Few neighborhoods I’ve visited are as rich in history and culture as the 18th & Vine District in Kansas City, Missouri. The area had become the center of Kansas City’s African American community by the 1920s and was a hotbed for jazz, with legends like Big Joe Turner and Charlie Parker leading a dynamic nightlife scene.
Today, one of the highlights of the area is the restored Gem Theater, which was constructed in 1912 to show silent films. The 500-seat venue now hosts concerts, live theater and other engagements.
This “jazz cow” outside the Gem Theater could be a Quirky Attraction all by itself. It’s officially titled “18th & Bovine,” by artist Jeff DeRousse. It was a gift to the American Jazz Museum by the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
Two prominent museums make their homes in the district, right across the street from the Gem Theater, and both have roots in the area.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, black baseball players competed in the Negro Leagues, various professional organizations that operated around the country starting around 1920. Those leagues have a ton of history. They produced a number of legendary players who became stars in the Negro Leagues and in Major League Baseball after Robinson opened the door for his peers. The museum tells the complete story.
I heard a lot about the Negro Leagues growing up in Pittsburgh, as baseball fans informed me about the history of the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Kansas City Monarchs happened to be one of the most successful franchises, winning two Negro World Series titles and sending players like Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks to the majors.
Photos here show how the Monarchs emphasized proper dress when they traveled. Unlike other teams, who were content to wear basic clothes everywhere, the Monarchs always appeared in proper gentlemanly attire, helping them stand out from the rest of the clubs.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum opened in the early ’90s and has moved twice to larger facilities. The current 10,000-square foot home features a large baseball diamond with Negro League all-stars at each position.
Here’s first baseman and MLB Hall of Famer Buck Leonard of the Homestead Grays.
Negro League history includes players like Josh Gibson, “the black Babe Ruth,” who once reportedly hit a ball 580 feet off the upper deck in Yankee Stadium. And Buck O’Neil, who became the first Negro Leagues veteran to coach in the Major Leagues and was a driving force behind the creation of the Negro Leagues Museum.
I was amused by a photo display about a guy known as “Pork Chops.” He was signed in 1952 and assigned that nickname because he only ate pork chops and fries on the road. Later in his pro career, that guy went by his real name – Hank Aaron.
The museum has what are essentially “locker stalls” featuring uniforms and plaques for many famous Negro League stars, like Satchel Paige.
If you’re searching for info about a specific ballplayer, there’s a touch-screen encyclopedia featuring every Negro Leagues player.
Also among the artifacts on display is this set of tickets to the National Colored All-Star Baseball Classic, held at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1949.
The American Jazz Museum
Jazz music is just amazing. It puts a smile on your face and pep in your step. KC has an impressive musical history that visitors can experience at the American Jazz Museum, located inside the same building as the Negro Leagues Museum.
Oh-oh, sometimes I get a good feeling. Especially when listening to Ella Fitzgerald. Ella’s display includes photos, album covers, and other artifacts from her legendary career. Plus a hot sequin gown she once wore.
The museum features listening stations where you can check out your favorite jazz artists and hear songs from performers you may not be familiar with. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Big Joe Turner, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole and others are represented with audio clips and old television footage.
The Jazz Museum is attached to the Blue Room, a classy jazz venue that hosts shows several nights a week. If you want a taste of old-school Kansas City 18th & Vine life, catch a show here.
The museums also owns an alto saxophone played by Charlie Parker at the Open Door nightclub in 1954.
More from the 18th & Vine District
Speaking of Charlie Parker, he’s got the biggest head in the 18th & Vine District. The late composer’s cranium is 10 feet high in the form of this bronze sculpture. The base is eight feet tall and reads “Bird Lives,” referencing Parker’s nickname. The statue was dedicated in 1999 and can be seen with the KC skyline behind it.
In places where the main streets of the neighborhood currently have no houses or businesses, there are virtual ones painted in.
From the front, this building looks like just another house. It’s actually been torn down, but instead of leaving an empty lot, they’ve left the facade in place, held up by bolts and poles. Clever idea!
As some of these pics indicate, 18th & Vine is an area that’s in the process of reinventing itself. Neighborhood evolution has always fascinated me. It’s fun to witness places grow and change constantly, especially when the changes are in the positive direction. Evidence of that change is apparent at 18th & Vine. While remnants of some old buildings remain, plenty of brand-new apartment complexes have sprung up as well.
18th & Vine looks like a neighborhood with both a substantial past and a bright future.
Note: My trip to Kansas City was made possible by Visit KC.