The American Jazz Museum is one of my favorite places in Kansas City for two reasons. The first is because of my interest in jazz going back to my teenage years. I remember the neighborhood “fellas” sitting on manicured lawns in front of apartment buildings we lived in on 103rd and Central Avenue, in the Watts section of Los Angeles. We listened to the horns of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef and I won’t forget greats Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Our ears were often cued to pianists Ahmad Jamal and McCoy Tyner and we dug the vocal stylings of Esther Phillips, Nancy Wilson, Lorez Alexandria and Sam Fletcher. I most remember plain unadulterated fun. We developed an appreciation for the sound because it symbolized our coming of age and all the angst that a young man would experience growing up and trying to find his own way in this misunderstood neighborhood. We were cool; real cool. We could relate to the music being breathed through our transistor radios. It was us developing an appreciation for an art form no one had taught us in Music Appreciation 101. We loved it for what it was; music that moved the soul. For me, it was the embryo of my appreciation of art, especially by African-American artist.
The second reason I like the museum is rather personal. EthnicArt Gallery was once a stone’s throw away from the museum in the heart of the 18th and Vine Historic District. I watched the museum being built, brick by brick by brick. It was an empowering feeling to nightly trample through what would eventually become a monument for those extraordinary musicians of my youth. One historic experience is having Harry Bellefonte stroll through my art space from seemingly nowhere. Embracing him for his courageous stands that few entertainers would even contemplate, he also expressed appreciation for EthnicArt Gallery forging ahead in the visual arts.
The museum, for me, symbolizes a resting place for the mementos of Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and memories of those days on Central Avenue, in the heart of Watts with my too cool friends―boom boxes blazing. What a time!