Sculpture of jazz musicians
Patrick Tuohey

The editorial board of The Kansas City Star recently published a column wondering why more people do not attend events at 18th and Vine, or more specifically, why they did not go to Kansas City’s Jazz and Heritage Festival over Memorial Day weekend. It’s a valid question if only because city leaders keep pouring tens of millions of taxpayer dollars into the effort to revive the Jazz District.

We’ve written about this before. The Star is correct that jazz serves only a niche audience, but they argue,

Still, other jazz festivals draw audiences many times larger. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this year drew 425,000 for the seven-day event, the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival attracted 205,000.

Are those fair comparisons? The 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival hosted such non-jazz performers as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Kings of Leon, Usher, and Snoop Dogg. The Rochester International Jazz Festival featured Cheryl Crow—not a jazz artist. And as the Star notes, these festivals took place over more days than in Kansas City.

The Star then speculated whether the cause for such lackluster attendance here in Kansas City was fear of crime or racism. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, who led the effort to spend public money on 18th and Vine in the 1990s when he served as mayor, offered that New Orleans and Memphis seem to have gotten past this, but not Kansas City. In order for this claim to be true, one needs to believe that the Kansas City region contains tens of thousands of jazz fans who are staying home simply because of the festival’s venue. Does anyone believe that? It seems more likely that event supporters are merely pointing the finger at others for their own failures.

Memphis’ Beale Street is a great success largely, we suspect, because it is privately run. Back in the late 1990s, Beale Street boosters sought private investment at the same time Cleaver was insisting on public financing for 18th and Vine. As to which was the wiser approach, two decades later we know the answer: Cleaver was wrong. New Orleans has a long list of private corporate sponsors; Rochester does too. Kansas City’s sponsors appear to include only “National Endowment for the Arts, the City of Kansas City, and Hall Family Foundation.”

Private administration and sponsorship is a powerful incentive for success and probably accounts for why these festivals include lots of performances by non-jazz artists. That is the lesson Kansas City must learn; government jazz isn’t working. To spend public money and then blame the public for not attending will not make anything better.

About the Author

Patrick Tuohey
Patrick Tuohey

Patrick Tuohey is the Director of Municipal Policy at the Show-Me Institute.