What is that something that happens when suddenly a concentration of people at a certain place during a certain time becomes something more than just another pit of humanity and becomes a seething thing with a life of its own? Did anyone regularly walking the streets of Haight-Ashbury or Athens during Pericles or Paris at the turn of the century ever comprehend that they were truly in it? If they were part of a time and place that would be remembered in history? When I look around 18th and Vine now, a seemingly isolated and weirdly clean part of urban Kansas City, it seems impossible that at one time it was such a place, vital and alive and reverberating with a cultural revolution.
Well, I've been to Kansas City, girls
and everything is really alright.
The boys jump and swing until broad daylight.
Yes, I dreamed last night I was
standing on 18th and Vine.
I shook hands with Piney Brown and
I could hardly keep from crying.
In the 1920's, 18th and Vine became one of these places. The combination of the Pendergast Machine, the popularity of the Negro Leagues, and the emergence of jazz made the 18th and Vine district a hotbed of cultural big bang-dom, with black musicians, athletes, and people of all colors who loved good music and dancing. At a time when segregation was a way of life, this area of town was a self-contained city for, about and by blacks, full of flourishing commerce and culture. The Negro leagues were expanding, bringing athletes with incomes and black-owned businesses lined the streets, along with taxi dance halls and juke joints, professional buildings and theaters. Stores where blacks could shop, unlike the stores for whites downtown, provided the wares of life. A fever filled the streets; people would come together to showcase their talents, pulling together impromptu jam sessions and contests, while those who appreciated the jazz and swing danced it up. The mid-western Beale Street produced such greats as Joe Turner, Lester Young and Mary Lou Williams. These people were the very ones to birth jazz as a musical form. Charlie Parker grew up in the streets and alleyways of the district, honing his chops. Count Basie played the organ for the Eblon theater and James Scott was a musicial director at both the Eblon and Panama Theaters.
The Musician's Protective Union, Local 627 was founded in 1917 to further the interests of musicians, and from this union grew a regular gathering on Saturday nights where musicians from rival groups would gather and jam. The union would also promote battles of the bands and give a venue for sparring groups, constantly changing lineups and members to have it out in the court of public opinion. Since 1930, the union has occupied the same building. Now called the Musician's Foundation and marked by a glowing red treble clef, you can partake of some very fine musicians improvising and slamming licks.
I can tell you that it is a real experience to be sitting in the Musician's Foundation at 3:30 in the morning listening to an obviously withdrawn and quiet young man belt out some delicately wrenching dalliances on his horn and then nodding with a slight incline of his head in acknowledgment of the wave of appreciation in the crowd. You can almost feel that spark of that heat lightning that must have been everywhere around you eighty years ago. Every so often the tip jar is passed around and people make their offerings as whomever stands up to the microphone to remind everyone that this exchange has been happening here for many many years and that they appreciate our patronage.