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All That Jazz: AARP Missouri Helps Showcase KC's Rich Musical History

Jazz trumpet player

From swing to bebop, music has long flourished in Kansas City, fueled early on by local officials’ decision to turn a blind eye to violations of the nation’s reigning Prohibition laws. Nightclubs—and jazz—proliferated.

Many of those clubs were located near 18th and Vine streets, home today to the American Jazz Museum, now celebrating its 25th anniversary with the help of AARP Missouri. Throughout 2022, AARP is teaming up with the museum to offer free virtual tours of the institution and the surrounding neighborhood, often known as the place where jazz grew up. Each session will feature a different jazz great and end with live music from Kansas City musicians.

“It’s a great opportunity for the general public and the AARP audience to learn more about the American Jazz Museum and the history of jazz,” says James McGee, senior manager for visitor and virtual experience at the museum, billed as the only one in the world solely focused on the preservation, exhibition and advancement of the musical style.

The first two virtual tours were in February and May; others will be held in August and November. All will be available for later viewing. The tours will focus on legends including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Mary Lou Williams. But they will also feature Kansas City itself—one of the hubs for the uniquely American invention of jazz.

‘A City Within a City’

Dina Bennett, director of collections and curatorial affairs at the museum, says the city is historically one of the nation’s four main jazz hot spots, alongside New Orleans, Chicago and New York. Although Parker is the only Kansas City native among the genre’s leading stars, others developed their distinctive styles playing there. “I’m hoping people who take the tours will understand why Kansas City is important in so many ways,” Bennett says.

In the February tour, McGee and local historian Erik Stafford connected the history of Kansas City jazz not just to Prohibition—which the city often didn’t enforce—but to segregation and organized crime, which influenced where musicians could play and who could hear them. The area around 18th and Vine became “a city within a city,” McGee says, one in which jazz musicians flourished. Performers from around the country played there, developed their music and formed lifelong personal and professional bonds.

Diane Hall, community outreach director for AARP Missouri, conceived the idea as a way to give people the opportunity to see the museum during the COVID-19 pandemic. And because “the music activates a lot of your brain,” she says, this activity is also good for the mind.

Beyond the museum, the February and May tours included the nearby Mutual Musicians Foundation, the site of a Black musicians union founded in 1917, where jazz artists still hold jam sessions beginning at 1:30 a.m. Tour participants were treated to a live performance at the Foundation.

The two remaining 90-minute tours will be held at 10 a.m. CST on Saturdays: Aug. 27 and Nov. 19. TO REGISTER CLICK HERE (November link will be available soon)

For recordings of all the tours, go to Museum memberships are available at a discount for AARP members.

Tim Poor is a writer living in Clayton, Missouri.

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