really a viable festival. So this is jazz and cross over--blues and gospel all mixed in there to have it really drilled down to a wonderful jazz and blues festival."

The festival will feature more than 30 artists from around the United States and within the Kansas City jazz community. They include local pianist Tim Whitmer, who grew up listening to Kansas City jazz and calls it a big influence on his work. "I think if you grew up in Kansas City, it's in the blood," he says. "It's a tradition you can practice all your life on. You're always looking for a better way to play it."

Tim Whitmer gets plenty of opportunity to play that music these days. On a recent Sunday night he was performing at a local restaurant with vocalist Millie Edwards, who says Kansas City jazz is in her blood, as well. She believes it has a sound she sums up in one word. "Swinging," she says. "It's toe tapping, it's finger snapping. When people hear it you can't sit in your seat. You've just got to get up and move."

This year marks another milestone for Kansas City jazz. The building that housed the city's historic African American musicians' union is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Chuck Haddix, Director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, helped put together an exhibit to honor the illustrious membership of the Mutual Musicians Foundation. "Charlie Parker was a member of this union," says Mr. Haddix, looking around what's now a studio where local musicians can drop by to practice. "So was Count Basie. And it was from this building that the music evolved from its roots in ragtime to the flowering of bebop. This is a Federal Historic Landmark. This is the place for Kansas City jazz."

Mr. Haddix is also a local radio host and author of a new book called Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop- A History, written with Frank Driggs. He says the city's musical heritage dates back to the early decades of the last century, and reached a high point in the 1930s. It owed at least part of its vitality to the permissive atmosphere of the times. "Kansas City was a wild place," he says. "It was known as 'the Paris of the Plains.' Gambling, prostitution, whatever people wanted they could find in Kansas City. And Kansas City was a railroad hub, so anyone going to the West Coast from the East Coast had to come through Kansas City. Musicians like Bill (Count) Basie came here, liked the easy ambience and stayed."

Jazz singer Myra Taylor launched her singing and dancing career in Kansas City around that time. She is still performing… with a group called the Wild Women of Kansas City… and has vivid memories of those early years. "There was a club almost every other door," Ms. Taylor recalls. "And all the musicians had work. They came from all over the South - Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma. Kansas City was loaded, loaded with musicians and with these- you'd call it a dive today, but we didn't think it was a dive. We thought it was a nice club, because in those days people put the best suits they had on when they went out."

The city's jazz club scene started to fade in the 1940s, says Chuck Haddix. But it left a far-reaching legacy. "It changed the sound of jazz internationally," he explains. "You've got the ragtime tradition, you've got the blues, and then you've got swing with the Moten/Basie bands, Then you've got bebop with Charlie Parker, and later on rock and roll."

Chuck Haddix believes the city's jazz history is more widely known in other countries than it is in the United States. He points to a celebrated U.S. public television series as an example. "When Ken Burns' opus 'Jazz' debuted," he says, "in the first episode Wynton Marsalis came in and said, 'There are three cradles of jazz, New Orleans, Chicago, New York.' And that's not correct. There were four cradles of jazz."

And that tradition could be making a comeback. These days, says singer Millie Edwards, you can hear jazz any night of the week in Kansas City, and day as well. "Not only are there still jazz clubs but they're in the schools, because we need young people coming up behind us to continue the art form. Churches, because churches want to build their membership and jazz wants to reach different audiences. Whereas people might not come to a club, we're bringing the jazz to them."

Now city leaders are bringing jazz to the people as well, with this weekend's Rhythm and Ribs Festival. Rick Hughes of the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association says it is planned as an annual event. He sees it as part of a larger effort to revitalize Kansas City itself-another chance to bring tourists and locals back downtown to celebrate a living musical heritage.