Allegations of racism and mismanagement spark a power struggle at the Mutual Musicians Foundation
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.
Formed in September, the nominating committee represents a challenge to the authority of the current leadership. The committee came together at the same time that the foundation saw a surge in membership applications, leading one member of the board, speaking in confidence, to describe it as a “plot.”
Reed, a singer, worked the door at the late-night jam sessions for four years. He remembers one night when a woman went out on the stoop with a cigarette. She told him that it felt like smoking in front of a house of worship. “That’s a special little place,” Reed says of the two-story building. “It’s sacred.”
Reed describes himself as a “political casualty.” He compares his struggle with that of a union organizer. He says Crow and the other 14 members of the board had abandoned the bylaws and caused the membership to dwindle and disengage. “They didn’t want any members,” Reed says. “I guess they felt members would be a problem.”
On this cold and cloudy Sunday, one of the regular bartenders, Charlie Minton, has set up a spread of cookies, soda pop and bottled water. Eventually, the board members assemble in the lounge and begin to talk about the election.
Horace Washington, a bandleader who is wearing a Monarchs cap, leads the meeting. Washington is on the foundation board but is not an officer. The president, Al Pearson, resigned in September. Virtually the entire board is on its way out; only one member decided to seek re-election.
A discussion about voting procedures exposes the battle lines between the board and those pushing for regime change. Reed warns that they might have to ask the Kansas City Election Board to monitor the vote. The board scoffs at the idea.
A woman with dreadlocks, who is sitting behind the drum kit, complains that the board had denied a membership application. The rejected applicant, Denyse Walcott, had made out her check to “MMF Plantation.” Betty Crow, a salon-aided redhead in a black sweater and peach scarf, says the application was “not acceptable.”
Once the procedures for the upcoming election day are settled, a few of the candidates talk about their visions for the foundation.
Toni Oliver, a singer, says she wants to see the foundation serve as a gathering place, educational facility and collective. “We need insurance,” she says. “If we get enough of us together, we might get medical coverage.”
Oliver also addresses the tension of recent months. “Don’t haggle over small things,” she says to applause.
By this time, Betty Crow has retreated to the foundation office, a small room off the lobby, and has shut the door.
The Mutual Musicians Foundation is unique. It has state permission to serve booze until 6 a.m. and it’s a National Historic Landmark. Designated as such by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1981, the foundation is one of only two national landmarks within Kansas City limits — the other is the Liberty Memorial.
The foundation traces its roots to the Negro Musicians Association, a benevolent organization created by the Musicians Protective Local No. 627. Local 627, which was also known as the Colored Musicians Union, purchased the Highland building in 1928. A 12-band event at Paseo Hall (now a Baptist church on Truman Road) raised the money to create a rehearsal room on the second floor and make other adaptations.
Will Matthews, an accomplished guitarist who plays in the Count Basie Orchestra, started going to the foundation in 1973, when he was a student at Lincoln High School. By then, the city’s white and black musicians’ unions had merged; the foundation was less a seat of power and more a place to play dominoes.
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.
Betty Crow stops at a table where an older man appears to be using Reed’s guide as he chooses his candidates. “This is not the official ballot,” she says. He keeps the sheet close at hand.
Crow is a former bank vice president. She was 61 years old when her husband, Fran, was killed in a car accident. To fill the void, Crow and her sister, Elsa, began to check out jazz clubs and fish fries hosted by the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation.
In 1994, Crow married a retired construction project manager named Bill Cox. They liked to go to the foundation on Wednesday mornings and listen to Elmer Price, Oliver Todd, Henry Hoard and others play music and swap stories.
Crow and Cox began to help out around the foundation. Cox worked with a crew that rebuilt a floor. Before the repair, carpet covered a hole behind the bar where a joist had rotted. “It needed attention,” Crow tells The Pitch in a brief phone interview. “We were interested in keeping it going because it’s a wonderful institution.”
Besides helping with the physical improvements, Crow and her husband tried to get a handle on the foundation’s paperwork, which was a mess. Crow and Cox paid outstanding debts and worked to establish a new board of directors.
Cox died January 5, 2003, as a result of a head injury. (He had fallen while taking down Christmas lights.) Later that year, Crow stepped in to replace the foundation’s secretary, who had resigned. (The departed secretary was Lisa Henry, who has been among the leaders of the current revolt; Henry declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Work at the foundation continued. The staff of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Miller Nichols Library began to remove and archive the hundreds of publicity shots and group photos that the foundation had accumulated. Haphazardly displayed with pushpins or masking tape in the lounge, some images had disappeared over the years. The board decided to reduce the cost of theft and display digital copies of the originals.
John O’Brien, a foundation supporter who owns the Dolphin art gallery in the West Bottoms, helped with that project. He framed the reproductions and worked on the presentation of Local 627’s parade banner from 1930. He also wrote a grant proposal to the William T. Kemper Foundation, which donated $10,000 for the image archiving.
