Bad Notes

Knowing how important jazz is to the history of Kansas City, your proteinaceous pontificator has paid several visits to the American Jazz Museum at 18th Street and Vine, seeking to learn everything it can by gazing at Charlie Parker‘s alto saxophone and Ella Fitzgerald‘s American Express card.

OK, maybe not exactly. The Strip will confess that over the last few visits, its motives haven’t always been pure. You see, last fall, local blogger Happy in Bag wrote about his disappointing evening at the museum’s attached nightclub, the Blue Room. The guy was pissed after finding a display in disarray — the sleeve for the Mary Lou Williams album The Lady Who Swings the Band had fallen and was leaning against its glass case. Eight weeks later, the guy returned, and the Williams tribute was still a mess. Happy in Bag had been willing to give the museum the benefit of the doubt, but now he complained about the neglect: “The staff either doesn’t know or care about the problem.”

The Strip went to check it out. As this swingin’ sirloin sauntered through the aisles of vintage photos, records and instruments associated with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, it couldn’t help noticing the museum’s kinks. A film about the history of jazz was besieged by a “please replace the lamp” warning at the bottom of the screen. “This station is being repaired,” read the sticker attached to a TV screen meant to show the Duke Ellington Orchestra. One stop on the Thinking in Jazz exhibit was just a shell; someone — a maintenance worker, we hope — had ripped out its burnt-out monitor. And sure enough, the Mary Lou Williams record was leaning against the glass.

It was enough to make any slab of meat sing the blues. A couple of months later, in January, the Strip got to thinking. It had just read about how the Bring New Orleans Back cultural committee had recommended building an all-in-one museum, archive, performance hall and recording studio to help reinvigorate the devastated city. Hell, the Strip figured, Kansas City should donate its own jazz museum to needy New Orleans — that way, we’d help the cause and unload an embarrassment all at once!

The Strip chewed on that idea until March, when City Auditor Mark Funkhouser put out a report on agencies outside City Hall that get big chunks of Kansas Citians’ money. The city contributes nearly a third of the American Jazz Museum’s annual budget — $674,000 in each of the last two years. Funkhouser’s auditing team, JMA Chartered, wrote that the museum hadn’t been keeping track of “the fixed assets, artifacts, and collectibles under its control” but owned by the city. Moreover, for the second year in a row, the museum hadn’t put money from charitable donors — to the tune of $87,250 in 2005 — into an endowment account. And, auditors said, authorized personnel weren’t preapproving expenditures.

Back to the museum this cranky cutlet went. The big-screen TV had been fixed, but the Ellington monitor was busted, and now a photo had come unglued. Thinking in Jazz was still a shell. In the Blue Room, the Williams record remained where it had been in October — and other items in cases along the Blue Room’s wall were jacked up, too. As the Strip snooped around, a DVD playing jazz performances in the background started skipping.

This perturbed patty went back to its office and put in a call to the museum’s executive director, Juanita Moore. Unbelievably, when the Strip informed Moore of its beef, Moore blamed the Strip!

“You should have been nice and said something to someone that it was broken,” Moore railed. “But you didn’t want to? That wasn’t nice of you.”

“This isn’t on me,” the Strip shot back.

“It is if you really care about it,” Moore retorted, saying the Strip didn’t need an appointment to talk to her. She flamed this startled steak a little more: “I’m a little bit disappointed in you.”

Well, the Strip was also disappointed — in Moore and her museum. Isn’t it the museum director’s job to make sure that things don’t get screwed up in the first place, instead of relying on visitors to point out when things need fixing? Or to maybe take a walk through the place every once in a while so that displays don’t stay screwed up for six months?

Days later, the Strip met with Moore. This blog-reading burger gave her a copy of Happy in Bag’s critical piece.

“What’s a blog?” Moore asked.

After the Strip explained that a blog is an Internet journal (a Web log), Moore assured the Strip that the Blue Room displays had since been fixed. After the Strip’s call, she had, in fact, found the displays in question messed up. She’d done some digging herself and discovered that the vibrations from bands playing in the Blue Room have been jarring the exhibits. She didn’t blame the jazz musicians, though. Instead, she blamed the happy-hour band, which she called more contemporary and much louder. She also blamed the patrons, who, she said, accidentally bump the cases when they move the tables.

Moore lamented the fact that the Jazz Museum is nearly a decade old. Much of the technology is out of date, she said, pointing to the Ellington monitor.

“A number of the things now, in order to replace them, we have to send them to England to get parts because they’re old,” Moore said. “It’s constantly needing repair just for the fact that it is old and technology is changing and they run … six days a week and everything is constantly on and the wear and tear and use of it is tremendous.”

Moore, the museum’s director of operations and programs in the ’90s, took over from the museum’s founding director, Rowena Stewart, in April 2002. (Previously, Moore was the executive director of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, from 1991-96.) She’s already planning a redesign of the permanent exhibit. She says things will be completely different, but it will take a minimum of three years. “That’s a million-dollar project,” Moore said. “It really is. But that’s our goal. It’s a dream, but it’s a dream that’s definitely going to become a reality.”

When it came to Funkhouser’s audit, Moore told the Strip that her crew had addressed the findings immediately. In 2004, auditors found that the Jazz Museum’s “accounting records were incomplete and fraught with errors and omissions.” The museum solved the problem by hiring a new finance director, she said. Regarding the endowment, she said, “Even before the city wrote that report, that money was paid [to the endowment]. You will see that that won’t be a problem this year.”

When it came to the “fixed assets, artifacts and collectibles under its control,” Moore said the museum staff didn’t realize that was their responsibility.

“We just assumed the city was handling it,” Moore said. “We assumed responsibility for the collection. We didn’t assume responsibility for every table, chair … which was never quite our understanding.”

The Strip’s glad all that’s settled now.

Moore got sentimental and explained why she loves her work: People go to museums because they want to be there. And, yeah, she said, she understood how a busted display might offend jazz lovers. But then she lit into everyone who didn’t speak up.

“It’s like I asked you, what is a blog?” she said. “Who is supposed to read [that]? Is somebody who’s going to fix the problem going to read the blog? That’s my point. So tell somebody.”

Er, the Strip will, but it hopes it won’t have to. It hopes museum visitors won’t see messed-up displays in the first place. At the very least, it hopes someone checks the Mary Lou Williams case after every jumpin’ happy hour.

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