It's 8:30 on a Thursday night and Kansas City jazz saxophonist Ahmad Alaadeen is in the audience at the Blue Room, mesmerized. He stops a whispered conversation in mid-sentence to listen to a young pianist slip into a solo rendition of "The Very Thought of You." Alaadeen begins to softly sing along.
Jazz aficionados such as Alaadeen love to come to the Blue Room because this club takes jazz seriously. Opened in the fall of 1997, the Blue Room is part of the newly constructed American Jazz Museum, and it's one of the few places in the city that showcases the blues-oriented style of jazz that made Kansas City, Mo., an important music center between the World Wars. In the one-block, neon-laced 18th and Vine district that surrounds the museum, visitors can enjoy a cocktail and listen to jazz at the Blue Room and also gaze into a portal to the past through exhibits in the museum and the restored Gem Theater across the street. There are no restaurants and few other clubs nearby; museum boosters are hoping to draw new nightlife and contemporary music to this part of town.
"I've been waiting on this for a long time," said Alaadeen, who got his first musician's guild card in 1956 and played in many of the clubs that once surrounded this area. The original Blue Room was a block away in the Streets Hotel, now demolished. "This area was dead for a long time. There was talk about reviving it and then the mayor took it on and just did it," he said.
When customers aren't entranced with the jazz, they can look at mini-exhibits buried in each hollow, glass-topped table, lit with a slender ring of pale blue fluorescent light. Upright exhibits are spaced throughout the room, and between sets, patrons wander among them. One wall showcases black and white photos of the musicians who played in the Kansas City area: Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Jay McShann and more.
Visitors may be surprised by one missing element: no smoking. "We're in a museum and that's the reason for that," said Andre Tyler, manager of the Blue Room. We were initially concerned, but we've heard more compliments than complaints."
The area hasn't always been so isolated. Alaadeen remembers when the area thrived, with shops, restaurants and the clubs all catering to the city's black population. The end of segregation changed the urban landscape, and many blacks went to live in other parts of the city.
Now, the district hopes to become one of the biggest tourist draws in the Kansas City area. Rowena Stewart, the museum's executive director, said the museum is a monument to black history and American history. Next to the American Jazz Museum is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and the two work well together.
"With baseball and jazz, those are two entities that have crossed over the racial borders," Stewart said. "Everybody sees it has a part of American culture."
The Blue Room (18th and Vine, 816-474- 2929) is open Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights . Free admission. The American Jazz Museum (1616 E. 18th St., 816-474-VINE) is open Tuesday through Sunday and costs $6. Joint admission for the jazz museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is $8. For information on Kansas City jazz history, check out www.kcjazzage.com.