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New Director Of Kansas City's American Jazz Museum Says She Has Work To Do Before She Sings

Silvia Ines Gonzalez
The American Jazz Museum's new director Rashida Phillips started in January.

The new director of Kansas City's American Jazz Museum says she's ready to take the city's historic 18th and Vine District "back to the glory that we know it to be."

Rashida Phillips started in early January. A jazz vocalist who grew up in St. Louis, Phillips has spent the last 15 years working for arts and cultural organizations in Chicago.

Her arrival comes nearly two years after consultants hired by the city called for a "complete rethinking” of the museum and its leadership, after an unsuccessful jazz festival and other spending left a $1 million deficit. The debt is now covered and a new board is in place.

"You know, Kansas City has a rich music history," she told KCUR's Steve Kraske just a few weeks into the job. "We've got the roots here, so we've got to get up to speed." 

Here are some excerpts of their recent conversation on Up to Date.

STEVE KRASKE: I'm wondering what job number one is at the museum. What are you aiming at first here? 

RASHIDA PHILLIPS: Well, we've certainly got to get it stabilized. I'm happy to know and meet people out in the community, even nationally, who are really interested in this museum expanding and growing. And really taking that area, the 18th and Vine area, and taking it back to the glory that we know it to be. 

KRASKE: It's been a long struggle in 18th and Vine. The museum hasn't lifted the district yet. Do you see a day when that might turn around? 

PHILLIPS: I hope so. I know that tourism is high on the agenda here of Kansas City — with a new hotel opening, with an airport renovation coming. Certainly more crowds will be coming through with the (NFL) draft, as well, in 2023. Folks have to have a place to go. And we want to make that available for the local population, too.

You know, Kansas City has a rich music history. We look at other places like New Orleans, New York, even Nashville is really claiming a lot of that music scene. We've got the roots here, so we've got to get up to speed. 

KRASKE: You know, one of the first things that people say about a visit to the museum — and I know you've heard this many times — is that so many of the exhibits are out of order. Is that still the case? 

PHILLIPS: No, it's not actually. All of our exhibits are in working order. And we are also looking forward to some changing exhibits coming in this year. And next year, providing some new experiences for our patrons. 

KRASKE: What might people look forward to? 

PHILLIPS: Well, certainly Charlie Parker is hot this year. So we are really thinking through programming ideas and ways to celebrate him.

KRASKE: The 100th anniversary of his birth, yeah.

Credit American Jazz Museum
Charlie Parker's Grafton plastic sax, on display at the museum, was famously used by the musician at a Massey Hall concert.

PHILLIPS: Absolutely, this is his centennial year. So we are hot in the fire in terms of our programming and what would be appropriate for him there. And again, having (Charlie Parker's) saxophone front and center for folks to visit is certainly historically important.

KRASKE: That's the famous plastic sax that people can see when they go to the museum.

PHILLIPS: Absolutely, and it's really kind of a crown jewel of our collection

KRASKE: I was struck by the consultants' recommendation from a year or two ago that the time has come for a "complete rethinking of the museum." What does a "complete rethinking" mean to you, Rashida? 

PHILLIPS: You know, I don't think it's unusual for the cultural sector, sort of, to revamp themselves.

The museum has been around over 20 years at this point, so it only makes sense for us to sort of dig back into our original origin and think about how we can really explore some of the newer artists as well. 

KRASKE: One other possibility you hear about sometimes is making the focus on Kansas City jazz, Midwestern jazz, if you will, as opposed to keeping it a national museum. What do you think about that idea? 

PHILLIPS: You know, I think it's important to think of it nationally because there are a lot of territory bands that came through Kansas City and moved onward to New York and other cities, or internationally. So I don't think we want to divorce that from the history in general. 

Certainly, it's nice to have a spotlight on our local musicians, on some of the local history. 

KRASKE: What's the process you'll use to deal with what the future of the museum looks like? What's the road ahead look like when it comes to planning? 

PHILLIPS: Right now, I'm gathering the troops. I'm really working with our staff to see what's happening internally and to identify gaps. And I'm revisiting that consultants' report along with our newer board.  

KRASKE: You have a deep love of the music. Where did that come from in your life? 

PHILLIPS: Gosh, you know, honestly, it came from high school. I know that's a big question that folks ask in the Midwest: "Where did you go to high school?" (She graduated from high school in St. Louis in 1995.)

But for me, I was really involved in musical theater. And I had to play a jazz diva named Geneva Lee Browne in the 1940's Radio Hour my junior year. And I had to do a lot of research on character and songs and learning standards, and really fell deeply in love with the music. 

KRASKE: But what is it about the music that captures you, that interests you so much? 

PHILLIPS: I think it's just something about the feeling of it all. And also the social expression. You know, I'd also done a lot of research on utilizing the music to sort of see ourselves and build our communities back.  

KRASKE: You're a jazz singer. How long have you been doing that? 

PHILLIPS: Gosh, I've been doing it since the '90s. 

KRASKE: Are we going to hear you perform down at the Blue Room some time? 

PHILLIPS: I think at some point. Yeah. 

KRASKE: At some point.

PHILLIPS: But I've got a lot of work to do right now (laughs).

American Jazz Museum Executive Director Rashida Phillips spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent edition of KCUR's Up to Date. Listen to the full conversation here.

Steve Kraske is the host of KCUR's Up to Date. Follow him on Twitter at @stevekraske.

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

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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