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The Mutual Musicians Foundation, a Kansas
This article is dedicated to the memory of Jay McShann
A venerable building known as The Mutual Musicians Foundation stands today, not far from the famous corner of 18th and Vine in Kansas City, Missouri. In the nineteen-twenties and thirties, and into the forties, this was a notoriously wide-open, lawless part of town whose thriving clubs attracted some of the most famous jazz and blues artists of the era. The Tom Pendergast machine that ran the city during and after Prohibition was in full swing. In 1928 the African American musicians union purchased an apartment building to use as its union hall, known then as the Musicians Protective Union Local No. 627. It was a place where one might have seen Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Big Joe Turner, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and similar luminaries jamming. It is the first place where Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie played together. This historic building, now known as the Mutual Musicians Foundation (MMF), has been saved from ruin by a dedicated few, and remains the site of Saturday night jam sessions.
I first met Ramonda Doakes, then the Executive Director of the MMF, at Chad Kassem's Blues Masters at the Crossroads festival in Salina, Kansas, in October, 2000. Ramonda told me the history of the MMF, and how it voted to merge with the majority union in 1970, becoming Local No. 34-627. Today it serves as a home for all jazz, blues and R&B musicians, especially local ones, including those who have lost their remaining family ties through living too long a life on the road. It is "the only place that truly belongs to them," according to Ramonda. The foundation puts a roof over elderly musicians' heads, takes care of them, buys them medicine, and helps to reconnect them with whatever family members they may have remaining. The MMF has hosted jam sessions every Saturday night since the twenties. The practicing musicians that come to town today visit the MMF because of its legacy, and because it provides a place for them to relax and listen to local musicians. As of 2000, 92-year-old Claude "Fiddler" Williams still played there, and still ran up and down the stairs, said Ramonda. The building is one of only two in the National Register of Historic Places in Kansas City (Building #79001372). The foundation is unendowed, and Ramonda ran it on money from the musicians' dues and on proceeds from the Saturday night jam sessions.
The Mutual Musicians Foundation
Some people call Ramonda crazy, but I call her dedicated and driven. She was a ballet dancer and an artist, and later taught economics, African history, and geology on the university level. But at the age of 50, this non-musician renounced academia to run this foundation on a shoestring. She tried to establish an endowment, but had no luck with that. She was also unable to afford a web site. What originally drove her to this effort? I don't know exactly, but I sure do admire her spirit and sincerity.
Ramonda did not seek significant outside help. She observed that after well-meaning outsiders have come and gone, there is usually nothing left of what it was that they were trying to preserve in the first place. She bemoaned the fact that the U.S. doesn't always do too well in preserving its culture. We tear down the original buildings and replace them with ones that are too slick. For instance, there is almost nothing left of the original historic 18th and Vine district in Kansas City. Ramonda sincerely desired to help these musicians, to provide them with a home, and to maintain the decades-old tradition of the Mutual Musicians Foundation.
Ramonda was attending the concert in Salina just to soak up the music and enjoy it, and was certainly not there to advertise her plight. But once I discovered who she was and we started talking, all of this just came pouring out. We made plans to meet in Kansas City the next time I was in town, so that I could see all of this first-hand.
In October, 2002, I traveled to Kansas City, following another of Chad's blues festivals in Salina. I found the historic 18th and Vine district, and met Ramonda at the Mutual Musicians Foundation the afternoon after a late night of some of the most phenomenal blues that I had experienced in my life.
If it wasn't for Ramonda Doakes and others before and after her, the MMF would likely have been condemned, and most everything in it would have subsequently been lost. When she assumed the directorship, the roof was falling in, and the air conditioning and heating were nonfunctional. She applied for and received funds from the State of Missouri and the City of KCMO to repair the roof. The foundation houses three pianos that are rumored to have belonged to musicians from the early years, including Jay McShann, the inestimable Kansas City pianist and bandleader. Marion Watkins, the MMF Director who preceded Ramonda, rescued the original union hall banner, which Ramonda subsequently had encased and rehung (pictured). When Ramonda went to install a sump pump in the building, she found a sax and a clarinet under the floorboards. The musicians often hocked their instruments for money, and the pawn shop owners would lend them back to the musicians for gigs. The shop owners would go to the gigs to try to collect the money that the musicians would have had to pay to claim their instruments, or they would take the instruments back. Apparently, the musicians would hide their instruments under the floorboards after these gigs, and a couple of unlucky ones never made it back to reclaim them. These instruments now reside in the American Jazz Museum down the street.
Local 627 Banner
The more I spoke with Ramonda, the more I came to realize how dedicated she is to saving the MMF. During her tenure as Executive Director, she also found the money to bury returning musicians who have lost their family ties due to having lived too long a life on the road, often overseas. Sometimes in such cases, remaining family members refuse to do anything, and that's where the MMF steps in. Why did Ramonda take years out of her life, and interrupt a good career, to do this? For one thing, she spent a lot of time with Jay McShann's family in her early years, listening to the music live. For another, she has a deep appreciation for the history, and is truly indignant over seeing so much of it lost.
As Ramonda explained, the outside of the MMF was originally red brick. It has been stuccoed over and painted pink, and the original doors and windows have been moved. Inside, the MMF has one room downstairs with photos lining the walls, a small area for a band, a piano, and a bar. Up a narrow flight of stairs is a larger room filled with tables and chairs, and the three pianos described above. Ramonda constantly scraped for funds, and at one point the MMF sold a building two doors down, the Blind Boone Theatre, to the city. Next door is housing for transients, where many of the musicians sleep when they are in town.
Ramonda Doakes and the Author
As we left the MMF and toured the 18th and Vine district, Ramonda noted how the whole area started to go downhill in the sixties, and disappeared following the mob wars of the seventies and eighties that drove the clubs out and closed the River Quay area. The area has recently seen a renaissance, primarily with the construction of the American Jazz Museum. While this museum is a great place to gain a feel for the history of the area, some things were lost when it was built. Standing at Highland and 18th, looking down toward Vine, a number of old buildings on the right hand side were razed to make way for the museum. Ramonda bemoans the fact that the city did not retain the shell or even the double-brick front of the old buildings, and then build the museum inside of or behind that. She also notes the fact that the new Blue Room at the corner of 18th and Vine, a jazz club within the museum, complete with a replica of the original sign out front, has the wrong interior configuration, and the door opens onto the wrong street. Some things were lost and some things were gained in the reconstruction of 18th and Vine. Unfortunately, the things that were lost are gone forever. Consistent with that theme, Ramonda was given two flats of bricks from the original street by the city, but the bricks simply disappeared one night. How very sad.
As of our visit in 2002, Ramonda had decided to take a break from the physical and emotional stresses of running the MMF, and a new Executive Director was at the helm. But knowing her, I predict that she will make good on her plan to return to that job one day. Her dedication to the MMF is clearly rooted deep in her soul. Meanwhile, we should all be grateful to Ramonda Doakes, and others like her, for everything they have done for the Mutual Musicians Foundation and the tradition of jazz and blues in America. Ramonda notes that "I am grateful to the musicians who created the music that I and many others love. It has been an honor to contribute anything I can to their legacy and their contribution to all of us. I could have accomplished nothing without the help of the dedicated staff and musicians." Here's hoping that the MMF has many great years ahead of it.
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