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Saturday, June 15, 2013

ARTING About...? Kansas City 18th & Vine, here I come: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum

Image of Robin Scott Peters


by ROBIN SCOTT PETERS


Me and My Canon 550D

     I awoke in cool white sheets pillows tossed and a stream of morning splashing west as east.  Day two in Kansas City.  So much on the agenda--capture the feel of the city with my 550d.  Subject: The 18th Street & Vine Museums.  I was going to soak up some serious info. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum housed in one location, nirvana right?
     1148 was my room number. I faced north from the Westin towards downtown.  A spectacular view.

Image of Skyline downtown Kansas City
This is from the 4th floor outdoor deck.  I am using a 40mm lens.
     In my meandering about the complex I found a deck that extended out as a diving platform...seemed to be a good spot to test the waters.  I grabbed a bacon and egg sandwich down at the Brasserie restaurant in the lobby.  A surprisingly delicious and fat sandwich for $5.  Now that's a deal anywhere and a nice surprise at the Westin.  Note: keep my eye open on those advertising boards that change ads every five seconds.  With my tall cup of Starbucks I dashed back upstairs to gather my friend 550d.  We are getting along very well.  A relationship is growing as I allow myself the freedom to shoot as my mood strikes.  I am currently experimenting with the continuous shooting mode even when I am shooting a still or landscape.  I like how it makes me feel--I am conveying exactly what I see and experience.  I am also playing with line, intersection and point of convergence.  Exploring blending the two distinct approaches.  I want you to come with me on the ride.  Actually, the ride started the night prior.  My first night in Kansas City.  My 550d performed amazingly under night time conditions.  The colors we captured under night conditions--WITHOUT a tripod--yes, all shot hand-held.

Image of Union Station at night lit in multiple colors
Ground level.  I love the massiveness. The color saturation is delicious and creamy to my eyes. The solitude compliments the enormity.  

Image of Union Station lit in multiple colors at night
From 4th Floor roof deck at the Westin.  Another angle creating the sense of the enormity of the subject. The full expanse of the building captured.
Oh, and how can I forget, I chose a nice 40 mm lens that really opens up the subject.  I've been indifferent using the lens.  But last night it really clicked how perfect this lens was for the look we were trying to capture.
Image of downtown Kansas City, MO at night
Just after 1:00 am.  I was angry because just 10 minutes prior the Western Auto sign was fully lit.  On the left side of the photo two buildings had colorful light shows and adverts glowing.  This is sleepy Kansas City.
     I got to the room and grabbed my gear and stopped for a moment looking at my harmonica set.  Really wanted to see and hear the Blues down on 18th & Vine. Would I get back in time?  I decided to take the harmonicas as they are my favorite next to my 550d.  One more thing to carry--an important one I would find out later in the evening.  I looked out the 30' long window that faced north.  I spied my subject matter 11 stories below and I quick-stepped it out the door.

Walking the Walk

     So, let me set the stage.  The Westin faces north towards downtown Kansas City.  On the west-side of the hotel is Main Street, which runs north/south.  If you walk just over a mile north along Main Street you will run into 18th Street.  Make a right and head east and just over a mile down you walk right directly into the 18th & Vine historic district where the museums cohabitation is housed.  
     I started on the deck of the hotel, fourth floor I believe.  I walked outside and was met with this expansiveness open to forever.  They even have two tennis courts up on the deck.  Strangely enough no one was there.  In fact, the whole time I was there--spent a total of 3 hours or so--I didn't have one visitor.  I began by capturing downtown Kansas City in the morning light.  Clouds, fat and full of color and depth, hover above the city skyline.
Image of downtown Kansas City during the day
I wanted to grab that dark cloud tried to get as much texture/depth as I could with the sky.
Feels a bit surreal.  

