Kansas City Union, Home to Bird and Basie, Plans Centennial Celebration


Members of the Mutual Musicians Foundation attend the dedication of the Musicians Association Building in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1930.

(Photo: Courtesy MMFI)

On March 2, 2017, the Mutual Musicians Foundation International (MMFI) will celebrate the centennial of Kansas City’s famed Musicians Protective Union Local 627. Better known in its early years as the “Colored Musicians Union,” Local 627 soon became the epicenter of the vibrant Kansas City jazz scene.

Based in the heart of the rapidly expanding 18th and Vine entertainment district, the Local grew quickly—adding such distinguished names as William “Count” Basie, Mary Lou Williams and Charlie Parker over the next two decades. The Local remained vital through the 1950s and ’60s as well, with legendary artists such as Ben Webster and Jay McShann on its membership rolls.

When the American Federation of Musicians ordered all segregated musician unions to merge with white and integrated locals during the 1960s, Local 627 was one of the last segregated locals to finally agree.

On April 2, 1970, Local 627 became part of Local 34. But before the merger took place, the members of 627 created MMFI as a way to maintain control of the union’s building, turning it into a social club for musicians.

MMFI, which remains very active today, has held weekly weekend jam sessions from 1 a.m. to dawn in the building’s lounge, which currently houses a small stage, bar and photos and information about the Local’s famous alumni.

Over the past decade, MMFI has expanded its focus beyond just hosting jam sessions. Under the leadership of Executive Director Anita Dixon, MMFI is pushing to expand its presence—both in the Kansas City area and on an international scale.

In addition to the recent effort in mid-June to honor and videotape members of Black musicians unions around the country, MMFI is working to get a low-power FM community radio station based at the Foundation building on the air in time for the Local 627 centennial in 2017.

“It’s going to be called KOJH,” Dixon said during a recent interview. “It will be on the FM dial at 104.7, and will be dedicated to playing Kansas City jazz. It’s been many years since there’s been a radio station in the 18th and Vine area, which is the historic center of the black community in Kansas City. We’ve been working on this for three years since we got our non-profit 501c3 status, and we finally have the studio built.”

With the opening of the American Jazz Museum in 1997 in the 18th and Vine District—which shares a building with the Negro Leagues Baseball Hall of Fame—the area got an immediate boost in recognition and tourism. But almost 20 years later, the Jazz Museum is dealing with a $60,000 budget cut in city funding. And a recent potential $27.6 million bond issue to fund improvements throughout the District is stalled in the City Council.

“There’s a combination of deterioration and gentrification happening in the district,” Dixon said, “and there’s no cohesive overall plan. So here at MMFI, we have to move forward to do what we can to make sure the musical history here is honored. And since we don’t have city funding, we have to work at doing that in other ways.”

One way that Dixon has gained valuable research data is through a partnership with the University of Missouri Kansas City.

“UMKC put together a class to research where the musicians who were in Local 627 lived over the years,” Dixon explained. “It was research that would have literally cost us tens of thousands of dollars if we had to pay a private firm. And they were able to track down many of those homes—including 12 that are still standing in the immediate neighborhood. It’s definitely a big step in documenting the deep musical history here.”

Kansas City’s jazz history has profound importance far beyond the boundaries of the 18th and Vine District, according to Dr. Larry Ridley, one of the musicians who travelled to Kansas City this June for MMFI’s extensive video documentation project.

Ridley, a jazz bassist and educator based in New York City, has an impressive resume. He has played with Chet Baker, James Moody, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver and many others. He also founded the jazz program at Rutgers University and is a 1999 inductee in DownBeat’s Jazz Education Hall of Fame.

“I’ve been involved with the Kansas City jazz scene for many years,” he said. “Eddie Baker, who founded the Charlie Parker Foundation here, brought me in to talk and play at his annual Parker tributes. That’s how I first met Anita, and she’s brought me back several times to work with MMFI on projects.

“History can be very elusive, and what she and the MMFI are doing to document black musical unions is really important. And it’s especially important to document that legacy here in Kansas City as well.”

Now that the video documentation project is underway, the immediate focus for Dixon is the 2017 centennial celebration of Local 627 and getting MMFI’s radio station on the air. But those upcoming plans also fit into the long-term goals for the organization.

“We are working to shape an overall cultural heritage plan,” she said. And it’s built on four principles: preservation, tourism, education and entertainment. They’re all equally important for MMFI, the 18th and Vine District, for Kansas City’s jazz tradition and jazz around the world. We’re also working to make the Foundation building a World Heritage site.”

To learn more about MMFI and its history, click here.

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