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Arts & Life

As Kansas City Ponders American Jazz Museum's Future, What Do Musicians Say?

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Clint Ashlock
Hermon Mehari earned his Bachelor of Music in jazz performance from the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. He's still based in Kansas City but is often on the road.

Musicians have a lot at stake when it comes to the future of the American Jazz Museum.

"Please take the artist into consideration first, and foremost," bandleader and percussionist Pablo Sanhueza urged members of the Kansas City Council's finance and governance committee at an April 25 hearing to chart a course forward for the troubled museum.

Sanhueza's ensemble, KC Latin Jazz All-Stars, performs regularly at the Blue Room, one of two venues managed by the museum; the other is the Gem Theater.

"It is our duty to speak on behalf of our future as artists in the city," he said. "Without art ... there's nothing to show. Those are just buildings there." 

It was musicians who first brought to light a "cash flow issue" after the inaugural Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival over Memorial Day weekend last year. Ten musicians, including eight from Kansas City, were issued checks that bounced. The museum lost $450,000 on that festival due to a smaller turnout than expected, and, by October, the institution had accumulated a $1 million deficit.

City officials proceeded to hire San Francisco-based Museum Management Consultants, Inc. to assess the wellbeing of the 20-year-old institution. Released in April, the consultants' report suggested the museum is "in need of complete rethinking, akin to starting a new museum." The 26 recommendations included closing the museum for up to a year and contracting exhibit designers to rethink "the entire museum experience."

Musicians with ties to Kansas City have their own ideas about the museum's next steps. 

Trumpet player Hermon Mehari, who tours internationally, spoke to KCUR's Central Standard on Thursday from Paris. 

Mehari cited organizations from around the United States that the museum could look to as models: Lincoln Center in New York City, and SFJAZZ in San Francisco and Jazz St. Louis.

"They're all growing every year. They keep raising more and more money," Mehari said. "They have all built specific venues specifically for the presentation of this music. And they have amazing programming and a huge subscriber base." 

What's key, said Mehari, is "finding this balance of dealing with what's going on now" and the city's musical past. 

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Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
At the Kansas City Jazz Heritage Festival in May, Kansas City native Logan Richardson bowed to the audience after his set.

Alto saxophonist Logan Richardson grew up in Kansas City, and now mostly plays in Europe and New York City.

Richardson was one of the featured performers at the Jazz and Heritage Festival last May. At the time, he told the crowd that he hoped kids and families had been given a break in admission "especially considering this is an organization that's been donated millions of dollars."

"I'm just glad that this particular conversation is finally happening,” he told Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann on a call from Rome. 

Richardson, who worked at the museum right after graduating from Paseo High School, had specific suggestions for a more vibrant museum.

"The way that it's designed, the lighting, there's no natural light," he said. "Everything is dark. It needs to be re-structured."

And, he said, the museum needs a larger gallery space for its permanent exhibition.

"First off, your actual exhibit certainly is not the smallest circumference inside of the entire building. The Changing Gallery, in fact, is probably bigger than the actual permanent exhibit. There's something wrong with that," he said.

"Like anything that you build, your first incarnation isn't necessarily what it was meant to stay as forever," Richardson added. "A museum is something that is living."

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Credit American Jazz Museum
Lisa Henry has performed with artists such as Bobby Watson, as well as Herbie Hancock and Anita Baker.

Jazz educator and vocalist Lisa Henry often performs for kids during First Friday jazz storytelling at the museum.

At the council's committee hearing, Henry passed out a packet of her own recommendations and suggested that the consultants who worked on the report return to Kansas City in 12 months to assess the museum's progress. 

Henry said there needed to be a closer examination of staffing in a "real world best scenario situation" and provided a proposed staff list.

Also, she said, "I've proposed community committee think tanks. This would be a very good vehicle for the advisory portion."

Meanwhile, KCUR wants to hear from other musicians who have ideas for the American Jazz Museum, so we've created a survey. Tell us here.

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer

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