     I stumbled down the drive past the taxi cabs. I liked how the mustard yellow grabbed my rather sensitive early-morning orbs.  "Stop that" one of the cabbies called out to me.  I burst forth my hearty Ha, Ha, Ha laugh, but he wasn't too happy.  "Don't take my picture!"  But I kept clicking and offered "you hiding from the FBI?"  His cohort cab driver showed his true colors as he joined me in the laughter.
Image of Taxi driver leaning on his yellow cab
Look at his friend to the right, big smiles.  
     I pushed through the glass turnstile doors entering the Westin and made the dash to the Link.  The Link is a series of walking tunnels suspended over the streets to allow safe access east and west out of the hotel.  I am fascinated by angles, line and point perspective.  I spent at least 30 minutes shooting inside the Link capturing people moving about these practical art forms.  The slate gray steel beams tied to round pontoon shaped support all wrapped with glass.  Worth just taking a walk through the zig-zag maze which eventually leads you out into Union Station.
Image of the glass & metal walkway The Link which zig zags over a city block connecting to Union Station, Kansas City
The Link walkway leading to Union Station.  You can see the reflection of Union Station in the glass.
     Union Station, a monstrous structure, is flanked by the fountain at Crown Center Square and just 100 yards or so up the hill is the National WWI Museum.  All worth a full day's attention with my 550d.  But, had to stick to the plan.  Never did get any shots of either the fountain or the WWI Museum.  Definitely next time.  As you walk north away from Union Station Main St bridges over a series of train tracks.  I stopped at the peak of the bridge and snapped a few good ones of the Western Auto sign.  Iconic Kansas City I am told.  The sky was full with dark clouds suggesting some ominous situation to come.  I just wanted to capture the dark underbelly of the fluffy cumulus cloud riding all that fury.
Image of the Western Auto sign a signature attraction of Kansas City
The day I returned to California I saw this sign in a commercial on TV....fate!!  lol.
     I rambled down the bridge into the first of the neighborhoods I ventured through.  Tattoo parlor and old Harley's greeted me and my 550d.  I went off!  I purposed to capture the street names and numbers.  Gotta know where we are.  Then it was the stores, shops, businesses.  People moved and I captured them.  Friends walking, business buzzing, folks alone, and the homeless.  Click, click, click.
     I am not sure how long it took me to get those two miles plus?  But as if an oasis appeared the cool sea blue fencing pulled my attention.  Its straight line leading my gaze to the 18th & Vine sign atop a four story building 150 yards straight ahead.

     The video below is a collection of the shots I took as I walked to 18th & Vine.

Danny's Big Easy: Part 1

     One of my favorite shots was here.  I walked into the 18th & Vine district and crossed to the south side of the street where Danny's Big Easy proudly hosts the corner.  There, sitting outside, three women enjoying the afterglow of a fabulous lunch engaged me as I was shooting.  I said something like "hey ladies" and the rest was a moment of strangers enjoying the best of life.
Image of three ladies enjoying a moment in laughter together
Love the Ladies!  Sista in the middle getting her sweet smell on.  Kicking it at Danny's Big Easy.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

     I walked passed Danny's Big Easy waving to the very nice ladies.  I headed east another 100 yards passing the Gem Theater and just to my left, there it was.  18th Street & Vine Museums - American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.  The exterior adorned with figures of great African-Americans quintessential to jazz and baseball.
Image exterior of building large mural above entrance



