Kansas City's Oldest Jazz Institution Isn't Afraid Of New Beats — Or Other Challenges
It was the usual 4 a.m. scene at the Mutual Musicians Foundation: a rotating combination of jazz musicians on the crowded stage; fans of all ages, races and preferred libations sitting in metal chairs around mismatched formica tables tapping their feet and yelling encouragement to the players; long-dead jazz legends surveying the raucous scene from black-and-white photographs on red walls. Except this time, sun was beaming in the windows.
Who even knew there were windows upstairs at the Mutual Musicians Foundation?
Most people who make pilgrimages to the well-worn two-story building at 1823 Highland do so only in the middle of the night, for the legendary after-hours jams at what was once the union hall for the Colored Musicians Local 627. It's one of only two National Historic Landmarks in all of Kansas City (the other one being the Liberty Memorial).
But this occasion, early on a Sunday evening in late April, was different. After stepping out from behind the drum kit to let someone else play, Brad Williams grabbed a microphone.
"One-hundred years! 100 years! Somebody clap for 100 years!" Williams said, before encouraging people in the audience to shout out the names of musicians who'd played here over the decades.
Tonight, the Foundation (now officially a fraternal social organization with about 60 dues-paying members) had thrown an open house to kick off the institution's landmark anniversary. Downstairs, barbecue and cobbler were spread out in front of the bar, where even a few kids were soaking in the glow of the gleaming white piano and the mural tracing Kansas City’s jazz timeline.
As jazz seems to be enjoying a renaissance around town and homegrown artists make their marks on the rest of the world, the Mutual Musicians Foundation remains the only place in Kansas City where there's a literal physical connection to the music's storied history.
"When I'm on that stage, it’s like I am performing for those people on the wall," says Melissa Ramsey, who goes by the stage name AvaBella. "It’s like a spirit, it’s like they’re hugging me saying, 'Yeah, this is what this building’s about, this is what you do on this stage.'"
In her late 30s, Ramsey is among the younger musicians who are planning new events to go along with the weekend jams. In June, they'll start hosting weeknight spoken-word events and forums to showcase newer forms of music.
Drummer Williams, who'd been leading the cheer for 100 years, encourages the crowd to check the Foundation's Facebook page.
"Connect with us," he tells the crowd. "Please stay in touch with what we’ve got going on and hang out with us. We’ll be here."
Problem is, there aren’t any upcoming events listed on the Foundation’s Facebook page. And MutualMusiciansFoundation.org, which used to be informative and historic looking, no longer appears to exist. That’s because of a lawsuit that’s likely to drag on behind the scenes throughout the Foundation’s celebratory year.
The lawsuit blues
Events marking the Foundation’s centennial have been gearing up for a couple of years. Last June, more than a dozen musicians who had been members of the old segregated unions around the country traveled to Kansas City for a weekend of festivities. They told stories, attended a dinner, jammed and went to City Hall, where they received resolutions in their honor.
A couple of months later, however, the Foundation’s board of directors locked out the woman who’d organized that event.
Anita Dixon had been operating in the capacity of executive director for several years, but in August 2016, the board removed her.
Technically, the Foundation consists of two separate entities: the Mutual Musicians Foundation Inc., a corporation to maintain the building and its historic jam sessions; and Mutual Musicians Foundation International, a non-profit that raises money for other historic and educational programs. Officially, Dixon was vice president of the former and secretary of the latter.
In August 2016, the board removed her.
Dixon filed a lawsuit. Among other things, Dixon's suit alleges the board “failed to properly account for and manage” its income and assets. Dixon also claims that Foundation President James Hathaway made “unauthorized payments to himself”; and closed and emptied the Foundation’s bank account without notifying the board, which meant the Foundation couldn’t receive scheduled payments from grants or the Kansas City Neighborhood Tourism Development Fund.
