American Jazz Museum Steeped In Lore

Exhibits on Parker, Ellington, Armstrong, others show off artifacts at Kansas City, Mo., hall.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nearly 50 years after his death, jazz legend Charlie Parker's fame hasn't waned — especially in his birthplace, where his legacy is everywhere, including the American Jazz Museum.

The 55,000-square-foot structure, which also serves as home to the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame and the Horace M. Peterson III Visitors Center, opened in 1997. It presents an array of artifacts, photographs and instruments, mostly spotlighting the work of saxophonist Parker, vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, composer Duke Ellington and trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

"Most people are surprised when they attend the museum," Museum Director Rowena Stewart said. "We've tried to make the museum a living experience for everyone to enjoy."

Stewart, the former director of Detroit's African American Museum, said more than 350,000 people visit the American Jazz Museum and the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame each year. The museum spans two floors, beginning with a huge map of 18th and Vine embedded in the floor of the lobby and ending with the Blue Room, a reproduction of an old nightclub near 18th and Vine.

The room has a bar and is open four nights a week with live music. Inside the visitors center, a 25-minute video provides a visual narrative about early Kansas City jazz history. The film also explores the lives of some musicians who helped shape the Kansas City blues-riff style, including pianist/bandleaders Bennie Moten and Count Basie, saxophonists Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, and blues shouters Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing.

Also depicted are some of the old clubs that served as nurseries to these artists. From there, visitors are ushered into the Jazz Theater, where another film, narrated by singers Fitzgerald and Betty Carter and conductor/educator David Baker, addresses the evolution of jazz, from ragtime to more modern styles. Conspicuously absent, however, is jazz history after John Coltrane.

Inside the main exhibition, an old trumpet draws you to the Armstrong collection, which features a 1949 photograph of Armstrong on the cover of Time — the first time a jazz musician was featured on the magazine's cover.

Among other Armstrong artifacts are trumpet valves, salve and a handkerchief, which he used to hide his fingering from other trumpeters. There also is a 33-1/3-rpm recording of trumpeter Bunk Johnson, who some argue was the best trumpeter to come from New Orleans.

In the corner of the room is the Ella Fitzgerald exhibition. A glass case encloses some of her music, dresses and a pair of her glasses. A portrait of composer and Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn draws you to the Duke Ellington collection, which features music scores and old tour itineraries.

Two other highlights are the Jazz Central and Jazz Discovery rooms. In Jazz Central, visitors can use four CD-listening stations to hear some of the museum archives' several hundred historical CDs. Jazz Discovery is an interactive room that helps introduce children to the genre.

Perhaps the most affecting part of the exhibition is an acrylic saxophone owned by Parker. Oh, to see and hear Parker slicing through the dazzling changes of "Donna Lee" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Ko Ko" (RealAudio excerpt) as you look at that saxophone. But even this trip back through time has its limits.