The corporate structure also changed. On January 21, 2004, a lawyer who had been approached by members of the Mutual Musicians Foundation board incorporated an entity called the Historic Jazz Foundation. Crow, Pearson, Mamie Hughes (a former county legislator and head of the Black Economic Union) and others set up the 501(c)(3) charitable organization, which says its mission is to preserve and promote the Mutual Musicians Foundation.
Crow says incorporating as a nonprofit was an effort to make the foundation more attractive to donors. Gifts to the Mutual Musicians Foundation, which the IRS considers a social club, aren’t tax-deductible.
Then, last March, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II announced that he had obtained a $143,000 earmark for the efforts to archive Mutual Musicians Foundation images and sound. The earmark designated the Historic Jazz Foundation as the recipient.
To hear some tell it, Crow’s association with Mutual Musicians Foundation became tenuous the day Cleaver arrived with an oversized novelty check. McMillan says the money brought out “opportunists” whose interest in the foundation piqued, in some or large part, because they saw an opportunity to make a buck. Cleaver, McMillan says, “might as well have had a rope and hang Betty Crow right there.”
A few months after Cleaver presented the check, the Mutual Musicians Foundation board received a letter from Paul Tancredi, an attorney who had been hired by a group of disgruntled foundation members.
Tancredi’s letter advised the board to pay closer attention to the foundation’s bylaws. The bylaws, among other things, call for the election of officers every two years.
It was a first attempt to pry Crow’s fingers from control over the foundation. Even her admirers say the grip was tight. One foundation member, who did not want to be named, says Crow should have shared more responsibility. “She was like a mother hen,” the member says.
Crow had achieved a lot. But in the process, the rank and file had become disengaged.
Henry was among those leading the effort to redistribute power. As chair of the nominating committee, Henry approached the job like a prosecutor. On October 12, she sent the foundation board a request for information. The list was extensive. In addition to financial reports, Henry asked for grant information, vendor lists and five years’ worth of band bookings.
Henry also questioned UMKC’s stewardship of the photo collection and asked the board to answer the “rumor” that the Historic Jazz Foundation represented a takeover of the foundation. The letter, finally, painted Crow as a bigot, citing “several reports of musicians and lay people who … have believed their treatment by Betty Crow to be less than hospitable, and downright racist.”
Crow and the board did not respond to the committee. Crow tells The Pitch that the racism charge is “not something I would even want to answer to.”
Two weeks later, Henry wrote to Cleaver, restating her grievances and suspicions. She asked that the congressman retitle the earmark so that the Historic Jazz Foundation did not receive the money.
The nominating committee presented its slate of candidates on November 25. The committee distributed its slate under “duress and protest,” citing the lack of cooperation from the existing board. The document, distributed via group e-mail, included definitions from Black’s Law Dictionary.
The parliamentary-tinted dramatics annoyed some foundation members. Bobby Watson, a saxophone player and the director of jazz studies at the UMKC Conservatory of Music, fired off a “reply all” that called the duress-and-protest rhetoric “[b]ullshit and a personal matter.”
“Let’s just get the process started without the drama,” Watson continued. “This does nobody any good and makes one hesitant to come on board. I am sick of this shit!”
Veteran saxophone player Ahmad Alaadeen suggested that anyone feeling under duress should resign. He added: “The Foundation is for musicians and the music, not for anyone’s political agenda.”
In any event, change was on the way. The one board member who ran for re-election, Celeste Rogers Reed, lost. “I think the membership has spoken,” Rogers Reed tells The Pitch. Asked about the harsh words used in the weeks leading up to the election, Rogers Reed says: “I might have done it in a different way, but it needed to be heard.” (Rogers Reed and Ray Reed are not related.)
Will Matthews won the president’s race. “The members wanted change,” he says. “They wanted to be involved again.”
Once in office, the new leaders immediately began to reassess the partnerships established during Crow’s time.
One of those relationships was with Mark Edelman, the director of Theatre League. In July 2009, Theatre League began putting on live radio broadcasts of 12 O’Clock Jump, a sort of blues-and-jazz version of A Prairie Home Companion, from the foundation.
Matthews’ tone suggested he and others felt that Theatre League was taking advantage of the foundation. In his e-mail, Matthews described Theatre League as “a multi-million dollar entity.”
Edelman suggests the foundation’s leaders are mistaken if they believe 12 O’Clock Jump is a moneymaker. KCUR 89.3 in Kansas City is the only station to carry the show. “We are paying for all of this,” Edelman tells The Pitch.
As for Cleaver’s $143,000 earmark, it remains the property of the U.S. Department of Education. Crow says the Historic Jazz Foundation “has not drawn down any money for the planned projects.”
Elected as an at-large member of the board, Ray Reed says the Mutual Musicians Foundation’s new leadership has asked the Historic Jazz Foundation’s organizers to discuss how the groups will coexist. “They just don’t want to meet with the board for some reason,” he says.
Reed is back in charge of what he calls “entry control” at the foundation. On a recent Friday afternoon, he was manning the office when a visitor arrived. He found the novelty check that Cleaver had delivered in the spring. It was hidden behind a file cabinet, in recognition of its uncertain status.