The City Forces the Foundation to Go Sober

We’re accustomed to hearing about Regulated Industries, the city’s department that lords over liquor licenses and strip clubs, ruining a good time. But by disrupting business at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, the office is messing with a Kansas City institution.

It all went down September 22, when a pair of Kansas City, Missouri, police officers happened to stop by the famous jazz jam session at 1823 Highland, 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 Foundation has always operated in a gray area, a sort of bubble of law-breaking within the city’s good graces. The Foundation’s 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. jam sessions date back to the 1930s. Musicians would relax and jam together after finishing 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, accepting “donations” for beer. The illegal liquor sales helped it survive as one of the only spots of economic activity within the much-talked-about-but-little-visited Jazz District.

After the pair of cops stumbled upon the Foundation’s late-night liquor sales, they approached Betty Crow, who manages the place. The lawmen didn’t fine the Foundation, but they told Crow to square the liquor violations with the city.

“We had always been grandfathered in,” Crow says of the liquor laws. “But now they’ve decided maybe we weren’t grandfathered in and should be like everybody else. Which is too bad, really, because we are one of the most important jazz places in the United States.”

Crow brought the problem to her fellow members of the board that oversees the Foundation. They decided to close down one night on September 24 while they figured out what to do. Crow stayed at the door until 5 a.m. to greet visitors and explain the situation.

The Foundation reopened, serving free chips and soda. But late-night venues don’t do well without liquor. A recent Saturday night session was sparsely attended.

Chuck Haddock, local music historian and host of the Fish Fry radio show on 89.3 KCUR, is furious that the city poured a bucket of cold water over its hottest weekly jazz fest. “You would think the Kansas City police would have something better to do than interfere with the longest-running jam session in the history of the world — and the business of a federal historic landmark,” he fumes.

All of the Foundation’s options seem equally distasteful. The city could issue the Foundation a tavern license or a catering license, which would allow the place to serve until 1:30 a.m., when it would have to close, ending the tradition of performers arriving after other shows. Or the Foundation could give away beer and stay open all night – but in that case, no money can change hands for admission, either – not even in the form of donations.

Crow says the Foundation’s board is trying to figure out how it can survive without liquor sales. The only other source of income is the cover charge, which was $8 on a recent Saturday night. “Because after all, we’ve always been one of the keys to tourism,” she says. “We’ve still got great jazz. We can still stay open until whatever hours we want to. Jazz is the main thing for us.”

As for Cook, of Regulated Industries, he’s never been to the Foundation. “If I do get down there to enjoy the music, I hope I don’t see illegal alcohol,” he says.

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