The Foundation board, meanwhile, denies Dixon’s allegations and accuses Dixon of her own financial misconduct, also claiming that she’d “taken possession of financial documents, government filings, contracts, paintings, photographs, and other artifacts” belonging to the Foundation.
Arguing that her removal was invalid because the board hadn't followed its bylaws, Dixon continues to identify herself as the organization’s executive director.
"The Mutual Musicians Foundation or Local 627 is one of the most important places in not just African-American history or the city’s history but world history," Dixon says, citing international recognition for Kansas City jazz and a trip she made last year to Denmark. There, she visited the Ben Webster Foundation, which works to preserve the legacy of the esteemed Kansas City-born tenor saxophonist who played with jazz greats including Duke Ellington and ultimately settled in Copenhagen.
"I’ve been working with American Federation of Musicians, have made a number of considerable contacts with very high names in jazz, went to visit Jazz at Lincoln Center, and am continuing to keep those relationships alive through what I’ve been working on for a number of years now," Dixon says. "It's very important that it doesn’t just fall off and go nowhere."
But after the Foundation sent out press releases saying it had severed ties with Dixon and that she “no longer represents or speaks for the organization’s Board or its members,” Dixon added another claim to her lawsuit, saying the board had defamed her character.
As defendants, board members asked for a jury trial. In March, Jackson County Judge Kevin Harrell sided with them, ordered all parties to "keep a strict accounting of all financial records," and scheduled a jury trial for April 2018.
Foundation President Hathaway has only one thing to say about that court date.
"It’s a day of reckoning," says Hathaway. "When that happens you’ll know the full effect of (the lawsuit). Other than that, we’re here doing what we’ve always done. We haven’t missed a beat."
The sounds of the future
There was no sign of any trouble behind the scenes at the 100-year anniversary party, and the younger folks at the Foundation are talking a lot about the next hundred years.
"We’ve got a nice chunk of American history here, and it’s about the younger guys standing on that and going forward," says the Foundation's program director, James McGee (also known as the hip-hop artist James D. Conquerer). "It's like, 'How are you going to get your face on the mural here? What contributions are you going to make?'"
One of McGee’s contributions is the long-promised KOJHFM.org, a low-powered radio station (100 watts, serving a three-mile radius). It was supposed to start broadcasting a year ago, and McGee promises it’ll be on the air this summer – meanwhile it’s streaming online.
"It's really for the neighborhood: the Northeast, West Side, Downtown, south to 39th Street," McGee says. "It will be be good for the community as far as getting information, but it'll also be good for artists, because we'll have Nielsen scans so you'll actually get credit for your spins."
And, he says, the Foundation’s core musicians will be putting out an album this summer.
"That’s going to be one of our first forays into what the future holds," McGee says. "You’ve got to make more music. It always comes down to the music. At the end of the day, this building means nothing, the neighborhood barely means anything without the music."
But older guys like Hathaway know computers have changed the way music gets made.
"You don’t have to sit at the piano anymore to make music. That’s almost something that I don’t know. I only know how to sit down and make music," Hathaway says. "But we want to bring those guys along. They want to learn more, but they haven’t had people sit down and really work with them on theory. They speak of beats. Maybe we can all figure out how to do it and make it work."
It’s not the first time the Mutual Musicians Foundation’s been through some management turmoil (the last publicly unpleasant shake-up was in 2010). In fact, William Shaw, the foundation's president from 1928 to 1948, was "expelled for misappropriation of funds on Aug. 27, 1949," according to notes on file with Chuck Haddix, director of UMKC's Marr Sound Archives and author of two books about Kansas City jazz. (UMKC's libraries maintain extensive online exhibitions about the Mutual Musicians Foundation, including a photo collection and the exhibition Musicians Local No. 627 and the Mutual Musicians Foundation: Cradles of Kansas City Jazz.)
Assuming the place is still there 100 years from now, future struggles are also inevitable. Fortunately for everyone out in the audience, it's almost as if those spirits watching over the place are also protecting it. If Kansas City musicians know anything, it's how to get through hard times.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.