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Orville Minor, Samuel "Baby" Lovett, Arthur Mitchell and other jazz elders listened to Matthews play. Private lessons had shown him technique; the men at the foundation taught him how to perform. "Some were tough and used very colorful language," he says. "Others were a little more gentle in trying to get their point across."
Today, Matthews performs regularly at the late-night sessions on the second floor. At 1:15 a.m. on a recent Sunday, he was part of a four-piece band that opened the nocturnal festivities with "Dolphin Dance," a song Herbie Hancock recorded in the 1960s. Later in the set, singer Emily Frost sat in for a couple of tunes. "It's a little late, and I had a gig tonight," Frost, a petite blonde, explained to anyone in the audience who might have felt that she mishandled the bolero "What a Diff'rence a Day Made."
Late nights at the foundation allow the musicians to push boundaries. "It's a place where you come and try things and experiment and stretch and take the music in directions you may not get to take it when you're playing other engagements," Matthews says.
The tradition fell into jeopardy after a visit from law enforcement in the fall of 2006. Two Kansas City, Missouri, police officers entered the foundation late one night and witnessed beer and liquor passing across a counter in exchange for "donations." Liquor agents ordered that the gift exchange stop.
Cries arose from the jazz community and beyond. Boosters who knew nothing about the music were angry that the police had not found a way to disregard what they had seen at the foundation.
A solution had to come from Jefferson City. To that end, state Rep. Mike Talboy of Kansas City introduced a bill creating an exemption.
When the bill came up for discussion, a busload of foundation supporters was on hand to speak in its favor. Lawmakers responded. Drink glasses clinked again at 1823 Highland.
Crow received the lion's share of the publicity as the story unfolded. It created resentment. "Betty, she just wanted all the credit and notoriety for the foundation for herself," Reed says.
A section of the jazz community also felt that Crow had allowed the late-night jams to overshadow other foundation efforts and traditions, such as the summer jazz camp. Crow liked to play up the sinful nature of the late nights; she was prone to use the word "risqué" and speak it with a smile.
Last spring, a travel writer from The New York Times visited the foundation. Crow met him at the front door at midnight. The subsequent article emphasized the party atmosphere, not the importance of Bennie Moten and Jay McShann. "The point is to get bombed, listen to loud music and dance," the Timesman wrote.
It's the afternoon of December 6. For the second consecutive Sunday, the foundation's doors have opened at an hour that's closer to worship time than the jazz hour.
Election day has come, and foundation members — some of whom are eligible, having paid their $16.25 dues for one quarter — are voting for new leaders. A few use the lacquered surface of the white piano in the downstairs lounge to fill out their ballots.
Ray Reed, wearing a leather jacket embossed with Negro League team patches, distributes a voting guide. His name is on it. In fact, four of the five members of the nominating committee are running for office, including Will Matthews, a candidate for president.