Remember the Little Man
by David Basse
There is a new mural on the south wall of the historic Mutual Musician’s Foundation at 1823 Highland Avenue. The painting depicts a stunning likeness of Charlie Bird Parker, one of Kansas City’s musical favorite sons. This work of art is two stories tall and was created by Alexander Austin, a Floridian who has an amazing rags to recognition story of his own.
However, this story is not about the art, nor the artist. This story is about the core of the art we hail as Kansas City jazz.
It sometimes seems as if everyone in Kansas City has their very own personal version of Kansas City jazz and its story. In reality, the truth about this rare jewel is sketchy at best.
Jazz is passed down from generation to generation like basket weaving, sand painting and other handicrafts that are presented in the moment. And then, many times the artists, the creators of that simple and beautiful art, are left out of the aspect that includes financial remuneration, respect of others outside their craft or a living wage.
Charlie Parker, himself, sold many of his greatest in the moment compositions for a pittance.
Inside the Foundation, as it is known amongst musicians, are walls that are made of the dreams congered up by aspiring musicians who were brave enough and smart enough to take the stage in Kansas City’s hollowed hall.
For Kansas City’s aspiring musicians, this communal leap of faith began around 1930. When local 627, the Black Musicians Protective Union, took on the two-story former apartment building at 1823 Highland as their home.
In 1971, when local 627 integrated with local 34, 1823 Highland remained as a social club for musicians. The musicians jammed on. Dues were collected to keep the place going and to have a stage for younger musicians to experiment.
A certain kind of gritty musician’s courage is built by performing in the wide-open jam sessions that carry on to this day at 1823. Like all of us, even the Foundation has been slowed by the pandemic. They were forced to close their doors for four months earlier this year.
“I was happy to get some rest.” Said James Hathaway, from the steps of the music hall one recent crisp fall day. “Man,” he continued, “we open this place every Friday and Saturday night. I didn’t think that we’d ever take a break.”
Hathaway is joined by two board members who show-up and operate the club during late-night sessions.
The Creative Director, James McGee, is a hip hop and jazz producer. He is a vocalist, from a musical family. The grandson of Thomas “Tutty” Gadson of the Derby’s and great nephew of drummer James Gadson.
Denise Walcott is a veteran jazz vocalist and a mainstay of the Kansas City jazz scene. She has a degree in Journalism and a knack for business. Denise has been around the Foundation all of her life, as she has a deep love of Kansas City and its music.
Most recently, the three of them have dedicated more than a decade to the operation of this vital National Historic site as the iconic jazz hot spot that it is.
It’s a proving ground. It’s the place to go and make yourself heard, if you are looking to get a piece of Kansas City. It’s a rich musical heritage.
JAM asked drummer, Brian Steever, if he frequented the Mutual Musicians Foundation. “Yes,” said Steever, “I just played there a couple of weeks ago with Matt Villinger, Peter Schlamb, and tenor saxophonist Pete Fucinaro, it was a blast!”
Steever grew up in mid-MO with trumpeter Hermon Mehari. He later followed Mehari to UMKC for his music degree. Steever continued;
“The Mutual Musicians Foundation was so important to my development. Especially in my late teenage years. During my junior and senior years in high school, I would take Amtrak from Jefferson City at the invitation of Hermon Mehari, who was already at UMKC, to play the Foundation with him every once in a while.
It was such a great boost to get to know everyone in the scene via Hermon before I'd even moved to KC. It was incredibly generous of him to invite me out. In those early days, we had no concept of taking breaks.
We would play all night.
Everyone would stretch out. I learned so much. After I moved to KC, we would go to the Foundation pretty much every Saturday night. It never did get old.”
The music begins at 1am. But, nobody is jumping to get on the stage that early. Hathaway suggested that they may officially move the start time to 1:30am. Because things get popping a little later in the morning.
There is a door charge. Nowadays they hold the crowd to 50 patrons at a time, well below the 160-person occupancy. Masks must be worn - distancing observed. It is a respectful environment for the playing of jazz. If patrons arrive without a mask, Hathaway provides them for folks at the door.
“I like it just the way it is now,” said Hathaway. “This is a listening room. People got to respect the music and listen, or I tell them to go downstairs to the bar.”
For the past 90 years there have been many hosts - just like Hathaway. People who know the tradition, the music and the respect that is needed to allow musicians to loosen up enough to tell their collective story.
Back in the 1970s, drummer, vocalist, and entrepreneur Ernie Williams ran the show. He preceded Hathaway in that position by a few decades and Hathaway himself is a jazz pianist.
Ernie was the narrator of the movie, The Last of the Blue Devils. The film was directed by Bruce Ricker in 1974 and created by Mitchell Donian. It is known worldwide as the definitive depiction of Kansas City jazz.
In the movie, Ernie says from a would-be stage, “Don’t close these doors, unless you all know what you’re doing. 1832 Highland stick with your party and party hearty, and don’t forget the little man.”
If you are brave enough. If you can stay up that late. If you really want to know what Kansas City is all-about. Fall by the Foundation well past midnight this weekend – or any weekend – and be prepared to stay up all night.