In K.C., the Vine's 2nd Act

By Christine H. O'Toole
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 12, 2004

He's snaky and slight, twice as tall as his saxophone, but Darryl Turrell produces a sound that could raise the dead. After 10 minutes of jamming with his quartet, he sits on the edge of the bandstand and just blows: one soulful, sustained note of Grover Washington Jr. that soars above the dance floor, wafts out into the night and salutes the finger-popping ghosts of jazz swaying gently on the corner of 18th and Vine.

To paraphrase one of them, Billy Strayhorn, this Kansas City, Mo., neighborhood known as "the Vine" was once one of those very gay places where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life. Two hundred nightclubs packed these streets in the 1920s and '30s, with names like the Top Hat, the Reno Club and the Honolulu Moon. "Territory bands" from the prairies met up with minstrels and ragtimers to create a signature sound, while Big Joe Turner and Count Basie added their riffs. A vibrant black business district embraced the scene and a baseball team, cheering the town's beloved Monarchs.

The American Jazz Museum on 18th Street anchors the city's homage to that long-gone era, along with its hopes that a new tourist destination can spark urban redevelopment. Seven years past its opening, a handful of neon signs are finally sprouting up along the sidewalks. Young performers are taking their chance to reprise old standards. Eighteenth and Vine, once the syncopated heartbeat of American jazz, again has a pulse.

But the modest rebirth centered on the museum will probably never bring this district back to its glory days.

"We were the sons and daughters of free men and women . . . [but] we didn't live past 27th Street. We could not buy property," reminisces an octogenarian in the museum's fine film introduction to the neighborhood.

Nevertheless, the community of 30,000 drew the world to its doors; desegregation flung those doors outward. Locals moved on, to bigger homes and aspirations, and The Vine's glitter diminished. The world drifted away, but the melody lingered on.

The museum's main exhibit tracks the careers of four mid-century masters with simple mementos and dozens of choice audio clips. (The building also houses the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.) The neighborhood's brilliant Charlie "Bird" Parker is remembered with the sax he played in his 1953 performance at Massey Hall. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald are honored here, too. Ella's black sequined gown shimmers like her voice, echoing the late jazz pianist Jimmy Rowles's description alongside: "Music comes out of her. When she walks down the street, she leaves notes."

Contracts on display demonstrate the sad truth: Music is a tough way to make a buck. Parker's pay for his Massey Hall concert, one of the greatest performances in jazz history, was only $200. A bust of Parker, who died a heroin addict at age 34, broods over the museum's back lawn. The base is simply engraved "BIRD LIVES."

With enough nightclub mementos to furnish a club, the jazz museum has its own, the Blue Room. Its bar and performance space is a salute to The Vine's club history. Each glass-topped table is a shadowbox of matchbooks, programs and glamorous publicity shots, and the walls are a yearbook of popular acts, such as Oliver Todd and His Hottentots, the Five Red Hot Scamps and Julia Lee, Harry Truman's favorite singer. A rare film jukebox projects "soundies," restored three-minute recordings of live performances that were early precursors of MTV.

The Blue Room is modeled on a legendary lounge, the Street Hotel, which dominated the music scene before World War II. On an early Thursday night, however, it looks more like the band room of a suburban high school. Young jazz wannabes listen shyly to the Paul McKee Quartet. (The scene is more adult when I return on the weekend.)

When jazz neophytes grow up, they'd like to be Lisa Henry, whom I later meet at the nearby Peach Tree Restaurant. The 36-year-old vocalist, who calls her roots "a classic Baptist church story," has performed with Herbie Hancock and records on her own label.

As she sips sweet iced tea, Henry plays down her glitzy bio. Though she has toured as far away as South Africa, she happily returns home to perform on her own terms. "Some people romanticize this scene," she says. But Henry's a pragmatist. With a toddler son, she combines her career with tutoring athletes at local high schools.

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