The Legacy Plays On: The 20th Anniversary of the American Jazz Museum

By Marissa Baum

Amid much pomp and circumstance, the American Jazz Museum opened its doors (under the original name of the Kansas City Jazz Museum), on September 5, 1997. KCMO Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, II; the museum’s Executive Director, Dr. Rowena Stewart; and event designer and producer Marcie Cecil were charged with the monumental task of forming a noteworthy three-day celebration. The inaugural event featured the best of area and national talent including Billy Dee Williams, George Duke (who led the supporting band for all of the other artists), his niece Dianne Reeves, Harry Belafonte, and Al Jarreau. Megastars including Tony Bennett, Claude “Fiddler” Williams, and Pat Metheny also took to the Gem Theater stage.


(Kevin Mahogany, Harry Belafonte, and Pat Metheny. Photo by Jerry Lockett)


(Opening Gala on 18th Street. Photo by The American Jazz Museum)

18th Street was blanketed in a sea of red carpet, and the elaborate celebration lasted three days. The Friday night opening gala was a ticketed event in the Gem Theater, but a massive stage erected on 18th Street boasted a large screen where the ceremony was piped live, and free, to the community. The days following the gala were filled with seminar-style talks featuring local talent, organized by Pam and Sam Johnson. Thrilled audience members were able to hear their local favorites all weekend long.

Kansas City and All That’s Jazz served (and still serves) as the title for the museum’s permanent exhibition, which celebrates the memory of jazz greats Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington. The Museum’s Changing Gallery featured Beyond Category: The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington, a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) exhibit.

This summer, the American Jazz Museum will reincarnate its inaugural theme, The Legacy Plays On! in commemoration of 20 years serving the local and national communities through research, exhibition, education, and performance. The 20th anniversary exhibition will feature five thematic areas celebrating jazz as an original American art form and illustrating the legacy of the American Jazz Museum.

The first portion of the exhibit will explore the origins of the museum — why it was created and the needs it would meet, the planning and construction process, the key figures, and of course, the opening reception.

The second area will highlight the museum’s different venues and performances dedicated to the advancement of the art form and growing the jazz audience.

The third area of the 20th anniversary exhibition will feature the programs and events through which the museum engages the community, from some of the original programs and events, to programs currently on the calendar. Traditionally, the museum has also hosted Kwanzaa celebrations and Martin Luther King Jr. Day events, meeting the need for cultural engagement and allowing the museum to serve as a good steward to the community.

Temporary and traveling exhibitions are integral parts of the museum, and the 20th anniversary exhibit will highlight the rich history of other temporary exhibitions that have passed through the Changing Gallery. High art —including works by KC’s Light in the Other Room group of black artists — folk art, high-tech, literary, and cultural histories, have all been themes of past exhibitions.

Last but not least, highlights from the museum’s permanent collection (including rarely-seen artifacts) will be on display. Due to conservation best practices, some of these objects will only be out for a portion of the exhibit’s duration, so it is in any visitor’s best interest to return regularly to see what’s new!

The community’s role in the history of the museum is just as important now as ever. For the first time in the history of the American Jazz Museum, there will be portions of the 20th anniversary exhibit that are community curated. Over the course of five months, patrons will have three opportunities to vote on two objects, and select the one they would like to see featured in the exhibition. Voting will take place both online (through the American Jazz Museum’s Facebook page) and in the museum. Visitor selections will be on display for the first three months of the exhibit, with the “runners up” on display for the second half of the exhibit’s duration.

The last 20 years of the American Jazz Museum have been remarkable, and The Legacy Plays On! will be full of old favorites, new surprises, and an exciting look at what you can expect for decades to come.