Volunteering in the Name of Jazz

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By Claire McDonald

We all have a role to play in preserving the legacy of jazz. At AJM we particularly rely on our volunteers to help us advance our mission. Two of the Museum’s most devoted volunteers are Neil and Mary Powers.  Neil and Mary drive all the way from Leawood, KS to 18th & Vine, every Saturday morning to volunteer at the museum.

The couple is known for their dedication, and we wanted to learn more about what brought them to the American Jazz Museum in the first place and what makes them so passionate about their commitment to volunteering and jazz.

Neil and Mary moved to the Kansas City area from Florida in 2005 to be closer to family, they knew that they wanted to spend the rest of their retirement giving back to the community. “This is part of our schtick,” Neil told me, as I spoke with them outside the entrance to the permanent exhibition on a Saturday morning. “We volunteer six days a week. We go to thrift stores, church, reading clinic, food kitchens, and Saturdays we’re here.” When I asked what drew them to the jazz museum initially, Mary explained, “We were active in the jazz clubs in St. Louis, where we lived and raised our children, and we were very active in the jazz club down in Florida. We’ve always had a feel for it. Every time we get to a new town, it’s like a magnet draws us to it.” Neil smiled and offered a simple answer, “I’m a jazz nut.”

In the thirteen years that the Powers have been volunteering at the museum, they’ve rotated through various jobs. They’ve served as ushers in the Gem Theater, performed clerical work in the administrative office, and archived in the museum’s collections. Neil described the archives and preservation work to me, including the museum’s extensive record collection adding, “I think Mary and I touched every single one of those records.” Right now, they are the first faces visitors see as they go into the museum’s permanent exhibition, ready to pass out a map and explain the layout of the space.

They have many special memories of the American Jazz Museum, but one in particular stands out to Neil. “We came one night to the Blue Room and I met Thelonious Monk’s son. To meet his son was something else. I’m a Thelonious guy,” he laughed, pointing to his Thelonious Monk t-shirt. It was then that I noticed his baseball cap read “Meet Me at the Blue Room.”

Neil mentioned that he shares his love of Thelonious Monk with his son, and he’s glad he’s been able to pass on his passion for jazz. This led Mary to observe that many people in my generation, Millennials, don’t seem to have a strong interest in jazz. While I agreed to some extent, I suggested that the history of jazz is similar to the development of my generation’s popular music: rap/hip-hop. These genres, separated by decades in American music history, were both rooted in the African American community before they took the mainstream music scene by storm. At this, Neil mused, “Rap music, as I understand it, is written by those who are speaking their piece and saying ‘this is wrong.’ If you listen to John Coltrane playing Alabama right after Selma, he’s spilling his guts and telling it like it is. And Charlie Parker, he’s not just twittling around. He has all of these things that he’s trying to say, and the only way he can express himself is through his horn.”

Neil’s passion for jazz is immediately evident when he talks about it. Mary explained how she’s come to appreciate the genre through him: “I think jazz is important to me because Neil likes it so much. We’ve been married 67 years, so we’ve known each other quite a long time, and you rub off on each other.” This is clear to me, as only a strong commitment to the legacy of jazz would lead them to dedicate so much of their time to the museum. “I have a little expression about the jazz museum,” Neil offered, as our conversation came to an end. “Jazz didn’t start here, but in the history of Kansas City there is a chapter you could call jazz and in the history of jazz there’s a chapter you could call Kansas City. There’s an overlapping there. What happened here in the 1920s and 1930s is an important part of history.” As the Museum works to preserve that history, we’re proud to have Neil and Mary help us tell the story.