Going to Kansas City
Blues and barbecue are just bonuses in this vibrant but easygoing town.
© Beth Gauper
The American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum share a building in the 18th and Vine district.
Aside from its barbecue and jazz, most people know little about Kansas City.
But when I went there one April, I found much more than saxophones and spare ribs. Around every corner there are beautiful
fountains, sculptures and tiers of flowers.
There are blues and swing and folk in clubs open till 3 a.m. There are microbreweries and boiled crawfish by the pound and Cinderella carriages clopping through streets lined by Spanish haciendas.
And if you want something really exotic, the South is just outside its borders.
That’s where people still call each other "Mr.’’ and "Mrs.’’ Where millions of pounds of tobacco are harvested each year. Where the War Between the States ruined a good thing, and those long-ago interlopers are called Yankee dogs.
Not in very many places, really — but in just enough places to startle a wide-eyed Northerner.
Within its borders, Kansas City is cosmopolitan, but not overly so, which means that when you go to its clubs, restaurants and shops, you can find a table and a free place to park. Call it Big City Lite.
One of the reasons Kansas City seems so easygoing compared to other cities is that its downtown is not the center of action, though the new Power & Light District is keeping some people downtown in the evenings.
The places where everyone wants to be are 30 blocks south, in historic Westport and nearby Country Club Plaza, a striking, Spanish-style retail area called "Nichols’ Folly’’ when a developer started it in 1922 as the nation’s first planned shopping center.
I stayed at the Raphael, a classy boutique hotel overlooking the plaza from across Brush Creek, where canopied boats carry
tourists on narrated tours. From there, I walked over to meet friends at KC Masterpiece Barbecue & Grill, started
by the late sauce magnate Rich Davis.
The place was packed with people drinking the local Boulevard ale and eating hickory-roasted ribs, brisket and burnt ends. Barbecue is serious business in Kansas City, where residents appraise the body and character of sauce as if it were a ’45 Lafite Rothschild; the local style is a thick, tomato-based sauce that balances sweetness with spice.
From there, we drove up Main Street to the Grand Emporium. It's closed now, but in its heyday, it was a handbill-plastered
shrine to the blues in a town that was its cradle in the ’20s and ’30s, in hundreds of bars that offered live
music all night, every night.
Count Basie and Charlie "Bird’’ Parker were among the world-class musicians who helped create the swinging, blues-based jazz that became the Kansas City sound.
Jay McShann was another; he came to Kansas in 1937 when he was 21 and had his first national hit five years later with
"Confessin’ the Blues,’’ when Parker played in his band.
© Beth Gauper
The streets of Country Club Plaza are lined with restaurants and shops.
We were lucky to see McShann play "Confessin’ ’’ that night at the Grand Emporium, running his arthritic
fingers along the keyboard and sending an occasional sly, gold-tinted grin up at the packed house. He was playing nearly
until his death in 2006 at age 90.
We got to hear more of his music the next day at the American Jazz Museum, which, with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, occupies a beautiful building on a quiet block not far from downtown’s glass towers. This is the famous 18th & Vine, once the vibrant center of Kansas City’s black community.
"We didn’t have much, but man, we had a good time,’’ an elderly man tells the camera in a video shown at
the museum. "Baby, you hadn’t lived until you’d gone to 18th and Vine. That was it.’’
We watched other cool old folks describe dressing to the nines for Kansas City Monarchs baseball games, dancing at mixers put on by the many social clubs and meeting at the Street Hotel, where Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and every other black celebrity would stay because, as one man remembered, "you couldn’t go someplace else.’’
Then we looked at the empty street outside and at the poignant, newly painted signs on the buildings across the street, around the newly restored Gem Theater: Sylvia’s Soul Food Restaurant; Ocee McClellan, Tailor; Lucille’s Paradise Dinette.
Unfortunately, they’re just facades. The end of legal segregation in the 1950s meant that African-Americans could live and play anywhere in Kansas City and, ironically, helped hasten the end of 18th & Vine.
Now the city has brought it back with the two museums, both wonderful. The jazz museum has 15 kiosks, each on subjects from
native son Charlie Parker to bebop to vocalists, and each with headphones and a slate of musical selections to punch.
On one of nine mixing boards, I inserted various styles of piano into a jazz composition, and on one of four consoles I called up Billie Holiday from a vast library of CDs. Jazz fans will be like kids in a candy store at this ’’museum.’’
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has a miniature infield, with a bronze Satchel Paige on the mound.
