From Satchel to Satchmo

You all know there’s a lot to do in Kansas City, particularly if you like good food and abundant shopping opportunities. But Kansas City also offers plenty of opportunities to explore and to learn about history, and that’s where places like the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum, which share space as The Museums at 18th and Vine in the city’s downtown region, come in.

If you’re a baseball fan, you’ve simply got to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (www.nlbm.com), which not only tells the story of the great players who, because of their color weren’t allowed to play in the Major Leagues, but the impact they had on society as a whole.

MoTravelMama, Leah (you’ll remember her from my posts about the Current River float trip), Derek from the Kansas City CVA and I had the privilege of being led on the tour by Mr. Kendrick, the museum’s vice president of marketing. His knowledge about the game, his obvious passion for the museum and what it represents were evident in the stories he told and the facts he shared with us.

The baseball museum, which shares an open lobby with the American Jazz Museum, is beautifully designed and its centerpiece is a replica field with statues depicting players who represent a Negro Leagues’ All-Star team. Included is Kansas City’s own Buck O’Neil, who is depicted as the team’s manager. You’ll also find statues of great pitcher Satchel Paige, St. Louis’ own James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell — who apparently was so fast, even Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens would not race him around the bases, for he knew what the outcome would be — and Josh Gibson, a great power hitter whose home run numbers rival those of any modern-day slugger and are made more remarkable considering he played in the dead ball era.

Displays at the museum depict accommodations Negro League players had in hotels and the period dress both men and women wore to the games, which were played on Sundays. Everyone dressed to the nines because, as Mr. Kendrick pointed out, “You never knew who you were going to see.”

There’s also memorabilia on display, including hundreds of baseballs autographed by Negro League players – did you know Charley Pride played in the Negro Leagues before embarking on his country-music career? – to celebrities, including the first lady, Michelle Obama.

The story of Jackie Robinson, who actually played for the Kansas City Monarchs before making it to the majors, also unfolds in displays at the museum.

Just a hop, skip and jump away from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is The American Jazz Museum (www.americanjazzmuseum.com) , which puts the spotlight on one of this country’s most popular musical forms.

As our guide Mr. North said, “Jazz was born in New Orleans, but it was raised in Kansas City.”  The displays, which include stations where you can listen to jazz greats Louis Armstrong (“Satchmo”), Duke Ellington, Charlie “Bird” Parker and Ella Fitzgerald, are very modern and quite stylish.

You’ll also find lots of information on these musicians, who are considered among the genre’s most influential figures.

Mr. North offered some wonderful stories about the jazz legends featured at the museum. For example, do you know how Armstrong got the nickname “Satchmo?” It seems that, as a small child, other kids picked on him because he had a large mouth. They actually called him satchel mouth. In later years, as his fame grew, fans shortened that mean-spirited nickname to “Satchmo” as a term of endearment.

Charlie Parker, meanwhile, was called “Bird” because he loved fried chicken. Mr. North said Parker was once riding on a bus that struck a chicken. He had the driver stop and pull over and he went out to tend to the chicken, which many people in those days referred to as “yard birds” because most folks had them in their yards.

Well, Parker wasn’t trying to nurse the chicken back to health, as his friends on the bus believed. Instead, he was holding it until the next stop, which happened to house a restaurant. He took the bird into the kitchen and had chicken for dinner that night. His friends started calling him “Yard Bird” after that, and it was later shortened to “Bird.”

The American Jazz Museum is also home to the John Baker Film Collection, and a special viewing area has been constructed to showcase films where jazz music and musicians play a prominent or featured role. The exhibit includes never-before-seen photos and there are viewing stations where people can watch “soundies,” which Mr. North said were, in all actuality, the first music videos.

Also at the Jazz Museum is the Blue Room, a jazz club that’s been recognized as one of Kansas City’s best and one of the world’s best. There’s something happening nearly every night of the week at the Blue Room, and it’s said to be one of the hottest tickets in town on the weekends.

We truly enjoyed our tour and the information Mr. North shared with us.

Again, it’s a pleasure to meet and listen to people who are passionate about their work, andboth Mr. Kendrick and  Mr. North fit that bill.

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