But ever since the city's Regulated Industries office ordered the place to stop serving liquor, the foundation has lost the patrons who used to stay until the sun rose.
On September 22, a pair of Kansas City, Missouri, police officers happened to stop by the foundation, according to Vic Cook, acting manager of Regulated Industries. The two cops discovered that the place was selling liquor without a liquor license and serving it later than anyone else in town, until 5 a.m. The lawmen didn't fine the foundation, but they told its manager, Betty Crow, to square the rules with the city.
The foundation's 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. jam sessions date back to the 1930s, when musicians began retreating to the place after paying gigs elsewhere. As liquor laws tightened over the years, the powers that be at Regulated Industries looked the other way, and the foundation danced around city ordinances by accepting "donations" for beer.
The foundation closed for a night before reopening, serving only chips and soda from the bar. Crow says the jam sessions haven't been the same since. "It's just part of the ambience," she says. "You can't have a late-night jazz session without, you know, a little bit of liquor."
That sad fact was evident at the foundation last Saturday. Just after 2 a.m., the late-night crowd should have been pouring into the building at 18th Street and Highland with the little neon treble clef over the door. But upstairs, a few musicians played to an audience of none.
Downstairs, the situation was a little less depressing. Onstage, elder organist and foundation board member Everett DeVan jammed with two young guitarists, Matt Hopper and Michael Stevenson. Two soulful singers, Ebony Fondren and Lisa Collins, treated eight onlookers to classic songs as the sleepy-looking drummer kept perfect time. A couple of people watching swiped percussion blocks and shakers from a nearby table and jammed along with the pros.
After a night of drinking elsewhere, foundation patron Daniel Bartle, a 27-year-old illustrator at the HOK architecture firm, felt his head growing heavy listening to DeVan's silky Hammond organ. Noting the freezing weather, he said, "They could really use some coffee or hot chocolate. I mean, for an $8 donation, you should have some gourmet blended coffee to sip and slip your own splash of Bailey's into."
As DeVan and his fellow musicians sustained the groove, the audience, unable to sustain its buzz, moved on.
"What people don't understand is, this was the last speakeasy in the United States," DeVan tells the Pitch. "They've been serving liquor there since 1908. There is a drop-off in customers now. People did like to come drink."
Public-radio pledge drives are often agonizing for listeners like us, with our favorite music and shows held hostage by amateur hosts.
But just a few minutes before 8 a.m. last Thursday, this painful ritual got hilariously goofy over at KCUR 89.3. Deep in a pledge break that had otherwise been chockablock with clichés and happy chat, a woman named Pat steered the talk somewhere Kim Noble never would have: "Cokie Roberts has had two face-lifts," Pat announced, apropos of nothing. "That's the kind of gossip you get when you pledge."
A silence followed.
"Maybe I shouldn't have said that," Pat continued. Then, apologetically, she added, "Cokie looks great and is a great correspondent."
Uh, not exactly. Roberts' face-lifts have left the NPR and ABC correspondent appearing pink, puckered and laminated and they're as much a secret as Sam Donaldson's rug or Ray Suarez's necklessness.
But they're something that the polite pundit classes wouldn't ever mention, so we were a little thrilled.
Imagine if this type of truth-telling were to catch on with the pros: KSHB Channel 41's Mark Clegg telling us to stay tuned for Jay Leno, "Even though he sucks eight kinds of ass." Or KMBZ 980's Lisa Carter throwing it back to Jerry Agar with an "Are you going to make any more single mothers cry today?"
Before too long, we heard, someone had called to donate in support of face-lifts. But the female Pat was off the air yanked, we imagined, in some producer's neurotic fit about what the blabby amateur might say next.
Further investigation on our part, however, revealed that our moment of glee had been provided by none other than station manager and former broadcaster Patricia Cahill. "Sometimes I'm surprised by what comes out of my mouth," she later told us. Pledge drives, it seems, must be just as agonizing for folks on the other side of the mic as they are for us. The Slimfast diet: plenty of ink. The city dries up a Jazz District staple. And public radio listeners learn Cokie's secret.