It was a crazy little Kansas City moment.
A big white tent had been set up on the well-kept lawn of a public housing project half a block east of 12th Street and Paseo. Across the street, obliterated by time, was the corner of 12th and Vine. It’s no corner anymore — city planners realigned Vine Street decades ago — but the city has put up a fake street sign for tourists who come to see the famous intersection.
Now this patch of land has been named the “Goin’ to Kansas City Plaza at 12th Street and Vine,” and its Sunday-evening dedication ceremony capped three days of celebrating the city’s jazz scene (see “Wayward Son,” page 46). All the politicians were there to congratulate one another and to crack the proverbial champagne bottle. (Actually, it was lemonade from big plastic Thermoses, along with a few plates of cookies.) The grassy field was now ornamented with a treble-clef-shaped walkway and some historic plaques, and a row of parking spaces was painted to look like piano keys.
All to the good. If we aren’t going to have any actual jazz clubs at 12th and Vine, so-alive places where original art flows and flows and flows, free and uninhibited, moving all God’s children regardless of how liquored-up they are, the least we can do is reserve a little postage stamp of real estate where people can try to hear the mythical music in their heads and meditate on it a little.
So the park-dedication ceremony commenced. The introductions included one for Bobby Bryant, a saxophonist who recently moved here from Los Angeles. Bryant’s first several bars were an ear-splitting, dissonant cacophony, wild and chaotic, the kind of playing that makes jazz feel inaccessible to common people everywhere — but then some familiar refrains began to take to the breeze, and soon he was playing a slow, soulful, almost traditional version of “Amazing Grace.” The transition was stunning, especially since we’d all seen footage of that song providing comfort down in Louisiana. Here Bryant was, re-creating on his saxophone the last couple of devastating weeks still close on everyone’s mind — turmoil and chaos followed by a redemption song, which he then followed with wandering laments that felt like uncertainty, before ending up back in the major chords for a standard “amen” wrap-up. There it was: our world, reflected back at us, in art.
The man of the hour was Ollie Gates, barbecue baron and former parks board member. He’d helped shake down folks for the money to create the park. Gates told jokes, introduced dignitaries and politicians, and plugged his barbecue sauce. Mayor Kay Barnes gave the key to the city to Mike Stoller, who, with his partner, Jerry Leiber, wrote the lyrics to “Kansas City,” along with other classics too numerous to name. Leiber was unable to attend; also conspicuously absent from the stage was Star columnist Mike Hendricks, who had harped on the City Council so mercilessly that, just a few weeks ago, it finally officially recognized what had long been the city’s song, whether anyone passed an ordinance saying so or not.
Our city’s song. Quite possibly one of the coolest songs in the world.
“It was based on our imagination of this city,” Stoller said of “Kansas City” before naming a familiar list of hometown jazz greats whose music had influenced him and Leiber. “It was a fantasy for us,” Stoller said. “We were 19 years old. We lived in Los Angeles.”
Unfortunately, the Kansas City that Leiber and Stoller immortalized is now relegated to our fantasy, too. At least some of us who live here wish the raucous clubs were still open at 12th and Vine, wish there were more remnants of those glory days scattered throughout the city (at, say, 18th and Vine), wish we could still inspire a couple of L.A. hotshots to make a hit record out of their daydreams of this place.
But Sunday night’s celebration offered a glimpse of why none of that’s true anymore: Few of us are actually paying any attention to our original music.
Gates had orchestrated the ceremony to go like this: The musicians onstage — Leon Brady, Donald Cox, Horace Washington, Dwight Foster, Oscar Lucky Wesley, Orestie “Rusty” Tucker, Monroe “Monny” Nash and Eddie Saunders, all members of the Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz (a group to recognize and honor old-timers) — were to play “Kansas City” while the crowd marched across the street to dedicate the park. The symbolism was well-intentioned; while the band was singing about “goin’ to Kansas City,” we’d all be headed to, uh, 12th Street and Vine.
But this migration required the crowd, the mayor and the other city leaders to turn their backs on the musicians.
Which is why they missed the old men rollicking through the song the crowd was supposedly there to celebrate. They also missed the next song, which began after the musicians shouted out to one another to play “something bluesy” and then did — all to the benefit of a dozen of us who remained in the folding chairs in front of the stage, watching our own private, amazing jam session. The band followed that number with “Bye, Bye, Blackbird,” at which point an older woman, a redhead who had to be in her 70s (though she certainly didn’t look it), was so moved that she got up and started dancing on the grass in front of the stage — an easy hip swivel, sometimes a leg out, sometimes a spin. Her name was Billie Mahoney, and she, too, was an Elder Statesmen. “I danced in nightclubs with these guys back in the 1940s,” she later said, over the radiant music.
The crowd that had walked across the street milled around the new park for a while and then dissipated. A few people wandered back over to listen to solo after phenomenal solo by the elder virtuosos, before the band ended with “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”
Stoller made his way back over to the stage as soon as possible. Though he had to catch a plane, he grabbed the microphone to make amends for the fact that the crowd, in its haste to dedicate a symbolic park, had missed the actual music.
“Thank you all for everything that’s happened today, and especially thanks to this band,” he said, facing the musicians. “You are wonderful. Just fantastic. Just fantastic. Thank you.”
Yeah. What he said.