     I couldn't take any pictures inside the museum.  Strictly prohibited.  Which was quite a disappointment.  I recently, May 2013, went to the Picasso exhibit in Chicago and was allowed to shoot the exhibit--no flash of course.  I did reach out to the marketing director, but he was in meetings.  I had just dropped in so I wasn't expecting any special treatment (well...).  So, I put my 550d in its case and vowed to etch the exhibits deeply for certain recall.  You enter a room, like where there are introductory displays.  A column in the center of the room plays host to a television monitor running historic movie trailers.  There are plaques on the wall and a bench made of baseball bats touting the names of famed players.  Reaching the other side of the room reveals a turnstile similar to one at a baseball game.  As you pass through you enter the world of the Negro Leagues Baseball.  Literally.  You enter into a baseball field.  Stands filled with cheering fans--actual photographs of people at the historic games.  Players on the field waiting anxiously for the pitch.  Two men on base and a close game in late innings. Depicted by life size Bronze-ish casts. You sense the vibe, the raw excitement that must have been.  The interplay with the different mediums to create the experience of a Negro League game worked flawlessly.
     As you walk along first base line there are a series of "rooms" where the heart of the exhibit resides.  These "rooms" created with old wood fencing from the outfield of some long disappeared diamond.  The exhibit is very layered.  A smart design to allow all levels of access to the information. From the novice to the history buff one can walk away from this exhibit satisfied indeed.  The display started along a time line based on your level and depth of interest.  You could follow a timeline of detail based on either shape or color.  The history was contextualized.  So you didn't learn about Negro baseball without knowing what were the larger political, cultural influences at play.  I took about two hours just wandering the outfield fence full of history unknown to me.  Please take your time when you visit to really read and understand the fluctuations the Negro Leagues went through.  Accent on plural of League...Leagues.  The very last display as you exit the outfield fencing has a most poignant conclusion.  Bittersweet.  How in achievement sometimes loss still prevails.
     After completing the outfield tour you find yourself in the locker room.  This exhibit is powerful.  The Hall of Fame of the Negro Leagues.  Plaques for each man...and woman whom loved the game and sacrificed for it.  The artistry of the plaques rival Canton's Hall of Fame busts.  Enjoy reading the credentials listed under each Bass relief.  After looking at each and every plaque and enjoying the renditions of the team jersey and hats I thought there couldn't be much more.  I was happily full.  So I thought.  As you round out of the locker room you come upon a display that contains hundreds of baseballs all signed by the players, or coaches or owners all part of the Negro Leagues.  I read ball after ball thinking yes their hands, the same sweaty hands that swung that bat and hit that home run, had their hands here.

