Karen Griffin is a tour docent and education assistant with the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, USA. She is traveling to Australia to: give this talk, see and learn about the Australian Jazz Museum, and share information with us about the American Jazz Museum and Kansas City jazz. $1 for AJM members, $2 for guests. All are welcome.
Kansas City Jazz
It’s been said that jazz was born in New Orleans, and it grew up in Kansas City. There were four major stops along the earliest jazz portals, including New Orleans, Chicago, New York and Kansas City. During its golden age, the Kansas City jazz scene was a thriving force, brimming over with plenty of economic development and artistic output beyond category – during a time when the country was at the height of economic downfall and prohibition.
Kansas City’s musical heritage in the early 1900’s was already especially rich in blues, gospel, ragtime and brass band music. Kansas City was an important stop for “territory bands” on the entertainment circuit that covered a large portion of the Southwest. Under the rule of Mob Boss Tom Pendergast, the 1920s, 30s and 40s, saw the Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District as thriving and alive with jazz, often coined as the “Paris of the Plains.” 18th & Vine was bristling & buzzing with a unique musical force, a scene ripe with riffs, built upon jumpin’ jazz blended with blues, Bird’s blossoming bebop – and Kansas City’s signature swing. This is the place where John Coltrane first met Charlie Parker – right on the corner of 18th & Vine – and the same area that nurtured the careers of legendary names like Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, Mary Lou Williams, and hundreds of others who shaped the sounds of jazz.
The style of jazz known as “swing” came together in Kansas City. Early jazz styles, influenced by ragtime music from New Orleans, travelled to Kansas City with the musicians who came seeking jobs. Kansas City added its blues style and its strong brass band tradition to create swing. Kansas City jazz featured regular and steady rhythm that was joyous and exciting at the same time. It was almost impossible to sit still when listening to Kansas City jazz.
Kansas City’s 18th & Vine community rocked from dawn to dusk with jazz music without ever letting up. Jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams once said, “Kansas City was a heavenly city. Music everywhere and fifty or more cabarets rocking on 12th and 18th Streets.” 18th and Vine swung to the sounds of jazz music 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The creative and innovative musicians who were drawn to Kansas City for the jobs created a musical community that gave birth to new ideas. After playing their paying gig of the evening, many Kansas City jazz musicians would gravitate to jam sessions. Often they would jam all night, just for fun. It was in these jam sessions that musicians shared old and new ideas and helped create the Kansas City sound of swing, with a strong rhythm for dancing and exciting horn riffs.
The American Jazz Museum
The American Jazz Museum is the anchor of the revitalized 18th & Vine Historic Jazz District in Kansas City, Missouri, and celebrates Kansas City’s rich jazz heritage, through stimulating sights and sounds. It is one of the most interactive museums in the country and the only museum devoted exclusively to jazz. Visitors can listen to world-class jazz or immerse themselves in hands-on listening stations and a comprehensive sound library. The museums features four major exhibits in honour of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Kansas City’s native son, Charlie “Bird” Parker.
The museum’s Visitor’s Center, Gallery, Blue Room, and Gem Theatre each highlight different aspects of Kansas City and American jazz. The Visitor’s Center offers a film “A People’s Journey” which utilizes local individuals to tell the story about 18th & Vine in its heyday. The Gallery presents a full schedule of traveling and temporary exhibitions. During the day, the Blue Room functions as a museum exhibit, then comes to life four nights per week presenting: some of Kansas City’s best performing artists, new and emerging artists, as well as national entertainers. It’s award winning, smoke free, and the only club in Kansas City that allows young adults under 21 to sit and listen to live jazz with an adult. The Blue Room plays host to Jazz Poetry Jams, a series that blends the spoken word talent of teens with music of local recording artists. The American Jazz Museum shares the same roof with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and manages the Gem Theater located directly across the street. The Gem was a segregated movie house built in 1912, which was reconstructed and opened in August 1997 with a gala fanfare. Today, it is a 500 seat state-of-the-art performance and meeting venue.
Karen’s Role at the American Jazz Museum
As a tour docent and education assistant, Karen leads numerous group tours of the museum, and gives talks about the museum, Kansas City Jazz, and jazz masters to various groups around Kansas City, the U.S., and the world. Groups include students, seniors, and everyone in-between. In addition Karen has served as the museum’s ambassador at a Kansas City Chief Football (NFL/gridiron) game, assisted visiting curators with exhibits (Jazz Then & Now and All Hale to Hail). Plus she created and implemented an excel checklist to assist with the monthly upkeep of the museum facility, exhibits and artefacts.
Karen graduated in May 2013 from the University of Phoenix with a Business in Science degree. She plans to attend the University of Missouri in Kansas City next Fall and work on her Masters in Liberal Arts with a Certificate in Black Studies. Karen has volunteered within the Kansas City community for 24 years. She has received two awards for paying it forward and assisting with the needs of the elderly, homeless, teen girls and elementary students. Karen also tutors two young girls at the American Jazz Museum. Karen has been a member at Sheffield Family Life Center for 25 years and participates in feeding the homeless and performs praise dancing at the church.