We all know the famous lyrics:
I'm going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come
I'm going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come
They got some crazy lil' women there
And I'm gonna get me one.
Well I already had my own crazy lil’ woman, Ann, a “Janeite” and when she suggested that I accompany her for the annual Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) meeting she usually attends, I said why not. The meeting was to celebrate the 200th anniversary of what is arguably her best novel, Persuasion. I like Austen’s works and we’ve never been to Kansas City. So, I became a “Janeite” and we planned to make a week of it, arriving several days before the conference began to explore the city.
More on the JASNA experience in a separate entry as this one covers the unexpected pleasures of the city itself and will be long enough. For that entry click here.
The convention hotel, the Westin Crown Center (highly recommended, great hotel), agreed to give us the convention rate for the entire week and after a flight connection in Atlanta, we arrived at the crowded, outdated Kansas City Airport (MCI) where we immediately got an Uber into the city.
Imagine our surprise when we were picked up by a couple that could have posed for Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Well, I thought, we ARE in Kansas City so why shouldn’t they look like that? Turns out the driver’s companion was indeed his wife and he takes her on Uber rides to and from the airport on Sunday afternoons. They were friendly as all get out: in fact, all the people we met in our city travels were as we took an Uber everyplace.
As Anne Elliot says in Persuasion, “…altogether my impressions of the place are very agreeable.” Actually, ours were more than agreeable. Kansas City, MO (there is a KC side in Kansas as well), has everything a jaded East Coast resident who considers everything between here and CA flyover country, could want, culture, jazz, historical sites, food (particularly Joe's BBQ), world class museums, and did I mention jazz and great food? It also has something I did not expect…..hills! Yes, imagine that, hills in Kansas City. Living in FL, I am envious.
It’s called the City of Fountains and there are many striking ones, but I’d call it a city of diversity, different districts each with their own focus, the Union Station/Crown Center, Crossroads Arts District, Power and Light District, the River and City Market. Our first order of business was to get on their FREE streetcar which travels throughout the entire Downtown area to reconnoiter. Once we had our bearings, we went back to the hotel, with its fabulous view of the entire city, changed, and then began to explore.
Many of the places I will be mentioning are extensively covered on the Web, especially the museums, so expect nothing much more than our own personal reactions.
Union Station is a nearby walk in an enclosed overhead walkway. It was one of the most heavily traversed train stations in the US, particularly during WW II, went into disarray after air travel devastated rail traffic, but has subsequently been restored into a tourist Mecca. It’s simply beautiful and one can get a good sense of what it once was and its importance. Freight train traffic still heavily rumbles nearby as well as one Amtrak train.
Here’s Ann in front of the Amtrak waiting room and the waiting room itself. Just like a painting.
The interior of Union Station, cleaned and restored.
Love the ceiling.
Art work hangs in the station including this Homage to Hopper— Harvey House Union Station Kansas City, MO by Marlin Rotach.
They say that maybe a million people sat on this bench during the station's heyday.
From here on in, days and nights get a little convoluted, transposed, so I’ll take them by venue:
Museums range from traditional to modern to subject specific. Towering above all is The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art which, like NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, has something for everyone, from early European, to Egyptian and Greek and Roman, right through contemporary, from all corners of the globe. It is massive and free! Its marble lobby and skylight announce its imposing presence.
They had a special exhibit there which drew me, “The Big Picture” – the Hall Family Foundation gift for photography acquisitions, photography being one of my special interests. The exhibit ranges from historical photographs, such as this one which is attributed to Silas A. Homes, a Salt Print of New York City’s Union Square from 1856. Some one hundred plus years later I would be crossing Union Square after getting off the subway from Brooklyn on my way to work. To me, the photograph is a time capsule.
Another favorite is Robert Frank’s Hoboken 1955, capturing a certain kind of ironic sadness at a patriotic parade.
And what better time to display Andy Warhol’s homage to baseball? His ‘Baseball’ 1962, is his first photo-silkscreened painting. It celebrates an American institution using news photos of Roger Maris.
My heart be still. A photograph by none other than the beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, depicting two writers of his generation, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. I had no idea Ginsberg indulged in photography as well. Note his handwritten description at the bottom of the photograph.
This is just a sampling of this unique collection, including one by Diane Arbus, but space in this blog is limited so the best way of seeing the collection is by saying (singing?) “Kansas City here I come!”
I’m including some representative works from their regular collection, ones that have special appeal to me. Such as Willem de Kooning’s Woman IV which, I shall never forget, was a favorite of the playwright, William Inge. Then Claude Monet’s Mill at Limetz 1888 is as striking by its style as its presentation.
Armor for Man and Horse 1565 is carefully preserved and dramatically exhibited:
And what museum would be complete without a Rodin?
A recent acquisition is “Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. The 17-foot-tall gilded doors, weighing 4 1/2 tons, are casts of the original doors created in the 15th-century workshop of sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti for the east facade of the Baptistery of the Duomo (cathedral) in Florence, Italy. Ghiberti’s original doors can be found inside the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiore. Casts were made in 1990, and a set was installed on the outside of the Baptistery in Florence.
This pair at the Nelson-Atkins is a sister set to those at the Baptistery. The installation in the Nelson-Atkins will be the first time the casts will be seen in a U.S. museum. No photograph can do it justice, but I include some of its detail here.
