November 12, 2007

Prominent downtown walls get energetic new look

A once-homeless artist who got his start painting murals at 18th and Vine is getting his biggest canvas ever, the sweeping southern facade of the Power & Light District.

It’s familiar territory for Alexander Austin, who decorated the exteriors of inner-city buildings with such jazz legends as Charlie Parker and Count Basie when he was struggling to survive in the early 1990s.

Now, the Cordish Co. is tapping that same vein to communicate the energy it hopes to achieve in the new downtown entertainment district.

The firm has hired Austin to transform a two-block stretch of blank walls into a panorama primarily showing how African-American musicians and ballplayers put Kansas City on the national cultural map.

“We looked at the heyday of Kansas City and asked ourselves who and what entities were at the forefront of representing Kansas City to the world,” said Jon Stephens, director of marketing for the Kansas City Power & Light District.

“It really was the jazz scene and 18th and Vine.”

Representatives of the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the anchors of the 18th and Vine district, appreciate the oversized gesture — the mural covers 18,000 square feet — and hope it also draws new visitors to their attractions.

“I think it will generate great publicity for 18th and Vine and keep it on top of peoples’ minds,” said Bob Kendrick, marketing director at the Negro Leagues museum.

“It truly embodies the reputation of what Kansas City jazz is all about,” said Greg Carroll, executive director of the jazz museum.Stephens said the Cordish Co. had planned the mural long before some people began wondering why the south side of the district had the aesthetic charm of the Berlin Wall. The developer ultimately plans to build condominium towers along that edge of the project, but that phase is a ways off.

“We wanted to do something iconic for the city,” Stephens said. “We wanted to represent the city in the best light and capture the excitement and energy. During the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s there was so much going on, a great explosion of architecture, jazz and sports with the Monarchs.”

Cordish reached out to the Kansas City Public Library, the Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to obtain photos of those times. More than 1,000 were reviewed by the company’s California design firm, Selbert Perkins Design, to come up with the final layout of the mural.

The man who is executing the design was found through word of mouth.

Austin is originally from Tallahassee, Fla., and was trained as a billboard artist before coming to Kansas City. He had hoped to get a job at Hallmark, but when that failed, he was left searching for alternatives.

“I was living in a homeless shelter and did sketches in nightclubs like Birdland,” he said.

A club owner liked what he saw and commissioned Austin to paint a mural with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie at his business at 18th and Vine. From there, Austin began transforming blank walls over the next few years, mostly along Troost Avenue, into murals depicting civil rights heroes such as the Rev. Martin Luther King.

In 1994, Austin received national recognition when the Whitney Museum of American Art included his work in a show titled “Black Romantic: The Figurative Impulse in Contemporary African-American Art.”

Stephens said Cordish officials visited Austin’s Martin Luther King mural at Linwood Boulevard and Troost and were impressed.

“What was most striking was his ability to capture facial expressions,” Stephens said.

Now, Austin is working with a crew of four assistants to execute the design on a scale far larger than anything he’s done before.

“It’s a challenge, but my confidence has grown over the years,” he said.

KCUR-FM radio host Chuck Haddix, an expert on local cultural history and co-author of Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop — A History, said the mural is a fitting tribute to those who made the city great. He particularly liked Charlie Parker’s prominent place in the pantheon.

“It’s beautiful, and it’s wonderful we’re celebrating our history with a downtown mural,” he said. “It says very loudly who we are.”