“Kansas City, here I come,
They got a crazy way of lovin’ there
And I’m gonna get me one.”
-“Kansas City,” written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller
Ah, Paris. A city awash with bootleg booze and brothels, streets alight until wee morning hours, live music belting from each of the endless strips of jazz clubs…
Wait, what? Oh, no no—I’m not talking about Paris, France. I’m talking about the Paris of the Plains—a nickname well deserved by Kansas City.
Welcome to the 1920s and ‘30s in Kansas City, Mo., the original city of American sin.
In an era of aridity throughout the United States, we can thank old Boss Tom Pendergast for keeping the liquor a-flowin’ in our city during Prohibition (1920-1933). Boss’s (dirty) political clout and mob connections allowed for utterly uninhibited happenings. Imagine, if you will, streets lined with establishments boasting nude women in windows, late-night gambling, heavy liquor consumption and the best damn music scene around. We know it wasn’t all fun and games—hardships abound—but at least we could have a Tom Collins to take the edge off.
If you wanted jazz, you went to Kansas City, and you went to 12th and Vine. While big-time artists such as William “Count” Basie knocked back Old-Fashioned’s after shows in The Orchid Room, the jazz scene also fostered local heroes like Charlie Parker, sweat beading his brow, spitting outrageous tunes on his saxophone at Piney Brown’s Sunset Club. Twelfth Street alone comprised 50 jazz and blues clubs—only a few blocks away from 18th and Vine, the nearby nearly-as-influential jazz and blues district.
The latter corner is now home to Kansas City’s Mutual Musicians Foundation, which has remained exempt from state liquor laws since the 1940s. It continues the Kansas-City-born tradition of jam sessions and perpetual boozing, true to the ethos of both blues and jazz. The American Jazz Museum at 1616 E. 18th St. immortalizes the unique Kansas City jazz style—emphasizing bluesy overtones and heavy solo work—as well as bebop and influential artists such as the Coon Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra.
The scandalous 12th and Vine district underwent an unsuccessful renovation in the 1970s, but in 2005 was dedicated as a piano-shaped park called “Goin’ to Kansas City Plaza.” Mike Stoller himself (co-writer of “Kansas City”) attended the ceremony, walking the bright path that forms an enormous red clef only seen from the skies.
Drawn by our palatial musical history, Folk Alliance International migrated to Kansas City in 2014. The Folk Store at 509 Delaware Street in the River Market now serves as main headquarters for Folk Alliance International—an organization boasting 3000+ members worldwide. In February of 2014, Kansas City hosted its first Folk Alliance International Conference (one of the five largest music festivals in North America). Held in years past in Vancouver, Canada, San Diego, Calif., and most recently Memphis, Tenn., these annual conferences began in 1989 as an opportunity for musicians to network and boogie the night away. Five nights, in fact, touting an incredible 500-performer line-up featuring such big names as Graham Nash (of the iconic folk group Crosby, Stills and Nash), a speech from former Vice President Al Gore, and local bands like Truck Stop Honeymoon, Victor & Penny and Deadman Flats. Annual attendances surpass 2,000 people, and we are glad that the bluegrass conferences will be held in Kansas City from 2014-2018.
The Folk Store chose the perfect historic home at 509 Delaware St. The old Kansas City Paper House building, erected in 1895 lies in the oldest part of the city: River Market. In 1885, company president, George Wittich, treasurer, EJ Penfield, and secretary, Ellis Jones, migrated to Kansas City with S.C. Moody & Co., shortly thereafter becoming Kansas City Paper House when MV Watson (president of the Kansas City Commercial Club and the vice president of a local insurance giant) bought into the company.
The building presently boasts a paint job nearly as vibrant as the tradition it brings to Kansas City. The Folk Store serves not only as home base to the Folk Alliance International, but also as an intriguing boutique store. An eclectic array of antique strings line the lime-green walls—you might spy anything from banjos to mandolins or even a Dobro, a resonator guitar dating back to the 1920s. You can also find offbeat folk art and approximately a million concert fliers plastered on the community board.
Kansas City welcomes the Folk Alliance with open arms, the perfect addition to further our rich historical and musical culture. Just look for the giant brightly colored F O L K bedecking the windows—you can’t miss it, and you won’t want to.