the Blue Room

     After 3 hours in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum I was primed for the American Jazz Museum. I followed the signs for the exit and I could hear music playing.  I entered the large and open first floor.  A group of high school age students were performing jazz music and throwing down with individual improvisational solos.  I sat among the proud parents watching their talented student perform where some of the greatest musicians honed their craft.  Unfortunately, I only got to hear their last song. I thought to myself I certainly must have been engrossed in the NLBM exhibit not to hear all that music. I walked around the exuberant crowd congratulating.  And slipped into the American Jazz Museum.  
     I was met by yellow caution tape everywhere.  Ohhh, darn, right.   I spied a note on the entrance saying there was construction going on.  Too bad too.  Looked like a great display.  A little disappointed I wandered down a hallway that seemed to lead to the exit back to the main floor.  But as I went through the door I walked into what in all intent and purpose was a full blown bar room.  I stopped suddenly thinking that maybe I crossed the yellow caution line and next would be security giving me a personal escort out.  To my left was a series of tables on a raised platform.  Along the back wall was a mural of jazz greats playing, singing making history.  To my right was a ramp leading down to a lower level.  At the bottom of the ramp was a bar and in front of the bar was a dance area that had tables and the spot for the band.  It looked real.  But it was empty.  The mural threw me off coming out of the Jazz section.  This must be part of the new exhibit.  I turned to walk out and was greeted by two women.  "I'm sorry I didn't mean to be in here."  "Its alright.  You can be in here."  "What, is this?" "This is the Blue Room."  "Is this a real bar?"  "Yes, it is..."  And Andrea (accent on the "e") began to tell me the history of the Blue Room.  I followed her down to the bar and grabbed a seat right in the center.  I ordered a beer and Jack Daniels neat.
Image of exterior building entrance
The exterior entrance into the Blue Room.  You can enter it through the Museum.  Sweet option indeed.
     I quickly got the vibe.  Andrea was a professional.  Had her "regulars" but more than that.  A definite community.  A bond.  I met some fascinating characters.  First this couple, she was contemplating moving to Kansas City.  He was already living here.  A very interesting energy between them.  We chatted and laughed about Twitter and soon was joined by ... I will call him Eric Moore--changed the name to protect the innocent???.   This Mr. Moore seemed to know everyone and not just at the Blue Room.  I would run into him two more times at two different restaurant/clubs and everybody knew his name...Eric Moore.  Five young men came into the bar.  You could tell they were service guys even though they were in their civilians.   One of them came up to the bar and ordered.  We dragged him into the conversation with ease.  He was a recruiting Sargent...and he was taking his "men" out for a cold one then off to the ballgame.  In just 15 minutes all of us had shared something personal, made a joke, took a joke--we made connections.  The couple had to leave, and the service guys had to suck down their beers quick because they would be late for the game and sucking down more beers at the ball park!
     Eric Moore was still there.  And so was the beautiful young woman whom walked me down the ramp to the bar.  Somehow we got to talking about where we were from.  I fessed up, Los Angeles and the flood gates opened.  By the time I finished my second beer we all found out that we had spent significant time in similar locations at similar times.  It was like we knew each others neighborhood like it was ours.  I mentioned how I really wanted to play my harmonicas.  You know, being in Kansas City and all the birthplace of the best of the Blues.  My new friend Andrea said "Open mic around here is usually Monday nights." Eric Moore concurred.  "You should try Danny's Big Easy they might be doing something like that."  Eric Moore finally spoke "Get the catfish. Get the catfish. You'll thank me for damn sure."  The band was setting up, a fusion jazz blend.  No chance to play with these guys.  I sipped my beer and waited for the band to start.  A slick young brotha pulled his trumpet out and began to play a sweet soft melody.
Image of the band "Diverse" preparing to start playing
The Blue Room.  The band "Diverse" is setting up.  Taken with my Iphone cause my 550d  batteries were dead.

I finished my beer lapping down almost half.  I was really feeling hungry and time was flying.  I started the morning at 9 am.  I got to the museum at around 2:30 pm and it was now close to 8 pm.