I include the Nelson-Atkins bust of Caracalla, probably Italy, 215-217 CE because it speaks to our times. Wikipedia summarizes the nature of the man and his “accomplishments:” The Roman historian David Magie describes Caracalla, in the book Roman Rule in Asia Minor, as brutal and tyrannical and points towards psychopathy as an explanation for his behaviour. Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, takes Caracalla's reputation, which he had received for the murder of Geta and subsequent massacre of Geta's supporters, and applies it to Caracalla's provincial tours, suggesting that "every province was by turn the scene of his rapine and cruelty”. The historian Clifford Ando supports this description, suggesting that Caracalla's rule as sole emperor is notable "almost exclusively" for his crimes of theft, massacre, and mismanagement
Finally, an enjoyable lunch in their Rozzelle Court Restaurant was a welcome respite.
Outside the Kemper Museum of Modern Art is a giant sculptured spider and the irony of a modern message across the street.
This is another one of Kansas City’s gems, free to the public, and its special collection of paintings by Angela Dufresne had just opened. She is known to be from “The School of Gena Rowlands,” interpreting cultural histories of fine art, film, literary and oral histories. Her pieces “The Line” and “Lonely Are the Brave” are shown here.
Then again, we needed a break and had to have lunch in the art lined dining room of Kemper’s Café Sebastienne.
Kansas City also has several museums not to be found anywhere. Two are actually housed in one building and you could easily spend an entire day there. They are The American Jazz Museum and The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, naturally at 18th Street and Vine.
The American Jazz Museum has memorabilia, and best of all, hands-on- exhibits where you can interact with jazz musicians to deconstruct the music for a better understanding of what it means to “jam.” They have an original Picasso extolling Ella Fitzgerald.
Posters and panels proliferate there.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is a moving tribute to forgotten heroes who were denied playing in the major leagues, although some of the later ones, such as Satchel Page and Jackie Robinson, finally broke through the color barrier.
They’ve reproduced a field, built it and they came, with life size statues of some of the luminaries who have played there.
Original equipment and uniforms are on display, as well as a painting of the Kansas City Monarchs who were to the Negro Baseball Leagues like the NY Yankees were to the Major Leagues.
Finally there is the remarkable Arabia Steamboat Museum. At first I thought this was simply a tourist trap housing some of the artifacts of the Arabia which sank in 1856. But it is a veritable time capsule as it was carrying over 200 tons of cargo intended for general stores and homes in 16 mid-western frontier towns. But no, it took the imagination and adventurous spirit of five stalwart men to begin a treasure hunt that ended in the most miraculous collection we have ever seen.
Buried below ground in over four stories of river mud for over a century simply because the Mississippi River had changed course, David Hawley ultimately located the wreck in July 1987. David, along with his father Bob, brother Greg, and family friends Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell, would soon return to the farm and begin an adventure consuming the next 20 years. The excavation resulted in the discovery of the largest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world. And to the credit of the Hawley family, they decided to collect these thousands of items and once carefully excavated, clean and preserve them, and put them on display. Nothing from this fabulous treasure was ever sold. The net effect is overwhelming, tools, clothing, furniture, and every imaginable artifact so well preserved in a nearly frozen state entombed under a Kansas farm, some 45 feet below the surface. This was a walk back in time and all due to one family’s efforts with the help of their friends.
Photographs cannot do justice to the breathtaking extent of this collection, but I post some, glassware and other cargo they reovered.
Finally, on to the main attraction for an early arrival: KC Jazz. That first night we hit the Green Lady Lounge, having heard that some of the best jazz in the city can be heard there. It looks like a plush den of iniquity, and they don’t serve food, but, oh, the music, and with no cover as well.
We were lucky to see the Steve Gray trio along with a great jazz singer, maybe the best we’ve seen in a long time, Shae Marie. What is she doing in KC I wondered? She belongs in Birdland, reminding me a little of Peggy Lee. Here are two brief videos providing my point:
The next night we were at The Blue Room for a Jazz Jam. The Blue Room is at 18th and Vine and is actually connected to the American Jazz Museum. No food; just drinks and great jazz.
The following night we were at the Phoenix, a local bar reminding us so much of the one we go to here in Florida for jazz jams, Double Roads in Jupiter. The Phoenix serves some good bar food but we came for the music. The little area set up for the performers only accommodated drums and a piano so I was wondering what that would be like. Pianist Mark Lowry, purported to be one of the best in KC, turned that duet into a trio, setting up an electronic keyboard on top of the piano and playing a walking bass, making the transition to trio. It’s a brief 45 second video, but it is a must watch by clicking on here.
Our final jazz night was at The Majestic, downstairs where an old speakeasy resided in the days of prohibition (not very meaningful in KC, it was a wide open town). But this is a top steakhouse as well so bring your appetites!
The night before the full conference we had to try another one of KC’s well known restaurants, Lidia’s. One of their specialties is their unlimited trio of home-made pastas, changing the selection regularly. We lucked out having wild boar ravioli, spinach pasta with shrimp, and farfalle with marinara and thick slices of fresh Parmesan, all you can eat, freshly made at Lidia’s, a PBS chef and author. It’s in a KC warehouse building just adding to the fun.
That step back in time described by our visit to the Arabia is a good segue to the Jane Austen Conference, but best to break the narrative here and continue in another entry. Suffice it to say, Kansas City was much more than expected, reminding us a little of Asheville, Seattle, and New Orleans in its own quirky individuality. And, oh, did I mention great museums, food, jazz, and sights? Did I say how much I loved Kansas City?