Virtually all of the old hot spots from the city's jazz heyday have been demolished. Most of the original bebop cats are dead. There are more faux storefronts around 18th and Vine than actual businesses, and most of the once-thriving 1800 block of Highland Avenue waits for the mercy of the wrecking ball.
Except for the building at 1823. That's where the sweet strains of a squealing sax, a thumping bass and a shrieking trumpet still waft into the street at 3 a.m. on any Sunday. And 3 a.m. is just when the party's getting started at the Mutual Musician's Foundation.
For all those laments about jazz's perpetually imminent death in Kansas City, the music still thrives in many a shadowy corner. And the foundation is perhaps the region's greatest link between the days of yore and the here and now. It's an heirloom passed down for 100 years, after what began in the union hall for the Black Musician's Local 627 blossomed into one of the hottest late-night jazz jams in the country.
During the golden years, it wasn't uncommon to see Charlie Parker, Jay McShann, Bennie Moten and Count Basie burning the midnight oil around the foundation. And nowadays, even when top-notch talent plays the Blue Room or the Gem, nothing seems quite as gritty and pure as the Friday and Saturday night sessions at the foundation. Indeed, the real show is often after the concert, when any number of touring musicians might surface at 1823 Highland.
The surrounding neighborhood was quiet when I arrived. No, it was dead. The Hotel Rochester next door was boarded up and dormant. A sad row of sagging, condemned houses across the street slumped behind a chain-link fence, waiting to be torn down. But the foundation? The foundation was very much alive.
An assorted lot of musicians, aficionados, hipsters, drunks and anonymous night owls stood by the bar or hunched around the small tables crammed into the small room on the foundation's first floor, its walls dotted with yellowing photos of Coleman Hawkins, Quincy Garner and others.
All ears, if not eyes, were on the impromptu ensemble huddled in the corner, belting out jam after jam. One gray-haired drummer kept the beat rumbling while a young pianist tickled a melody. An elderly man in a tuxedo smiled brightly as he plucked the upright bass; a sweating, wild-eyed upstart in a polo shirt tilted his head to the heavens and made his saxophone cry.
An aging chanteuse in a slinky cocktail dress waited for her chance to scat into the microphone while a fresh-faced young man in baggy jeans sat patiently with his trumpet at the ready. Old men in tweed caps absorbed the music quietly while bleary-eyed college kids sipped the Miller High Life bottles they had smuggled in.
But for all the disparities among its clientele, there was a communal feel, an unspoken declaration of companionship fueled by the music until sunrise broke the spell.