Danny's Big Easy: Part 2

     The bar was tucked in the back of the joint. Tables were filled to capacity. The servers handled the crowed with ease.  Big smiles and laughter as they interacted with each group.  From the outside it looks deceivingly small.  But walking up through the dance floor and the tables lining each side, as I made my way to the bar, dispelled any notion this was a cramped spot.
Image of exterior entrance to building
Danny's Big Easy.  A MUST stop if you visit Kansas City and 18th & Vine Historic District. Don't let the plainness fool you.  Step inside into a wonderful world.
     I grabbed the left corner last bar stool sat and swung around looking back to where I entered.  The music was straight blues and there were four of five couples dancing.  The evening was saying goodbye to the sun and the orange glow was spreading into the room through the line of windows behind the band.
Image of the band Millage Gilbert Blues playing for a full crowd
Millage Gilbert Blues.  The band in full swing when I walked in.  Taken with my Iphone.
This is what I came here for--Kansas City.  Menu, "IPA? No? What else? Ya that'll work...oh Jack Daniels neat with that, thanks." I honed my eyes on the fish selection of the menu.  Eric Moore said get the cat fish.  Hmmm, Po'Boy Catfish sandwich.  That rang my bell and I didn't look any further on the menu.
     My drinks arrived and Jean introduced herself.  "Hi I am Robin", I offered.  "How bout that catfish Po'Boy."  "You get a side with that."  I looked at the selection, "Jambalaya sounds perfect."  And Jean with her bright eyes and big smile disappeared as fast as she appeared.  I realized I had all my gear still wrapped around me and I stripped down and stacked everything under my bar stool.  Lots of money in the camera equipment.  I took my harmonica case (it carries 12) and placed it on the bar.  I was here to play somewhere.  I have one night and it's almost 9 pm.  I have some time. And I know just what to do with it.  I reached back to the bar and grabbed my Jack.
     The music was top notch all the classics.  A trio. Guitar, bass and drums.  Seasoned group of skilled artists.  Millage Gilbert Blues, was the name.  Well known in the Kansas City area.  The crowd loved it.  Everyone was dancing, well except me.  Jean appeared with a plate full of food.  She placed it down and I looked at her.  "Anything else you need?"  I shook my head transfixed on the huge piece of deep fried catfish curving up into the sky.  Stuffed next to it was a bowl of Jambalaya crowding out the tartar sauce and the freshly sliced tomatoes, pickles and lettuce.
Image of freshly served dinner of deep fried catfish and jambalaya
Okay the food was beyond delicious.  $8.95.  I know, I wanted to buy another to take back to the hotel!!!  Iphone shot does it again. Oh, that's my friend Jack in the upper right corner of the picture.  Purrfect!!
     Let me tell you how magnificent a piece of fish this was.  I didn't put any lemon juice, any tartar sauce on it until half-way through the meal.  I took a small first bite and the fish was so moist and flaky and the batter flavor complemented the fish it didn't need any additional condiment.  Of course when I squeezed lemon and rubbed tartar sauce on it...well it was all over.
     During my devouring of dinner Jean and I got to talking and I relayed that I fancied myself a budding harmonica player (harp player) and I was hoping to play.  She asked me if I was any good and I said that's what I came here to find out.  Jean said she was going to ask the band if I could sit in.  I, in all my humbleness I could muster, thanked her profusely.  To get even a little time playing with these guys heck yea!  I finished my dinner as the band finished their first set.  Jean and I were chatting about all sorts of things in between her appearing and disappearing to assist others patrons.  During one of her appearances she quickly dropped that the band said yea it was cool for me to sit in, and one of the guys would come up and chat with me.  I waited patiently as the break between the first set seem to be forever long.
     "Hey, I hear you wanna sit in and play harp, you any good?" It took me a moment to realize I was looking into the face of the drummer for the band.  "Jean says you play?"  "I think I can, that's what I am here to find out...maybe get some schooling?" "We're about to start, if you wanna play."  I looked to Jean "I owe you big time!"  Grabbed my set and walked up to the front to join Millage Gilbert Blues. Nirvana right?  The lead guitarist hit me with " do you sing?"  I mumbled something like "oh, ah, yea I sing, like back up."  Yikes dude, you love to sing.  But I am still not real strong on lyrics so I felt stick to what you know--well, I don't know much of anything!  That's why I came.  To learn.
