18th and Vine Kansas City's 'Creole Corner'

John Mooney
John Mooney

By John Mooney WMPG DJ Tuesday's Groove Yard Shift 6:30-8:30 am

Once upon a time, in another century, Kansas City lit up the American musical landscape with the flash and boom of a midwestern thunderstorm. The eye of this melodious maelstrom was the vicinity surrounding 18th and Vine Streets. While New York¹s Harlem, South Central Los Angeles and Chicago's 'Black Belt' neighborhoods were certainly more populated and spread out, when it came to vibrant African-American communities, Kansas City, Missouri's 18th and Vine district was second to none from the 1930's to the 1960's.

A once quiet city on the banks of the Missouri River, Kansas City's rise to prominence resulted from the confluence of two events. The first being the passage of the 1920 Prohibition Act, a law banning the sale and consumption of alcohol nationwide, and the other was Kansas City's all powerful political boss, Tom Pendergast, who looked the other way when liquor, graft, gambling and other illegalities were involved creating a good time Mecca where tourists and musicians alike migrated to this city in search of pre-prohibition fun, fame and fortune and earning the nickname 'Paris of the Plains'.

Since segregation was also the way of the land, African-Americans congregated around 18th and Vine. So how and why do people of African heritage wind up in a city far from any ocean and in the middle of America's flat, hot, dusty Great Plains? Rivers and opportunities. Some 14 years after the conclusion of the Civil War, the 'Exodus of 18s79' commenced and thousands of former slaves abandoned the Deep South primarily from Tennessee, Mississippi and New Orleans seeking relief from discrimination and poverty. Scores of these families traveled upriver on the Mississippi to St. Louis, where the Missouri River empties into the Big Muddy. Here many steamed west on the Missouri until they arrived in and around Kansas City. It was these pioneers who settled and laid the foundation of a district that would eventually be one of the most famous addresses in jazz: 18th and Vine.

With the relaxation of liquor and gambling laws, Kansas City flourished and became renowned for music that 'jumped' attracting both famous and aspiring musicians. They came from all over bringing with them their regionally flavored music. Texas tenor man Buddy Tate once quipped about a youngster "from Jersey" whom he met in Kansas City. Of him Tate said, "I knew Basie before he could Count." There was Mary Lou Williams from Atlanta, the legendary Lester Young, a Mississippi native, and Chicago's Jo Jones to name but a few. Oklahoma born piano man Jay McShann came to town in 1937 and has never left. But it wasn't as if Kansas City did not have any home grown talent to mix it up with these musical émigrés. Big Joe Turner, Buck Clayton, Hot Lips Paige, Pete Johnson, Ben Webster and Frank Wess all were locals who went on to hang with and join the pedigrees of jazz. They performed in venues with names like The Cherry Blossom, Gem Theater, Hey Hay Club and Lucille's Paradise. There were restaurants serving, steaks, chops, barbeque and soul food. Clothing stores, barber shops, beauty shops, doctors and lawyers and even the 'New York Yankee's' of the Negro Baseball League-The Kansas City Monarchs- resided here.

The 18th and Vine district was an energetic self-contained community that musically never slept. One of the most popular and lucrative meetinghouses to play and socialize in was on 18th and Highland Streets. It was Musicians Union Local 627, the largest Black Union Local in America. Jam sessions could be a 24/7 affair. Most of these jams would begin by laying down a bed of slow, smoldering 12 bar blues letting cats solo or ensemble on top of it with whatever garnish suited their musical fancy. Could be mellow blues, could be jump blues, but all Count Basie knew was ³It would swing² and this music became the signature of Kansas City jazz. In Union Local 627, 'territory bands' were formed providing a disparate collection of musicians steady work and steady pay for months at a time. From here, they would tour in every direction. They could go west into Oklahoma City and Denver or south to Houston and Austin. They even played in New Orleans; a former slave port where some of their ancestors arrived from Africa via Cuba, Hispanola (Haiti) and Charleston, South Carolina and in completing some kind of poignant circle, they would play their gig there and leave town with a pocket full of ash and the sound of applause ringing in their ears. Eventually, they would return to KC, hitch on with another group and hit the road again jumping and jamming with a new set of band mates. This was the essence of the Kansas City jazz scene. And then, in walked Bird. In the 1940's it was local resident Charlie Parker who was sewing seeds and tending the garden of a type of sound that would profoundly alter the direction of jazz. His fingers rhythmically ran up and down his saxophone lightening-like and with frenetic purpose. Everybody noticed. Dizzy Gillespie said of Parker "We heard him and knew the music had to go his way, he was the other half of my heartbeat." Dizz and Bird (short for the nickname 'Yardbird' given to him by one time collaborator Jay McShann) jammed together inside of Union Local 627. Heavyweights in the likes of Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon made pilgrimages to Kansas City to bathe in and gain inspiration from those magical notes flying from the horn of Bird's alto sax. It was big music. It was the birth of Bop. Music and businesses of all kinds thrived until desegregation made landfall in the late 1950's/early 1960's which, ironically, bought to an end 18th and Vine's heyday. Now people were free to live and shop anywhere they pleased. And they did.

A harbinger of things to come was when Jackie Robinson left the Monarchs to play second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. This breaking of the color barrier rang in a new era for Major League Baseball but tolled the death knell of the Negro Baseball League and for the community surrounding 18th and Vine. One by one the restaurants and music clubs closed. The community scattered. Musicians moved on and territory bands hit the road never to return. What remains today is the Union Local 627 (now called the 'Mutual Musicians Foundation) where musicians still gather and jam. The Gem Theater remains and the Kansas City Jazz Museum sits on the corner of 18th and Vine. The museum is a wonderful testament to Kansas City Jazz history but KC does not only glory in its past as Saxophonist Bobby Watson and Singer Kevin Mahogany cast huge shadows on today's national jazz landscape. A joyful noise is also being made by soul singer Ida McBeth as well as a pride of young jazz lions waiting in the wings to make a name for themselves.

Kansas City is one of the few American cities where jazz can be heard seven days a week and its venues are spread out all over town like the pungent barbeque sauce KC is so famous for. Except for Florence, Italy no other city in the world boasts more fountains and between the water, barbeque and music, it isn't a stretch to realize that Kansas City is a cultural island retreat on America's Great Plains and, musically speaking, 18th and Vine, an intersection where many musicians from many places congregated and crafted a unique sound, is the jazz worlds 'Creole Corner'.
Oak City Band
Oak City Band