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Proposed Jazz Hall of Fame Has Accusations Flying in Kansas City

January 14, 1992

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ The jazz that rocked the legendary 18th and Vine streets district into the wee hours from the 1920s to the ’40s has been replaced by angry accusations.

It’s there among the boarded-up buildings covered with drawings of jazz greats of yesteryear - Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker - that city officials and jazz enthusiasts hope to build a grand tribute to Kansas City jazz.

But the International Jazz Hall of Fame’s future remains murky.

Although all agree it would showcase the city and allow a truly American art form to flourish, allegations of fiscal irresponsibility and racism abound.

At the core of much of the acrimony: Eddie Baker, executive director of the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation, which retains ownership of the trademark for the hall of fame concept. Two decades ago, the hall of fame became a glimmer in Baker’s eye.

Some critics claim the foundation has a dubious financial track record, is in disarray and is incapable of raising its $2 million to $3 million share for furnishings and exhibits at the hall of fame.

Baker vehemently denies that, and maintains his detractors are trying to derail the project.

″I’m highly capable, very capable, more capable than anyone in this town to do it,″ Baker said, ″These are people who don’t want this thing. ... This is a racist town. They don’t want it because it’s going to a black neighborhood.″

Numerous people - black and white - who have doubts about the project and about Baker declined to speak for the record, citing Baker’s considerable influence that could affect their jobs, their standing in the jazz community and at City Hall.

They hail the hall of fame’s intent, but fear it will become mired in bureaucracy and poor money management.

The proposed complex would span several blocks. It would include a music academy, a new home for the Black Archives of Mid-America Inc., a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and a housing development of up to 500 units geared toward young professionals. In addition, the defunct Gem Theater would be renovated as a concert hall.

Kansas City officials say the sprawling project, set for groundbreaking in the summer 1993, would be the only one in the country to combine jazz history and education, culture and community development in one endeavor.

Kansas City’s unique jazz style of decades ago was grounded in blues, ragtime and folk music, and developed through a combination of the swing era dance beats. The genre blossomed through the 1930s, when saxophonist Parker began his ascent to fame here in his hometown.

In 1929, when the stock market crashed, Kansas City’s night life survived and employment for musicians reached their highest levels. As many as 60 music halls and speak-easies thrived and the booze flowed endlessly in the permissive climate of political boss Tom Pendergast.

But with Pendergast’s indictment on tax evasion charges and the end of his political career in 1938, Kansas City jazz fizzled.

Over the years, local organizations tried in vain to construct a monument to jazz.

Then last September, the City Council approved spending $14.6 million in sales tax money to build the hall of fame and teaching academy, design other buildings and provide landscaping improvements. The archives and baseball museum, estimated at another $5.4 million, would be built in a second phase.

The Parker Foundation, the Black Archives of Mid-America Inc. and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Foundation would be responsible for raising money to furnish their own buildings and supply exhibits.

Baker said he has several big names in the industry - such as Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and Parker’s family - who have promised both cash and in-kind donations.

″We have an opportunity to educate the American public about their unique American heritage,″ Baker said. ″This is the only art form that was created here in America. Historically, jazz museums have not survived because people have not had the chance to understand. This also is a classroom.″

Nonetheless, the proposal has various interest groups haggling over it.

Said Doug Alpert, director of the Kansas City Jazz Commission: ″From time to time we hear rumors of acrimony. There are differing opinions of how the jazz hall of fame should take place.″

Horace Washington, saxophonist and former president of the Mutual Musicians Foundation, fears the hall of fame won’t materialize as planned. But he expressed optimism that ″in whatever form it comes together, it’s gonna happen.″

″Kansas City has the best jazz in the world this instant,″ Washington said. ″I think it would be an excellent deal for the city. It’s one of those things Kansas City can offer to the entire world.″

Local musicians young and old say if the project succeeds, Kansas City once again will be a jazz mecca.

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