Amid Kansas City's failure to preserve and redevelop 18th Street and Vine — a historic business district that flourished during segregation and a cradle of the jazz that put Kansas City on world maps — the Mutual Musicians Foundation has kept the beat.
Nearby, the American Jazz Museum requires a $550,000 annual subsidy from the City of Kansas City, Missouri. Ideas about the proper recognition of Buck O'Neil divide the leadership of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The district's main redevelopment agency can't seem to fill storefronts or rehab the fragile, old homes in its care.
But the foundation is different.
In a former union hall for black musicians, the foundation endures as a social club, after-school program for young music students, performance space and speakeasy. At late-night jam sessions, which begin after 1 a.m. on weekends, musicians cut loose before an audience of jazz lovers, hipsters and dipsomaniacs in a tradition that dates back to 1930. "The history is very, very thick," says Brad Williams, a percussionist who sometimes performs there.
On most blocks within the 18th and Vine District, vibrancy feels either lost or manufactured. That gives an even warmer glow to the neon treble clef above the foundation's front door.
But in the past year, the pink stucco building at 1823 Highland has been visited by tribulations from which it seemed immune.
In December, the foundation's 100-odd members installed a new board of directors. Many of those members were new to the cause. In the weeks leading up to the election, a local singer suggested that the old board had allowed the foundation's legacy to be "pimped." The singer, Lisa Henry, branded Betty Crow, the foundation's secretary and driving force, a racist.
Crow is 80 years old and twice widowed. Her supporters say she is anything but prejudiced. "My God, if she were, I don't think she'd spend the considerable amount of time and money to do what's going on down there," says Mike White, a lawyer and member of the volunteer Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors. Ron McMillan, a community activist, says Crow is "heartbroken" by recent events.
McMillan, who is black, calls Crow a "godsend" and an "angel." Crow made some mistakes, McMillan says. But he's upset that she came to be cast as a villain. "I respect what Miss Betty was doing," McMillan says, "because a lot of our own folk weren't doing it."
Grace Temple, a stone church off 18th and Vine, empties its worshippers into the street. A few doors down, a different sanctuary begins to swell.
It's a Sunday afternoon in late November. Musicians and jazz supporters are gathering at the Mutual Musicians Foundation to affirm their memberships. Just a few months earlier, the number of foundation members in good standing (annual dues: $65) could fit in a small room. But in the course of the afternoon, dozens of performers and music aficionados, as well as those with only a loose connection to Kansas City jazz, will pass under the treble clef.
Wearing a fedora, black suit and polka-dot tie, Ray Reed moves between the lobby and the lounge, a room on the first floor with honey-colored wood paneling. He retrieves a copy of the foundation's bylaws for a man with a question about the proceedings. "This is the bible," Reed says. "Just like at church."
Reed was the doorman at the foundation until Betty Crow fired him in October. Though he's no longer collecting $8 cover charges late at night, Reed remains active in foundation affairs. He's part of a nominating committee that has selected candidates to run for positions on the foundation's board.