“The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure” debuts Feb. 1, 2021, at The American Adventure inside EPCOT at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. This new exhibit features artifacts from renowned jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong’s trumpet (pictured). (Kent Phillips, photographer)

By Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

Disney’s regional jazz exhibit, “The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure,” opened at Kansas City’s American Jazz Museum (AJM) on December 10. Visitors are joined by Joe Gardner – the musician, mentor and teacher from Disney and Pixar’s “Soul” – on a tour as they discover the rich and surprising history of jazz.

Introduced at The American Adventure inside EPCOT at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., Disney has partnered with AJM to bring this experience to Kansas City – a city renowned for its rich jazz legacy. Acting as a tribute to a musical artform that was originated by African Americans, the exhibit illustrates the many different cultures and creators who influenced this evolving genre. Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative force behind Disney experiences, partnered with the American Jazz Museum to bring this story to life.

“We’re thrilled to bring ‘The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure’ exhibit to the American Jazz Museum as we celebrate the local musicians who inspired generations of creators and listeners beyond the borders of their hometown,” said Carmen Smith, Senior Vice President of Creative Development – Product, Content & Inclusive Strategies at Walt Disney Imagineering. “Kansas City is one of America’s ‘cradles of jazz,’ and we’re honored to partner with the museum to bring this region’s musical heritage to life.”

While the American Jazz Museum explores the history, expression, and performance of jazz throughout the entire United States, it highlights the story of jazz in Kansas City, one of the four major centers of the art form in the country. The museum explores the impact and expression of jazz on and through many aspects of American History and culture, particularly African American history and culture, from film to literature, the fine arts, dance, and pop culture.

When the 18th and Vine neighborhood, where the museum resides, went through a renaissance during the late 90s, the American Jazz Museum carried both the name and spirit of people and icons that made Kansas City Jazz famous. While the museum continues to move forward as an active hub for musicians and community, it remains dedicated to supporting local artists and encouraging continued innovation in the art form through programs like the KC Jazz Incubator and emerging artist jam sessions.

“Coupling the magic of Disney with the artistry of Kansas City Jazz has been a great honor.  We’ve got a rich legacy within the narrative of this music, and by opening this experience to American Jazz Museum Visitors and Disney Fans, the legacy continues to grow,” said Rashida Phillips, Executive Director at the American Jazz Museum. “We’re proud to appear alongside other signature cities representing the ‘Soul of Jazz,’ and celebrate musicians like Charlie Parker, whose Grafton saxophone showing at EPCOT helped pave the way for good music, goodwill and a great partnership! Kansas City is considered the home of Jazz, and with this exciting exhibition, we look forward to welcoming even more tourists and neighbors home.” 

Philipps said a few things were catalysts for their blossoming relationship with Disney, in addition to Kansas City having Disney roots.

“One was our actual local living musicians, they reached out to us because they had heard that Disney was putting together this wonderful exhibition, and they wanted to be involved to help represent Kansas City, because we know we have a great legacy here,” Phillips said. “They said, ‘Hey, if you have any intel on this, is there a way that we can be represented?’ And so we got on the phone, we went down to Disney – the mayor and I decided to take the Charlie Parker saxophone down to Disney – we knocked on the door and they happily answered.”

Contributed photo

In true Kansas City fashion, she said it was one of those ‘neighbor opportunities,’ where one is stopping by to bring something special.

“Disney right away just opened up and welcomed us with their arms, and we just kind of became an intimate family,” Phillips said. “From then on, we’ve been building this partnership, wanting this opportunity to travel – not all of us are able to get to California or Florida like we want to – but we thought this is a great opportunity to get out in the communities and share this experience and share the narrative of jazz.”

In the film, the main character Joe Gardner is a middle school music teacher, which parallels AJM’s Jazz Academy in Kansas City.

“Not only are we nestled in a community that has schools around the corner, we have a Jazz Academy program for middle and high schoolers,” Phillips said. “Those classrooms that are represented in the movie with the squeaking and the squawking and motivating kids to play music, we’ve got that here.”

Every Saturday, AJM has around 50 students for a semester who come to learn about jazz, learn about music, and share their talent. 

As Phillips says, “the proof is in the pudding.” During Friday’s exhibit opening, local artist Chalis O’Neal, a graduate of AJM’s Jazz Academy who just released his first album, played trumpet with his quartet. 

“Among my most memorable moments as mayor was personally delivering the great Charlie Bird Parker’s saxophone to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando to be included in Disney’s ‘Soul of Jazz’ exhibit—highlighting Kansas City’s rich jazz history that has meant so much to our community,” said Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas. “I am thrilled that Disney recognizes Kansas City’s importance to the history of jazz and is bringing this exhibit to the American Jazz Museum, fittingly located in the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District. I encourage all Kansas Citians to make sure to visit this holiday season.”

Previously in New Orleans, the exhibit will also travel to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Although the exhibit is traveling across the country, it is curated differently to show off artifacts specific to the city it’s visiting.

“It’s a really special opportunity because it’s straight from the archives,” Phillips said. “A lot of folks who come to the museum see things that are in the permanent collection, which is beautiful, like the Grafton saxophone, but there are so many other things in our collection that are not always on display.”

While in Kansas City, ‘The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure’ exhibit will include a unique collection of artifacts curated by the American Jazz Museum, including Samuel “Baby” Lovett’s bongos, Count Basie’s Musicians’ Protective Union membership card, and a signed photo of Louis Armstrong and his dog. Additionally, there will be maquettes of characters Joe Gardner and Dorothea Williams, and virtual experiences via the Play Disney Parks app.

“[We’re] opening it up to the community and wanting everyone to come to live and learn,” Phillips said. “I think the interactives are always really cool. We’ve got a couple of pianos in the exhibit, one that will actually play music of the time so you can kind of see the fingering on the keyboard, see some visual images that are attached to it, which is really exciting.”

The other is a mock classroom with familiar posters – how to read the scales, how to read notes – but visitors are able to play along with an iPad on the piano to learn a song.

Phillips said it is so meaningful to have the exhibit for Kansas City to enjoy. 

“So often when I’m traveling, not only in the nation but in the world, everyone knows who we are,” Phillips said. “Those names like Count Basie, Charlie Parker, are legendary around the world. We are just blessed to live here and be with it every day. But sometimes it causes us to forget a little bit. This is just an opportunity to step back and really see about the roots of who we are, how much we’ve contributed to the world, and to expression and to music, and not only celebrate sports – we’ve got great sports in this town – but we’ve got real core arts in this town and music is really at the center of it all.”

Now, she’s hoping everyone with a Disney dream comes to visit the exhibit and the museums at 18th and Vine as the weather turns colder and people search for indoor activities. AJM will have additional programming to accompany the exhibit throughout the next few months, hoping to get more youth involved and listening to jazz.

“The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure” at the Changing Gallery of the American Jazz Museum, located in the 18th and Vine Historic Jazz District, will run until April 24, 2022. Museum hours vary, and are subject to change during holidays. More information can be found at www.americanjazzmuseum.org for hours of operation and to plan any visit. To learn more about the exhibit, visit www.disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog.