Coming Together in a Prime K.C. Venue
By Bill Beggs Jr.
Sports and music intersect at a storied Kansas City crossroads. A unique cultural statement is made in the Museums at 18th & Vine, which highlight two important developments in the early 1900s: the national pastime and America’s art form.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) is an essential look back at a society sharply divided between black and white in many parts of the country by Jim Crow laws. Jazz icons so idolized now, such as: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and K.C.’s favorite son Charlie “Bird” Parker are prominently featured in the American Jazz Museum and all suffered the same indignities as black ballplayers in a “Whites Only”/“Coloreds Only” nation, most extremely in the South. This museum, which shares a central space with the NLBM, tells the story of that truly American art form, its tragedies and triumphs.
The museums are a perfect fit since black ballplayers and jazz musicians tended to have a mutual admiration back in the day, according to NLBM president Bob Kendrick. First functioning out of a one-room office, in 1997 the NLBM joined the American Jazz Museum in a $20 million facility housing both entities.
The museums create a synergy unlike anywhere, and in the shared 6,000-square-foot atrium and other one-of-a-kind spaces, they present a memorable venue for anything from a wedding reception to business meeting. Many baseball lovers would do well to hear the oft-untold story of segregated leagues (in the voice of James Earl Jones, no less), and what baseball fan doesn’t at least have an appreciation for music, and vice-versa? Any generation since the Baby Boomers—and young people, especially—would do well to consider the Civil Rights struggle from both of these perspectives.
NLBM tells the story from the Civil War era, when the first league of pro black teams was established in 1920, to 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the L.A. Dodgers, and through the years afterward as baseball integrated and the Negro Leagues faded into history.
Robinson already had been a star for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League and a teammate who was first baseman, John “Buck” O’Neil, threw out the first pitch in 1990 for NLBM. (Both men also are enshrined in baseball’s Nation Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., as are other Negro Leagues greats including Satchel Paige and “Cool Papa” Bell.)
One NLBM exhibit doubles as a meeting space unlike any other: a mock diamond with a life-size bronze statue of a star ballplayer at each position… the Field of Legends. Paige, who joined the Cleveland Indians in 1948, is on the mound, and Bell is in center field. The action is forever frozen at the moment a batter steps up to the plate. The diamond has a dreamy aura that can be unnerving at first, especially for a guest who has settled in at a table, turns their head and sees a player looking over their shoulder. Photo ops abound!
“It’s right where people are looking for barbecue and music,” says Derek Klaus of VisitKC.com. “Sportscasters and dignitaries seek it out.”
In the American Jazz Museum on the other side of the atrium, rare photos, interactive listening stations and memorabilia tell the stories of jazz legends. Other exhibits highlight Kansas City’s unique contributions to the American medium. By day a part of the museum and by night a working jazz club, the Blue Room features local and national artists in an intimate setting. Four times a year, the Changing Gallery presents special exhibits inspired by jazz, baseball and African-American life. Behind the Gem Theater’s restored 1912 façade is a modern 500-seat performing arts center.
Kansas City, a jazz capital, is a choice location for the museum, which displays photos, sheet music, posters and 33 1/3 records from the height of jazz’s popularity. These items create context for historic artifacts such as Bird’s sax, a Louis Armstrong trumpet and a sequined gown worn by vocalist extraordinaire Ella Fitzgerald.
Collectively, the Museums at 18th & Vine average approximately 300,000 visitors annually. Once blighted, the historic neighborhood underwent a multimillion-dollar revitalization in the late 1990s that also gave the nearby Paseo YMCA a facelift. Later this year, when the old Y metamorphoses into the John “Buck” O’Neil Education and Research Center, NLBM’s mission of researching, documenting and displaying this important chapter in our culture will carry on. Meanwhile, musicians in K.C. and around the world today continue to revisit the vibe and syncopated melodies of the golden age of jazz.
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum:
Cathie Moss, marketing
816.221.1920 1616 E. 18th St.
Kansas City, MO 64108-1610
American Jazz Museum:
Jessica Thompson, marketing
Dhana Powell-Pope, facility rental
Main: 816.474.VINE (8463)
1616 E. 18th St. Kansas City, MO 64108-1610 americanjazzmuseum.org