A Collector Hopes His Jazz Art Lures Visitors To A Struggling Cultural Center In Liberty

Jun 2, 2017

Jazz art collector Juan Houston alongside a painting of him in the exhibit by artist June Marie.
Credit Danny Wood / KCUR 89.3

A unique collection of jazz art is on display in Kansas City’s Northland. The collector, Juan Houston hopes the display will draw attention to the little-known Garrison School Cultural Center in Liberty.

“He is local, he was born and raised here in Liberty, Missouri, and he wanted to do this for Garrison School to let the community come up to see Garrison as well as see his collection,” says Cecilia Robinson, a retired William Jewell College English professor.

From the 1880s up until the late 1950s, this old art-deco-style building was Clay County’s first school for African Americans. About 15 years ago, the Clay County African American Legacy Consortium bought it from the Liberty School District. It’s only a block from the busy town square in Liberty, but at the end of a poorly kept suburban street with no signage. Few local residents realize there’s a fragile historic spot nearby. 

Volunteer curator Cecilia Robinson in front of the Garrison School Cultural Center in Liberty, Missouri.
Credit Danny Wood / KCUR 89.3

The cultural center has permanent displays of colorful folk art by Louisiana born self-taught artist Clementine Hunter and original paintings on mini-blinds by Kansas City artist Curtis Crowley.

Robinson would like to open the center to show its collection every day, but by herself she can only manage once a month and by appointment.

“This is the first time that we’ve had a collector let us use a collection of work on one theme like this,” she says of Houston's display.

Houston, who retired from the Air Force as a Chief Master Sergeant and now works as a security guard, has a special connection to the building: He went to kindergarten there. This is the first time he has publicly exhibited the more than 260 jazz-themed paintings, prints, sculptures and decoupage that fill his three-story home in Gladstone.

Houston is always on the hunt for more objects, and they come from every possible source including artists, friends, chance purchases during his travels throughout the United States and overseas with the military or for work.  

“When I walk into an antique store, it’s like I have a beacon and I look over and I see things. I run right to it,” he says.

Houston was inspired to start collecting about 15 years ago by an item on display in the current exhibition. It’s an aluminum poster advertising a 1985 performance by the Count Basie Orchestra in Kansas City’s now defunct Vista International Hotel. Dominating the image is Louis Armstrong on his trumpet. Houston came across it while working at the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority as a contractor. A manager was retiring and clearing out his office.

“I said, ‘Well, this piece here what are you going to do with it?’ He said, ‘I’m going to throw it in the trash.’ I said, ‘What! No it’s beautiful.’ And so I took it home and that was the first piece I ever had,” says Houston.

The poster has a moody feel with its dark blue tones.

“I like the color scheme coming down the saxophone with the red and the blues, a little bit of white in there. It’s sleek and it’s clean,” he says.

A waist-high sculpture in the Garrison exhibit came from a small town in Bangladesh. Houston acquired it while touring as a bodyguard for a group of performers. 

“This piece is a two story jazz band fountain and it has an array of jazz musicians that are on this two piece and when it’s turned on the water flows down into a pool below like they’re basically on a cabana or something like that playing jazz music,” he says.

“It was a store where this guy, he had stuff everywhere, like a hoarder and I saw this laying at an angle,” says Houston.

A waist high, two story jazz band fountain acquired by Houston in Bangladesh while on tour as a bodyguard for a group of performers.
Credit Danny Wood / KCUR 89.3

Like the creator of this fountain, the artists are sometimes unknown, but Houston commissioned other works in the exhibition. A book with the pages sculpted into the shape of a saxophone is by Kansas City artist LaJeana Fagan. 

“She had another piece, a book like this that was done as a horse or something. I said, ‘Can you do one as a saxophone?’ She goes, ‘I don’t know if I can do that. Well let me see.’ She comes back with this!”

Houston wants his collection to inspire more people to understand and enjoy jazz art and jazz music. He and Robinson also hope word about his exhibition will gain more attention for the Garrison School Cultural Center, so it can open more often. 

Robinson has an idea that could facilitate that.

“If we can work something out so that we can get a collaboration with high school students or college students who want to do internships, that would be an ideal opportunity,” she says.

Until then, anyone who wants to visit will have to track down Cecelia Robinson.

This month, the Garrison School Cultural Center in Liberty is open on Friday, June 23, and by appointment. Juan Houston’s collection of jazz art is up through June. To make an appointment to see Houston’s collection, contact Cecilia Robinson via the email contact form on the Cultural Center’s website.

Danny Wood is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.