KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Let's face it: This isn't on everyone's list of places to see before you die. It wasn't on ours, either. But serendipity -- in the form of an airline credit that had to be used in the Midwest -- bumped it to the top of the itinerary.
So there we were in the city of Count Basie and barbecue -- that's all that came to mind when conjuring up an image of our destination. And if good jazz and a sweet rack of baby back had been all that Kansas City had to offer, that would have been fine.
As it turns out, the city has pumped $4 billion into revitalizing its downtown since 2000, and new theaters, an arena, museums, and shopping plazas gleam like a vision of Oz. A river walk and bike path along the Missouri River let people get up close to the muddy current, which once carried riverboats to the western frontier. Rehabilitated historic buildings, world-class art museums with free admission, ample free parking, and a historic boulevard and parkway system are among the other unexpected pleasures.
Some not-so-pleasant surprises: We had forgotten that the 1820 Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state. Segregation-era settlement patterns remain entrenched on either side of Troost Avenue, the old "color line" running north-south through the city. African-American neighborhoods lie to the east, white enclaves to the west, and some residents spoke of integration as though it had happened last week.
The core downtown district in this city of 450,000 hugs the south side of a bend in the Missouri. To the west lies the Kansas River, known also as the Kaw, and the confluence of the two rivers gave the city its start as a trading post in 1821. Today the city covers 320 square miles, running 60-odd miles north to south. Buses run, and light-rail lines are in the planning stages. In the meantime, most people buzz around in cars. The street plan is a grid, but that applies only below the elevated interstates. Residential neighborhoods are accessible by the boulevards and parkways. Laid out by landscape architect and planner George Kessler a century ago, these linear parks play up the rolling terrain, limestone outcrops, and streams that give the city its regional character. So do the thousands of Arts and Crafts-style houses.
It's worth getting out of the car to explore The Country Club Plaza in the Westport neighborhood. Although most of the retail is all too familiar, the Spanish Revival architecture makes it a destination. This was the nation's first suburban outdoor pedestrian mall, designed in 1922, and stores and restaurants occupy blocks of tawny buildings with ornately patterned domes. Kansas City calls itself the City of Fountains, and several examples anchor the plaza's street corners.
Only blocks away are four world-class art facilities: the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the adjacent 22-acre Kansas City Sculpture Park. With limited time, we chose the Nelson-Atkins for its large and comprehensive collections. The sculpture park, which extends into the museum's front yard, is home to more than 30 works by Henry Spencer Moore, Jacques Lipchitz, George Segal, and other stars of the 20th and 21st centuries. The park, itself a work of art by Dan Kiley and Jacquelin Robertson, invites intimate communion with these stunning pieces before opening to a vast lawn where giant shuttlecocks by Claes Oldenburg rest in magnificent dissonance with the neoclassical museum building. Exiting, we spotted teenagers tossing a Frisbee on the lawn. Perfect.
Museums of all kinds dot the city. Our favorite was the Arabia Steamboat Museum on the riverfront. Here visitors step into 1856, when the wood-burning steamer Arabia, bound for frontier settlements bearing 222 tons of goods -- tools and dishes, guns and hardware, clothing and cognac -- sank in the Missouri. The 130 passengers and crew escaped, leaving behind a mule, the only casualty. The boat lay entombed under a Kansas cornfield after the river's course shifted. Exhumed in the last two decades, thousands of artifacts are now on display (including the unfortunate mule's skeleton). These relics speak to the geography and politics that have shaped the city, from the rivers that made it an early shipping hub, to border skirmishes with Kansas abolitionists, to the westward migration via the Santa Fe, the California, and the Oregon trails, all of which began here.
The American Jazz Museum on 18th and Vine streets marks the heart of the jazz scene of the 1920s and '30s (think Basie, Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams, Jay McShann, Hot Lips Page, among many others). Fans can pay homage to a sax owned by Charlie Parker, view exhibits, and listen to recorded performances by past greats. At night the museum turns into the Blue Room, a top-rated club serving pub fare and showcasing national and international musicians. Next door in the same complex, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum celebrates the talents of those who, in the decades before Major League Baseball admitted black players, made their own history. Across the street, the restored Gem Theater (1912) hosts stage productions.
Downtown, the newly rehabbed Power and Light District, not yet finished when we visited, promises more singular boutiques, restaurants, clubs, and performance venues than the chain stores of The Country Club Plaza and the Crown Center, an indoor mall. In the midst of the current renaissance, the city has wisely taken care to preserve the remaining historic brick mercantile buildings. The restored Majestic Steakhouse on Broadway, for instance, occupies the 1911 Fitzpatrick Saloon Building, a former (and reputedly haunted) bordello and saloon. Prohibition drove the saloon underground -- literally -- and the basement speakeasy now hosts nightly jazz.
Bram Wijnands, a musician schooled in the unique local "stride" piano style, chased the ghosts out of the downstairs lounge while we dawdled over rare steaks. His left hand rippled over the keys in singsong stride rhythm, prompting foot tapping throughout the room. At the break, Wijnands, a native of the Netherlands who has performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, said he sought out Kansas City for its signature Basie-style swing and its wealth of musical talent. A resident for 16 years, he also leads his own swing band, the Majestic Seven.
"Oh, yes," he said, "jazz is alive and well in Kansas City."
The steak wasn't too bad, either.
Jane Roy Brown, a writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at regan-brown.com.