Kansas City Seen As Creative City of Music

June 24th, 2021 by

Locals may know the significant contribution that Kansas City made in the development of blues and jazz, but thanks to two activists who worked toward its recognition as a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO) City of Music that history and culture is center stage across the globe. Jake Wagner, Ph.D., associate professor of Urban Planning and Design at UMKC, began exploring the designation process in 2016 as part of a project with his students. “We were interested in how we could get students engaged,” Wagner says. “I had gotten my Ph.D. at the University of New Orleans. I was surveying the neighborhoods and went to see [jazz pianist] Jelly Roll Morton’s house. The whole neighborhood is a historic neighborhood. New Orleans is so good at celebrating their history of jazz.” When Wagner began teaching planning and historic preservation in Kansas City, he researched where the great jazz musicians had lived. “I went to find [saxophonist] Ben Webster’s house. He was born and raised in Kansas City. The whole neighborhood had been demolished.”

Wagner, based on his experience in New Orleans, thought Kansas City could do a better job promoting and preserving its musical heritage. In 2016 he teamed up with Anita Dixon to develop an urban planning studio to explore the process of having the Mutual Musicians Foundation, as the birthplace of jazz in Kansas City, become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Mutual Musicians Foundation was formerly known as Musicians Local No. 627, which was established in 1917. During segregation, Musicians Local No. 627 was located at 18th & Highland Avenue, a thriving community of Black residents.

In the process of the research, Dixon and Wagner discovered the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) and the
opportunity to join as the first UNESCO City of Music in the United States. The UCCN promotes international cooperation among cities that have identified creative solutions for sustainable urban development. There are a total 246 designated cities in seven categories – crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts, and music. Forty-seven cities in 36 countries are recognized for music. Kansas City is the only UNESCO Creative City of Music in the United States. Following the studio project, Anita Dixon, who was executive director of the Mutual Musicians Foundation at the time, began the application process. Wagner and Dixon agreed that the UNESCO designation as a City of Music would elevate Kansas City’s cultural capital and its perception.

“We didn’t want to talk about problems,” Wagner said. “We wanted to explore the idea of opportunities through culture. We are not investing in the historic neighborhoods that put Kansas City on the map. People come for the excitement about a place – a connection between past and future. Kansas City can market that as no one else has with food, heritage, and our musical history.” The application deadline was June 2017. Dixon and Wagner knew that support from the mayor’s office would be critical to the success of the application. She began working with Kim
Randolph, chief of staff at Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner’s office, who was instrumental in driving the application process. While they discussed postponing submitting the application until the next submission date, which would not have been for another two years, Dixon did not want to wait. “It had to be written and translated into two languages,
but we made it happen. We were 26 days from the deadline, but I said, ‘I’m going to do it.’ We made the case and
it won. We were the only music site in the United States selected that year.” Dixon says the city’s history itself was key to the application’s success.

“We have the cultural capital,” she says. “The city itself had done the work. It was just a matter of putting it on paper.”
Wagner adds that Kansas City also has the track record on sustainable urban development and climate action – we
just need to use creative approaches to make these processes
more equitable and inclusive.

Dixon sees the designation as critical to not only connecting to other countries and other cultures, but as a resource for musicians in Kansas City.

“We’ve been to eight countries. We are initiating meetings about cryptocurrency for artists in the Midwest. Copenhagen will be throwing a huge party with all Kansas City music and barbecue. They want people to be able to sample all the different Kansas City sauces. We have what the world wants.” She notes that the world is moving so fast and cultural capital will become more critical. “Language will no longer be a barrier as digital translation becomes easier and easier. Cryptocurrency will change the way we handle fees and payment. There’s a huge demand for masterclasses. This gives creators the opportunity to own their own works and gives them tools to make more money.”
Dixon wants to see 18th and Vine as vibrant as it was in its heyday. “I was the main speaker at a theatre in Copenhagen
that sold out two showings of YouTube videos of old jazz. They had me sign autographs. We can turn Kansas City
back into a place that people want to go. Our cultural capital is the key to entrepreneurship and sustainable economic development through creative industries.”

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