For the past century, Kansas City has been home to one of the country’s most vibrant jazz scenes. Much like barbecue and speakeasies, jazz is deeply ingrained in the city’s identity. Kansas City jazz, a distinct style heavily rooted in the blues tradition, as well as ragtime, contributed greatly to the development and prosperity of old “Kaycee” during the Jazz Age.
It was during Kansas City’s Jazz Age when Charlie Parker cut his teeth improvising, Count Basie swang, Mary Lou Williams crafted killer big band arrangements and Lester Young developed his cool, melodic solos. Kansas City has historically been home to innovators.
But Kansas City’s jazz scene is not a museum piece. Check out the comprehensive calendar of local jazz at livejazzkc.com, and you’ll see that this town still swings every night of the week, from divey spots serving beer in red plastic cups to swanky spots where you’ll feel underdressed without a fresh shoe shine. Here’s where to immerse yourself in Kansas City’s rich musical heritage right now.
While Lonnie’s Reno Club may be the city’s newest jazz club, owner and beloved jazz musician Lonnie McFadden is no stranger to the scene. McFadden has been playing since the seventies, continuing the legacy of his father, Jimmy “Pops” McFadden, who was also a sensational performer on the scene nearly a century ago.
Head down the steps of the historic Ambassador Hotel and you will enter a quaint, elegantly decorated speakeasy, with McFadden and his bandstand before a backdrop of red velvet curtains. Much of the music embodies the distinct, local style from the prewar years, but it also ventures beyond that in fusion-style tunes. The photos that line the walls pay tribute to Kansas City musicians from the swing era, including Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, Charlie Parker, and even “Pops” McFadden and his tap dancing group.
While McFadden is a stellar trumpet player, vocalist and tap dancer, he is also a storyteller. Throughout his performance, you can expect to learn about the rich history of the Kansas City jazz scene in an intimate listening room.
Reservations are a must. This is not the place to just stop in and grab a drink; there is no bar seating. It’s expected that you’ll stick around for the night to enjoy the three-course prix fixe meal ($85), which includes one drink. But if you aren’t in the mood for a lavish three-course meal, you can pay the $25 cover, which includes one drink. Lonnie’s offers a list of Prohibition-era cocktails, but the champagne cocktail is their house drink and is a great way to kick off the night.
If you’re looking to be transplanted back to Kansas City’s Prohibition era, put on your best evening attire and head to Lonnie’s Reno Club for an immersive experience.
Lonnie and his band play on Friday and Saturday nights from 7-10 pm.
1111 Grand Blvd., KCMO
If you’re planning to make a pilgrimage to the century-old Foundation, plan to nap first. The music starts at one in the morning and goes on until four or five. The cover is ten bucks, cash only. As for drinks? They are served in a plastic cup, and domestic beers are plentiful.
The decor is utilitarian, but the photos that line the walls tell the story of The Mutual Musicians Foundation, or “The Foundation,” as it is more commonly called. This is a mecca of jazz history, and you can hear it in the sounds of the current players, who carry the city’s jazz heritage forward while leaving their own mark.
The Foundation was formerly the Local No. 627, the African-American musicians union in Kansas City. What was founded as a union in 1917 quickly became a community center of sorts, where musicians hung out and jammed after gigs. It was a space to create cutting-edge music away from the dance hall crowds who demanded the hits.
Anytime from 1-5 am on Friday and Saturday evenings (technically Saturday and Sunday morning). The house band rotates, but the jam session is always hot.
1823 Highland Ave., KCMO
Also located in the 18th and Vine District, The Blue Room—managed by the American Jazz Museum—is a quaint room featuring jazz memorabilia and excellent room acoustics.
Drinks are moderately priced and generously poured.
The Blue Room also happens to be one of the few jazz venues in the city that allows minors, making it a great place for the next generation to experience jazz. The venue actually encourages young people to attend shows, as long as they are accompanied by an adult.
Fridays from 5-7:30 pm for Indigo Hour. This free happy hour event showcases local talent. Outside Indigo Hour, you can expect to pay a $10 cover.
1600 E. 18th St., KCMO
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Although this West Bottoms landmark closed for nearly twenty years between 1995 and 2014, most of The Ship’s original interior (fortunately) remains intact. True to the name, the eclectic decor, complete with porthole mirrors, is convincingly ship-like.
The bar food is better than baseline and modestly priced. The craft cocktails, which rotate seasonally, are generously strong at a great price point.
The Ship books a broad span of jazz artists, from the more “straight-ahead” cats to fusion artists like rapper and jazz trombonist Kadesh Flow.
The Ship does not book artists for regular, weekly engagements, but you can usually find organist Chris Hazelton here monthly. You’ll definitely want to climb aboard for Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7, which combines soul, funk and jazz. You won’t be able to stop yourself from dancing to this fusion act.
1221 Union Ave., KCMO
Let’s cut to the chase: Corvino Supper Club is rapidly becoming the hottest jazz joint in the city. While the restaurant is rightly regarded as among the city’s best, so are the jazz musicians who have regular engagements there, which include Peter Schlamb, Eboni Fondren and Eddie Moore.