     The lead guitarist looked so like BB King to me.  I knew I was hallucinating.  I asked him to tell me what key they were in and off we went.  He called out the key, like for the first few songs and then he just played and I picked up the key.  Classic after classic they played.  I listened intently following their rhythm and pace watching their interplay.  I found myself staring at the guitarist fingers as I listened to the notes emanate throughout Danny's Big Easy.  This nether-world I was engaged in fascinating.  Tables occupied by business folk, travelers, young lovers and old as dirt grandma and grandpa.  Each jumped up at some point and made it to the dance floor.  They would sit and chat, but you could always see their engagement as a foot or a hand or a head was keeping time with the Blues.  Another song and then another. Then the so famous and apropos song "Kansas City, Kansas City, here I come..." poured our from our drummers seasoned voice.  I stopped and watched the band from my little corner and I thanked the Lord Jesus for letting me have such a fun moment.  When you live a dream you have had the best part about it is trying to take it in and step outside it so you can remember exactly how it was.  Sometimes we get caught up in the moment and then it is almost like a blur.  You know it happened, but man you wish you could have grabbed the moment fully.
     There was this one older gentleman, who was all dressed to the nines.  He had a sweet hat on, like one of those Cubana type.  He would get up and dance by himself.  As the song was playing he would mouth the lyrics and spin and act as conductor and he knew the tunes.  Just the right time to bring in the drum solo, or the power of the bass line even the wailing of the harp, pulling me into his own little orchestra.  And on cue, the languid conversation thanking all those who stayed to enjoy the good times, at least with the band, was about to end.  After, I went up to each member shook their hand and thanked them for letting a rookie sit in on their set and live a little dream out loud.
     When I got back to my spot at the bar I had a few crazy revelations.  One, my very expensive camera gear was left on the floor next to my stool, sat there looking rather peeved at me.  550d doesn't like to be ignored.  Two: we had played for 1.5 hours.  I looked at the clock to see the time.  We started about 9:30 pm and it was way past 11 pm. I had no idea we had gone at it that long.  Time certainly stood still for me.  Three:  Eric Moore was sitting in the stool next to me talking to Jean.  This Mr. Moore knows all happening people and was there to hear me tell him so.  "Eric, you were right.  Danny's Big Easy is the bomb place!"  A big grin went across his face.  Jean jumped in and asked me how I knew "Eric Moore."  And we recounted the story of how we met.  Jean looked me in the eye and asked "did that work for you?"  "Hell yes it worked for me.  I can't thank you enough for hooking me up with the band."  "You wanna celebrate your coming out?"  Jean called to Eric Moore, "you wanna do a shot?"  "My specialty shot--Tequila and pickle juice!!!"
Image of a set of Marine Band harmonica's with a shot of Tequila and Pickle juice
Picture worth a thousand words?  Tequila first, pickle juice second.   Right after I played with the band. Another Iphone classic pic.
     My dear friends.  You must try Jean's Tequila and pickle juice shots.  It's as simple as it sounds.  One good quality Tequila followed by a half shot of pickle juice.  Yea, yea, I know.  Don't knock it till you try it.  We tasted a few of those and watched as the clientele slowly vacated the locale.  By this time Jean had a few close friends sitting at the bar with us as we did Tequila and pickle shots.  A young tall thin white guy who was a vocalist performing in town.  He was in from Los Angeles (where I lived for 27 years) so we got along quickly.  Another young brotha sat with us.  He played bass, I believe.  And then the namesake of the establishment, Danny, was introduced to me.  Jean read him the run down on me...photographer, harp player, drives around country writing about art, LA dude...his big hand reached out to me.  "Pleasure."  "What a great place you have here.  Having a blast tonight."  We talked for another hour at least.  Waiting for my cab to come get me and take me back to the Westin.  The servers had the place prepped for the next day.  The lights were dimmed and the bar was more dark then light.  The glow of the neon bar lights reflecting off the glass and mirrors lit the lingering bodies surrounding the bar with laughter and deep, witty conversation.  A few more Tequila's and pickle juice and right on time there with its Taxi "In Service" light on, was my ride back to reality.
     I gave everyone a hug.  People I just met.  A night of conversation based on the love of an art form.  It took us all over.  Religion to politics.  I know people say don't go there.  But, I want to know about folks.  That's why I sit at the bar rather than at a table.  Get into the mix.  You wanna really find what is happening take your dinner at the bar and extend yourself to the person to your right or left.  As I walked out to the cab, I could hear everyone calling out my name, wishing me well.
     The taxi ride back was quiet.  Only a few miles.  I thought about where I started today.  And how I was blessed to actually achieve what I set out to accomplish.  Get to know Kansas City.  Get to know this little bit of community, its flavor and pulse.  Great Art.  Great History.  Great People.  Great Music. All blended in a two mile stretch.  When you go to Kansas City, follow my footsteps and I guarantee you will feel the glow!!!


Please visit: Twitter: @FilmRobin for up-to-date info on where I am travelling for ART. LinkedIn: LinkedIn.com/in/robinscottpeters for complete resume & work history. Smashwords.com and look for Dr. Robin Scott Peters Ebooks now available. YouTube: Youtube.com/user/robinscottpeters for all my video work.