As the Kansas City Council considers more than $27 million in new investments in the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District, leaders of the district’s oldest landmark want to make sure City Hall respects the special status of the Mutual Musicians Foundation.
It’s a sacred place not just because alcohol flows legally there after hours.
The Foundation building at 18th and Highland occupies a unique place not only in Kansas City history but in United States history. One of only two National Historic Landmarks in Kansas City (the other is the Liberty Memorial), it’s the original home of Kansas City’s Colored Musicians Union Local 627.
The colored local 627 merged with the white local 34 in the early 1970s, and Kansas City’s Foundation is one of the only black musicians’ union halls still in use.
“I knew there was a 'colored' musicians’ union, but I thought we were the only one,” says Anita Dixon, the Foundation’s executive director.
But as she began doing research for the Foundation’s centennial anniversary next year, she discovered there were 34 such unions around the country. And when B.B. King and Ben E. King died in 2015, she realized they would have been members of colored unions and grew concerned about who else was out there.
“Where was everybody and where were their stories?” she wonders. “How old could they be now?”
Dixon put ads in black newspapers around the country with a call to action: “If you belonged to the black musicians unions from this certain period, we’re looking to bring you to Kansas City.”
Fourteen responded. Four of them had been members of Kansas City’s Local 627, though one didn’t live here anymore and flew in from Oakland. Others came from as far away as New York, New Orleans and Winnipeg. On June 16, they filed into the city council chambers, where Councilman Scott Wagner read a resolution in their honor and council members shook their hands.
They spent the next couple of days sitting for videotaped interviews with Dixon, attending a dinner in their honor at the Peach Tree Café, and receiving medals in a ceremony at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center.
And telling stories.
'You could play the gigs, but you could not socialize'
Marvin Leon Achyutan Pattillo, a drummer, is the 627 member who grew up in Kansas City but now lives in Oakland. He’s played with “a lot of beautiful people,” he says, including John Coltrane. Pattillo is 81, and still plays gigs around the Bay Area.
He joined the union when he was 13, after getting a gig at the famous Orchid Room at 12th and Vine – his band played on Sunday nights, when the venue didn’t sell alcohol so youngsters could play.
As he got older, Pattillo played in Frank Smith’s legendary Kansas City trio and toured with Texas bluesman Eddie Cleanhead Vinson.
“But,” he says, “you couldn’t go in the hotels and play. There was Johnny Baker’s, where I played with Jay McShann, out on Troost. That was a white club but had a black band in it. After we would take our intermissions we would have to go down in the basement. But the people who loved the music, they would come down and socialize with us anyway.”
Woodwind player James Hardy Patterson, from Georgia, had the same experience.
“You could play the gigs, but you could not socialize or be in the mixture of the guests. You would come off the band stand and go to the kitchen or go outside. You couldn’t linger on the dance floor.”
On tour throughout the country, Patterson remembers, “There was no place to eat for African Americans. You would go to the black side of town and get something to eat. If you were on the white side, there were some places you could get a sandwich stuck through the window out to you.”
Patterson was drafted into the Army in the 1950s. The armed forces were integrated by then, but he still had to move to the back of the bus even when he was in uniform. And he quit wearing that uniform in public after learning an unwritten rule.
“We were advised not to wear the Army uniform in public. Nobody knows that little tidbit.”
If white people saw black people in uniform, he explained, they would be forced to give them “too much respect.”
So when he was on leave, he says, “I just packed it in a bag most of the time and never wore it.”
Patterson went on teach jazz at Clark Atlanta University. He formed the James Hardy Patterson Foundation, and at the invitation of Rep. John Conyers of Michigan (who is on his foundation’s board and passed legislation declaring jazz to be a national treasure), testified for a Congressional panel about the need to preserve and promote jazz.
'I can show people that I can perform'
The visiting musicians had played with all the big names and at famous jazz festivals all over the world.
June “Pepper” Harris lives in Winnipeg but grew up in Chicago. She joined the union after getting a job in the Rush Street entertainment district when a club needed a piano player fast.
“At first they didn’t want to hire me because they saw that I was not white. My agent told me, ‘June, you don’t have to take this job if you don’t want it.’ I thought for a second. I decided, I can open doors. I can show people that I can perform. Because I had been studying opera and I can sing in Italian. And Spanish!”
She was 17 when she got accepted into the union with a group of other teenagers specifically to protest segregated unions.
“I was the only girl,” she says. “And so we marched.”
Count Basie to the rescue
Esdras Lubin, a bass fiddle and bass guitar player from New Haven, Connecticut, ended up playing in the black union even though he was white.
Living in the Navy town of Norfolk, Virginia, in the 1960s, he says, “I got introduced to these black guys who were playing in white sailor bars. I moved to the other side of town where white people didn’t go – they asked me to go with them and I went.”
When the national office ordered the local unions to merge, Lubin remembers, “Everybody was up in arms about it. The white guys didn’t want their pensions going to the black guys.”
One night, Lubin had a gig with a black woman singer who knew Count Basie was playing at a club called the Golden Triangle.
“The white union had hired the Basie Orchestra for a gala so they could blow off the excess cash they had – they didn’t want the black guys getting their hands on it. We went in through the kitchen and snuck in to the big ballroom, and there was the Basie band. I’d never heard them, and I was just flabbergasted by sound. Then, here comes the secretary and president of white local. They tried to head us off. We all arrived at piano at same moment, and she says, ‘Bill!’ He says, ‘Sue!’ She opens her arms – she had these enormous bosoms – and Basie threw themselves into them. It stopped the white union guys dead cold.”
'It's very late'
The musicians might have been part of history, but, weirdly, some of them had never been to Kansas City.
Bass trombone and tuba player Jack Jeffers of New York seemed in awe of the famous musicians on the walls at the Foundation. His picture’s not up there, but that didn’t matter.
“I’m one of them,” Jeffers says. “That’s the way it makes me feel.”
He knows there aren’t many left.
“Everybody here is 70-years or older,” he says of the musicians who came to Kansas City for the colored union events. “And probably there are a lot our age who are no longer involved in music, and their names are just not remembered. Most of the people who were members of the segregated unions are dead.”
Given that reality, and how hard travel would be for other elderly union members who might have known about the Kansas City reunion but couldn’t make it, Dixon was happy to get fourteen people here.
“That’s a very good number for America to remember that these people existed, and within such a segregated situation, created such an explosive cultural artform for America,” she says. “I think it’s amazing.”
For Marvin Leon Achyutan Pattillo, recognition at City Hall was overdue.
“This is 2016. I’m 81, so the union’s almost about a hundred-years-old. So it’s very late.”
Late, but not too late. After all, musicians are still playing at the Foundation.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.