For those who know music, who love music, Missouri and its two fabulous music museums must be on your radar. Even if you can barely hum a tune and don’t know a clef from a treble, these two museums should still become a part of your travel goals for the simple insight they provide to the overall song that is the American experience.
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The Blues in St. Louis
Most travelers initially think of Memphis when it comes to the blues. Or just about any place in the deep south, including Florence Alabama, the birthplace of W.C. Handy. But one of Mr. Handy’s biggest hits was a song called The St. Louis Blues. Look closely at the logo of the Stanley Cup champion hockey team by the same. See the connection?
When they cut the ribbon on the National Blues Museum in downtown St. Louis in April 2016, the event was a tribute to the migration of black musicians straight up Highway 61 from the Mississippi Delta, through Memphis, right into St. Louis. If you were serious about your music and you wanted to develop a wider audience, you had to come to St. Louis.
That’s why Soulard, one of the St. Louis’ oldest neighborhoods, is home to legendary blues joints like BBs, the 1860’s Saloon and the Broadway Oyster Bar.
And that’s why the National Blues Museum is in St. Louis.
Visiting the National Blues Museum in St. Louis
The National Blues Museum in St. Louis does a great job of defining blues, a genre that gave voice to those who had been denied a voice, those thought to be void of emotions and a soul.
Vintage radios and vinyl albums and scratchy recordings are authentic to the early days of recording industry. While I could already name blues musicians like Louis Armstrong, BB King, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, I stopped in my tracks when I came to an exhibit saluting women in the blues and basically giving female vocalists credit for the commercial success of the blues.
So there I learned about Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith. Ya, you go girls!
But I was most enlightened when we stopped at exhibits about the Beatles, the Stones and others, about how the blues influenced the British Invasion.
Jimi Hendrix said “the blues are easy to play, but hard to feel.” Keith Richards said “If you don’t know the blues… there’s no need to pick up a guitar.”
We would not have rock and roll without the blues.
The museum includes several interactive exhibits that allow you to record your own song, then download it to your iPhone. How cool is that? And of course, live music on the weekends are a huge part of the experience. The building was rocking the night we got there, and darn, we were too late for tickets.
Here’s a tip: We stayed at the Embassy Suites downtown on Seventh Street. It’s in the same building and right around the corner from the Blues Museum. Now, immerse yourself in some of the greats. Vinyl is making a return, you know.
Jazz – Going to Kansas City
Jazz was born in New Orleans, but jazz came to Kansas City as a sassy teenager. It developed its personality and caused its parents nightmares in Kansas City. And like many a naughty teenager would do, jazz came to Kansas City for an illegal drink.
While most of the country attempted to adhere to the 18th Amendment, better known as Prohibition, alcohol flowed openly in the clubs of Kansas City in the 1920s thanks to crime boss Tom Pendergast who never let a thing like the U.S. Constitution interfere with business.
So those baby jazz musicians hit the road from dry NOLA and came to Kansas City. A great little park that explains it all is at that famous corner, 12th Street & Vine.
At one point, more than 200 jazz joints kept things hoppin’ 24 hours a day in the 18th and Vine Jazz District. Now a National Historic District, 18th & Vine is where you’ll find the Mutual Musicians Foundation, the oldest continuously operating jazz joint in the U.S. It doesn’t open until 1 a.m. and today has a special dispensation from the Missouri legislature to serve alcohol until 6 a.m.
18th & Vine is also home to the Gem Theatre, a regular venue for jazz in the city.
Visiting the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City
18th & Vine is also where you’ll find the American Jazz Museum sharing a building with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Tip: Save money and buy admission to both museums at the same time.
The museum tells the story of how jazz found its way to Kansas City and the great ones that followed. Ella Fitzgerald, Jay McShann, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, among many others. They all came to Kansas City.
Of course, Kansas City is rightly proud of their homegrown Charlie Bird Parker. His saxophone is here and his head dominates a courtyard outside. Pick up head sets and listen to what distinguishes their sound and the Kansas City sound from others. It’s a little more bass, a little less brass that you’ll find in New Orleans.
Listen in on jam sessions or take control of an audio board and see what a little more bass will do to a particular song. Then come back at night to the Blue Room for one of the best live jazz shows in the city. The Green Lady Lounge is another option, as is The Phoenix downtown and the Drum Room in the Hilton President Hotel downtown.
You’ll also find good jazz every night at The Majestic Steakhouse on Broadway. Ol’ Tom Pendergast used to have an office overlooking the dining room there. Lift a glass in his memory and thank him for bringing jazz to Kansas City.