It chronicles the story of black athletes who had been playing team baseball since 1885, if only for the guests of tony East
Coast hotels, but weren’t organized until the National Association of Colored Professional Baseball Clubs was organized
in 1920 at a Kansas City YMCA.
There were "clown’’ clubs, too; the Indianapolis Clowns was the first home of Hank Aaron. He didn’t have to wear a grass skirt, like some, but he and the other black players suffered many other indignities until after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
Since we’d covered blues and barbecue, it was time to move on. Westport, once the jumping-off spot for the Santa Fe Trail, now is a district of small shops, restaurants and clubs.
McCoy’s Public House and Brew Kitchen occupies the site of the 1844 Harris House inn, around which the 1864 Battle of Westport swirled; we chose its outdoor deck to have a six-pack sampler of its beers and to watch the people and red trolley cars glide by.
© Beth Gauper
Country Club Plaza is known for its many fountains.
Then we browsed in some of the hip little shops before heading a few blocks north to 39th Street, where Jazz, A Louisiana Kitchen, sits at the end of a two-block stretch of Mexican, Indian, Ethiopian, Vietnamese and Italian restaurants.
A folk trio was playing, but the food was Cajun, and I worked my way through two pounds of spicy boiled crawfish and an order of hush puppies.
The next morning, we drove to City Market, just north of downtown. Near here, St. Louis trader Francois Chouteau set up a
post in 1821, moving farther and farther from the muddy Missouri after each flood.
Now, this former warehouse district is the site of a weekend farmers market and the Steamboat Arabia Museum, which preserves the frontier-bound goods of a boat wrecked in the Missouri in 1856.
But it was still early in the season, with vendors and delis not quite in gear, so we headed back to Country Club Plaza and
sat on the terrace of the Classic Cup, consuming plates of cheese-and-garlic grits, grilled Italian sausage and quesadillas
with pozole and eggs.
Nearby, children sprawled over a bronze replica of the Wild Boar of Florence and played keep-away around the 17th-century
The 12 ornate towers, the best-known one patterned on the Giralda Tower of the cathedral in Seville, along with wrought-iron balconies and bullfighter mosaics, give the plaza a movie-set atmosphere, especially when the gauzy white Cinderella carriages go by.
They exist, of course, to draw shoppers to the shops — Ann Taylor, Pottery Barn, Anthropologie, Banana Republic. Between Country Club Plaza, Westport and an antiques district in cottages and Victorians just to the west, on the Kansas state line, there’s enough shopping for anyone.
The thing is, the plaza is so beautiful, it’s a shame to go inside. We just walked, over to the J.C. Nichols Memorial
Fountain, framed in red and yellow tulips, and across Main up to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where three giant badminton
shuttlecocks are kissing cousins to Minneapolis' Spoonbridge and Cherry, also sculpted by Claes Oldenburg.
Then we went back to 18th and Vine, where four young jazz musicians were playing the Blue Room, adjoining the Jazz
It was good to see people frequenting the historic district, and we settled at the table next to the Jay McShann wall and let our imaginations slip back half a century.
I left town wishing I had more time. It doesn't matter if it's cow town or cosmopolis; Kansas City is just plain fun.
Trip Tips: Kansas City
When to go: Spring is beautiful. Summer is hot, but fall is mild and stretches into November. On Mondays, some places are closed.
Getting around: The airport is far from town, so if you're flying, it’s nearly as cheap for two to rent a car
for the weekend as to take the airport shuttle. Driving and parking are easy.
Accommodations: Check the tourism web site for deals.
© Beth Gauper
Four giant badminton shuttlecocks dot the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
The Raphael is well-located near Country Club Plaza and has handsome suites. Ask for
weekend specials. 816-756-3800.
The Southmoreland is a very attractive 12-room B&B inn on a quiet street a block from Country Club Plaza. 816-531-7979.
Downtown, Hotel Phillips is a 1931 art-deco landmark, 816-221-7000.
In Westport, possibilities include the Q Hotel and Spa, 800-942-4233.
Dining: Good dining is quite inexpensive. And as for barbecue, according to the authors of "Real Barbecue,’’ "Choosing one joint in Kansas City as 'the best’ is as pointless as looking down a row of Rockettes and worrying about who has the best knee dimples.’’
The Union Station science and cultural center includes a planetarium, 3D movie
theater, Science City and KC Rail Experience, and you still can catch a train there. Building admission is free; attractions
Outdoor baseball: For Royals tickets, call 800-676-9257.
Day trips: Within an hour are the historic towns of Weston, Independence and Lexington and Jesse James sites in Liberty and Kearney.
Information: Kansas City tourism, 800-767-7700.
Last updated on December 29, 2011
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