The following is a piece in a four-part series highlighting all that Missouri has to offer in the worlds of food, art, music and adventure. Missouri – or “Mo,” as we refer to her – has no shortage of places to explore, so whatever you’re after, there’s a Mo for every M-O.
Savvy travelers know that the Kansas City music scene has a not-so-hidden wealth of destinations worth visiting. The barbecue-loving, middle-of-the-map metropolis has grown into a buzzing live music hotspot that is also known the world over for its storied place in jazz history.
Below, you’ll get to know a few of the people and places that make the “City of Fountains” a premier travel destination for any music fan in search of an unforgettable live show.
The origin story of Knuckleheads reads kind of like a folktale. It all started when owner Frank Hicks moved his collision repair shop from Columbus Park to the East Bottoms back in 1969. Eventually, Hicks bought up more property in the area and converted an old railroad boarding house into a motorcycle shop. While the neighbors weren’t upset by the noise from the choppers (they were already accustomed to all of the trains passing through), Hicks found it tough to attract customers to his industrial district digs. That’s when, in 2001, he set up a small bar for beer and tacos and invited blues musicians and bikers alike to throw street parties there. After a few years, the bar was bringing in more business than the motorcycle shop, and the Knuckleheads we know and love came to be.
The venue is now a veritable entertainment complex, featuring the original indoor saloon stage, the smaller Gospel Lounge (where each week Pastor Carl Butler convenes his honky-tonk church for beers, blues, and Bible readings), a large outdoor stage and the recent addition of a garage stage (the former collision repair shop). Since Knuckleheads began booking touring acts in 2004, they’ve hosted the likes of Johnny Winter, Ray Price, Kinky Friedman, Sly & Robbie, and Billy Joe Shaver. Oftentimes, more than one stage will be functioning at the same time.
“It’s like a mom-and-pop shop,” says Hicks. “We take a special interest in all the artists. We treat ’em like they’re coming to our house.”
American Jazz Museum / The Blue Room / Gem Theater
Once home to over 50 jazz clubs at its peak in the early-to-mid 20th century, the 18th & Vine District is a must-visit for tourists of all ages. “There’s quite a bit of that Kansas City narrative that just sometimes gets trapped here in town and doesn’t make it nationally the way it should,” says American Jazz Museum executive director Rashida Phillips. “Coming here, I realized there’s a whole portion of jazz history that most folks don’t know of outside of maybe Charlie Parker.”
Established in 1997, the American Jazz Museum is home to exhibits, programs and countless artifacts spanning back over a century in the genre’s tradition. Among those treasures are a Grafton saxophone played by Charlie Parker, handwritten correspondence from John Coltrane, a gown worn by Ella Fitzgerald, and more. On display in the museum’s Changing Gallery this May through July will be a set of rare photographs of Billie Holiday. There’s also the John H. Baker Jazz Film Collection, featuring video footage and still images of early jazz history.
In addition to the main museum, the AJM also operates the Blue Room, a 150-seat jazz club in the same building, and the Gem Theater, a historic 500-capacity venue across the street. The museum’s first major event post-Covid-19 will be a celebration of what would have been Charlie Parker’s 101st birthday in August, including a parade, two-day film festival, and series of live tributes to the legendary saxophonist.
And if that isn’t enough cultural history for you, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is right next door.
Covid-19 has taken a heavy toll on our country’s live music business, and the brunt of that impact has been felt by small, independent venues. That’s why, in the months following the first shutdowns, the staff of long-running Kansas City bar/restaurant venues Voltaire and recordBar joined forces to establish Lemonad(e) Park. The venue operates on a lot purchased by Voltaire owner Wes Gartner, adjacent to the restaurant’s West Bottoms location, originally intended for parking.
Named for the age-old phrase, “when life hands you lemons,” and Gartner’s interest in Greek philosophy (monad, meaning “singularity”), Lemonad(e) Park had no trouble finding an audience starved for live music and musicians itching to play last summer.“ [The sound guys] really care about trying to make every band sound as good as possible,” says recordBar owner Steve Tulipana of his team.
In addition to pandemic-safe performances from area favorites like the Freedom Affair and Fritz Hutchison, food and drink from Voltaire (bistro fare and an extensive selection of cocktails, spirits, wine and beer) are available to order for your picnic-style enjoyment. The park returns for its second season this spring/summer, which means an expanded movie night series, some upgrades to the bar and, most importantly, more live music.