Kansas City jazz players. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer
The Majestic. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer
The Majestic. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Standing on the corner of 18th and Vine listening to jazz in Kansas City, Missouri is one of those pop culture travel mandates for jazz fans — in the same vein as standing on a corner in Winslow.

Arizona or crossing London’s Abbey Road barefoot is for rock n’ roll. It’s just one of those things you have to do.

The 18th and Vine reference is not one everyone gets, but if you know jazz, if you can hum the tune to “Goin’ to Kansas City,” you recognize that the 18th and Vine Historic District here is some place special.

Jazz in Kansas City

At one time almost 200 juke joints operated 24 hours a day there, pumping music into the street and creating a more mellow sound than that found in New Orleans. 

Sure, jazz was born in N’Orleans, but those who know this genre of music will tell you that Kansas City is where jazz grew up and gained an attitude.

Why Kansas City for Jazz? 

Located in the heartland of America, where the Midwest becomes the West, Kansas City is a crossroads of many cultures.

Known for its iconic Spanish architecture on the Country Club Plaza and as one of the great barbecue hubs of the U.S.

Kansas City’s influence on jazz comes from a time in the U.S. known as Prohibition – a 13-year period that began in 1920 when serving alcohol was illegal in this country.

Kansas City jazz players. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer
Kansas City jazz players. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

However, alcohol was flowing freely in Kansas City, thanks to a crime boss named Tom Pendergast who was not intimidated by a little thing like the U.S. Constitution.

Kansas City Jazz

Jazz musicians from around the world followed the alcohol and found their way to the jazz clubs of Kansas City, predominantly the 18th & Vine District.

 In so doing, they experienced a new freedom and energy that expressed itself through their music and became the Kansas City sound.

Where New Orleans jazz is dominated by brass, Kansas City jazz expresses itself with more piano and more bass. Part swing, part bee bop, Kansas City jazz is considered more bluesy.

Some call it “cool jazz.” It’s an earthy, sultry blend of melody, rhythm and harmony that feeds the soul of Kansas City as sure as barbecue feeds its body.

The American Jazz Museum

The American Jazz Museum shares space with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in a complex called The Museums of 18th and Vine.

Charlie Bird Parker’s saxophone is here and extensive exhibits on Ella Fitzgerald, Jay McShann, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, among many others.

They all attribute much of their success to Kansas City and the freedom they had to explore and grow in their craft.

A jazz performer. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer
A jazz performer in Kansas City. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Pick up head sets and listen to what distinguishes their sound and the Kansas City sound from others.

Listen in on jam sessions or take control of an audio board and see what a little more bass will do to a particular song. Then come back at night to the Blue Room for one of the best live jazz shows in the city.

Where to Experience Kansas City Jazz

True understanding of Kansas City jazz comes after a night in the Blue Room, a part of the American Jazz Museum.

This live performance venue was named for the nightclub in the basement of the Street Hotel, a popular Kansas City destination in the 1930s and 40s.

The Blue Room hosts listening parties to help teach adults about the uniqueness of Kansas City jazz.

Workshops featuring the music of Duke Ellington and other artists fill the calendar and across the street at the Gem Theatre.

Just around the corner from the Jazz Museum is the Mutual Musician’s Foundation, part union hall, rehearsal hall and jazz joint, which really gets hopping in the wee hours of the weekends. 

This place is recognized as the longest continuously operating jazz joint in the world and according to Playboy Magazine, one of the top 10 bars in the United States.

Kansas City is the place to go for great jazz. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer
Kansas City is the place to go for great jazz. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

It’s so special that the state of Missouri has granted special dispensation to serve alcohol past 3 AM; the booze here flows until 6 AM.

Each Saturday at midnight, the building is the site of a live radio jazz show on KCUR-FM, Kansas City’s public radio station.

A couple of other good places to hear jazz includes the basement of the Majestic Steakhouse on Broadway, the Drum Room of the Hilton President Hotel, and The Phoenix Jazz Bar.

Tips for Visiting Kansas City for Jazz

  • Keep conversation to a minimum at Kansas City jazz joints, otherwise you’ll receive some hefty frowns from regular patrons.
  • Save money on admission to the American Jazz Museum by purchasing one for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum as well. Both museums tell the story of this community in another time.
  • Cover charges are usually minimal – $5 to$10.
  • Learn more at www.visitkc.com

Author Bio: Based in the Kansas City metro, Diana Lambdin Meyer and her husband Bruce are both award-winning members of the Society of American Travel Writers. Follow their journeys around the globe @mojotraveler.com

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