Corvino Supper Club is an avid supporter of innovative artists who are challenging the traditional frameworks of jazz, with many of the musicians playing their own, original music while weaving in influences from electronic music, hip-hop and beyond. We recommend that you make reservations—this isn’t a drop-in spot.
Head to Corvino when pianists Eddie Moore or Jackie Myers are on the bill for the night. Moore has his solo set every second Sunday from 6-9 pm, and Myers has a solo set every other Tuesday evening from 6-9 pm. Moore is an innovator; he pushes the boundaries and margins of what constitutes “jazz” using elements from hip-hop, rock and more. If you’re interested in something more “straight ahead,” check out Myers, who has some standards in her set but also performs original music.
1830 Walnut St., KCMO
This Black-owned oyster bar and steakhouse is the best restaurant in the 18th and Vine district. Enjoy gourmet Southern- and Cajun-influenced cuisine from chef Anita Moore alongside some swingin’ charts down on the Vine.
Although Soirée has live music several nights a week, Tuesdays are especially fun. Every Tuesday, Eboni Fondren and Friends host an open jam session. Here, you can watch young, upcoming artists “cut their teeth” on the bandstand alongside the older, seasoned performers on the scene. Together, they keep the lively Kansas City tradition alive.
1512 E. 18th St., KCMO
Located in the blooming Garment District, The Phoenix is one of the oldest surviving nightclubs in Kansas City, originally opening as Valerius Saloon in 1905.
The food here is standard bar food, and the draft beers are cold. You won’t find craft cocktails or a single steak on the menu. Opt for any of the eggs benedict or the chicken and waffles, and take a trip to the bloody mary bar.
After a late, boozy Saturday night (possibly at The Foundation), head here for a recovery brunch accompanied by soulful vocal jazz. Every Sunday, from 10 am-2 pm, Millie Edwards, a powerful and fervent vocalist, is joined by the velvet voice and piano accompaniment of Dan Sturdevant.
302 W. Eighth St., KCMO
With oil paintings on red velvet walls, comfortable Chesterfield booths and pressed copper ceilings, Green Lady Lounge is a sight to behold.
You can expect a $5 cover at Green Lady Lounge and Black Dolphin on any given night, and the cover doubles as your pass for both venues, so you can easily hop between bars. Both venues share the same cocktail menu, but Green Lady offers table service, a rarity nowadays. Drinks are moderately priced but of high quality. While the wine selection is limited, the cocktail menu and craft beer selection are plentiful.
Green Lady Lounge boasts a television-free environment, so you can focus on the music, craft cocktails, conversation and overall ambiance. With the lounge open until three in the morning 365 days a year, you can always find live jazz here. Additionally, Green Lady has two stages on two floors, so there is little transition time when the bands change over.
If Green Lady Lounge is too crowded, go next door to the sister club, Black Dolphin. Black Dolphin typically only has live jazz on Fridays and Saturdays. The venue does have televisions, so you can keep tabs on what’s happening next door.
Because the main stage at the Green Lady has an in-house Hammond B-3 organ, the best times to go are the late-night Monday and Wednesday sets. Jeff Shirley’s organ trio starts at 10:30 pm on Mondays, and Matt Villinger’s organ trio starts at 11:30 pm on Wednesdays. You’ll find that the Green Lady is a lot less crowded during these late-night weekday sets, too.
1809 and 1813 Grand Blvd., KCMO
The Majestic Restaurant is a classic Kansas City steakhouse, offering great steaks and jazz in a classy, timeless environment. The prices are steep, but the steaks are locally sourced and dry-aged. The Majestic also has a selection of hundreds of whiskeys and wines and a Prohibition era-inspired cocktail menu. Reservations are highly recommended.
Peter Schlamb takes the stage from 7-10 pm on Tuesday evenings. Schlamb, a versatile and innovative pianist, vibraphonist and composer, is a nationally sought-after musician.
931 Broadway Blvd., KCMO
Looking for somewhere to listen to live jazz in the Northland? Johnnie’s Jazz Bar and Grille is inside a B&B Theatre—and a hidden gem. The menu features Kansas City-inspired cocktails—such as the Charlie Parker, a Dark ‘n’ Stormy with a twist— and a wide variety of burgers made with local beef, as well as plant-based options.
The happy hour specials at Johnnie’s feature $4 well drinks, wines and beers.
Johnnie’s has jazz every Friday and Saturday night, but some of the “local talent Thursday” acts cross over into the jazz world, too. Frequent musicians at Johnnie’s span a wide variety of styles and include Stan Kessler with Kathleen Holeman, J Love, Talya Groves, Millie Edwards and many more.
Stan Kessler, trumpet and flugelhorn player, takes the stage on the last Saturday of every month from 6:30-10:30 pm. Kessler is a versatile player whose expertise ranges from bop to Latin jazz. He is joined by vocalist and pianist Kathleen Holeman.
1903 Victory Drive, Liberty