Jake Wagner, urban planner, community activist and historian, speaking about the society for the prevention of unnecessary demolition’s (s.p.u.d.) collaborative project Public Service Announcement: KC Endangered
Link to video
Addressing decades of demolition and decline
Jake: The Rocket Grant that we did helped to build a larger… network of people who understood what’s going on in the third district of Kansas City Missouri in terms of demolition… specifically the demolition around… the East Patrol and Crime Lab at 27th and Prospect, but [also] the overall… impact of demolition – decades of demolition and decline in the third district.
You can talk about a problem like demolition and inner city disinvestment and people have no emotional connection to it – because it’s a foreign issue, they’re not used to it – they haven’t seen it in their own neighborhood.
We focused specifically on two musicians who had international recognition for their art, Virgil Thomson and Ben Webster, and both of them are from Kansas City.
So we were able to bring people to a recently demolished site and to create a concert where there had been a very important house – Virgil Thomson’s house.
If you bring [people] to a place where there’s been a recent demolition and you perform a classical music concert it has a different affect emotionally and it appeals to a different part of someone’s heart, their experience. And it makes it more emotional and less rational, less about data or, you know, the cost of the demolition. And I think that is where art can succeed in ways that maps and financial analysis can never touch.
Ben Webster’s demolished house – the loss of collective memory
The second piece we did was a collaboration with the Mutual Musicians Foundation and there we were focused on the demolition of Ben Webster’s house. And that helped us build an international community because we were able to connect directly to the Ben Webster Foundation in Copenhagen Denmark… and to bring a band here last year from Copenhagen to perform…
… the fact that there’s no built record, there’s no environmental record, there’s no house that you can go back to, to understand – and in many places there’s there are no clubs left where the jazz was originally innovated in Kansas City… we’re speaking to the loss of collective memory, the loss of artistic history, of artistic production.
Invisible art histories
Artists’ lives are often not the focus of society. So how an artist lives, how a musician lives is not part of the record, the historical record right now, and I think that’s a problem.
The whole ensemble of what makes art’s work effective includes neighborhoods. And in the United States we have a great ability to demolish our historical record as if it doesn’t matter… And unfortunately art and artists are part of that invisible history that needs to be brought to the surface. In the process what we stand to gain is much more interesting cities.
I wish more organizations existed to support these kinds of collaborations… Thanks.
Anita Dixon, Director of the Mutual Musician’s Foundation & community partner, on Kansas City history and black musicians
Our Rocket Grant partnership
Anita: Jake and I have known each other over twenty years, and various preservation projects. And when I took over the Mutual Musicians Foundation six years ago, we were always looking for ways to be innovative because it was an organization that didn’t have a lot and, you know, wasn’t investing a lot. And they came to us with a Rocket Grant.
It gave us a chance to demonstrate to Kansas City that not only were we important, you know, to the music – which they already understand – but we were important on such a global scale that now more attention must be paid to what’s happening to the art of particularly the black community.
Building international connections between KC and Copenhagen
But within the next year after getting the Rocket Grant I went to Denmark. And it was incredible to see… where he had walked, and his friends, and, you know, where he was buried. And then to come to find out that Kenny Drew and Dexter Gordon, many, many people, had gone before him.
As the Mutual Musicians Foundation is about to turn a hundred years old, Denmark has become our closest friends now. And I’m working on a radio station with them, donating information from Eubie Blake and, you know people from history who’ve been in Denmark since nineteen sixty five, going back and forth – and Duke Ellington. So everything is very unique, and it all started with getting that Rocket Grant
Ben Webster reflected back at us
You know Ben Webster was an incredible musician. Had he stayed in America, would he have suffered… the prejudice and racism and stuff that still persists today? Yes, he would have. But he saw an opportunity to expand his art and expand who he was as a human being in Denmark. I myself saw that while I was there.
Kansas City has a distinctive style, and that style is studied heavily in Europe. And it takes you from the underground railroad to, you know, the turn of the century, from ragtime and into Kansas City directly, on a progression that can be studied, and I was no more surprised than to find out once I was in Denmark how studied it really is.
So to get Kansas City to understand how important we are finally came when we were able to extend ourselves in the Jazz, in the music, in the history and the heritage, into another country and then had it come back to us.
It was incredible for our musicians here to realize that they didn’t own it all. This music has gone so far cross the world that there are people so proficient and so adept at it that we really actually have to up our game.
James Mitchell, solo cello and arranger; Zsolt Eder, Violin 1; Ramiro Miranda, violin 2; Gloria Britez Scolari, viola; Eman Chalshotori, cello
Art soothes the heart and must be protected
From my perspective I run the oldest jazz house in the world. Considering that the oldest jazz house in the world was started by black Americans and to say that, you know, with all of the discord and things that you see these days that so much of the music of America was actually started and began in the place that I run, you know, the most important thing is that it’s still here.
To soothe a heart in times of oppression is very, very important. To be able to be an artist and express yourself, and have people understand that times will get better – because this is the human spirit that will bring something beautiful out of something so horrible, or something so bad… art encompasses all of that.
It is necessary to me as a non-artist person to be certain that it perpetuates and it’s continued. So I’m the one that beats down the doors and asks for money, and takes all the ‘no’s’ and things like that so that we can continue.
Preserving the spaces of black art history in Kansas City
Kansas City’s not just white community but black community has very little reverence for what came before them… I think what it says to Kansas City is the sad, sad commentary that the black community’s contributions are dispensable.
So, when you knock and tear something down, you’re tearing down those spirits that occupied it all.
Without the history you have nothing to refer the spirits to, as we like to say.
I think the city is aware of having to do it. But I think the thing that is changing now is someone dared to do it.