While New Orleans may be the country’s best city for jazz, Kansas City is a close second.
KC’s association with the genre goes all the way back to Prohibition, when the city flouted restrictions and continued to serve alcohol in bars—especially those with live music. Drawn by the promise of a captive audience, jazz legends like Count Basie, Joe Turner, and Kansas City’s own Charlie Parker graced stages on 12th Street and the now-historic 18th & Vine jazz district, earning the city a reputation for the blues and the nickname the “Paris of the Plains.”
Today, Kansas City continues to be a breeding ground for musicians of all genres, from jazz to indie rock, hip-hop, and more. So much so, in fact, that visitors in search of authentic KC culture would be remiss not to catch some live music when in town. “Kansas City is blessed with many venues and I’ve been to all of them,” says Chris Haghirian, host of radio show Eight One Sixty, which celebrates new music from local musicians and bands. “The music played every night around KC tells our story.”
A native Missourian, Haghirian has lived in Kansas City since 1999 and helped found the Middle of the Map Fest, a music-and-film festival held every June. If anyone knows the city’s music scene, it’s him, so we asked him for some tips on where to see a show. Read on for his picks for the best jazz clubs, blues bars, concert venues, and more.
Where to hear jazz in Kansas City
There are more than 40 venues in KC with regular jazz performances, both in the 18th & Vine historic jazz district and beyond. Two of the most popular clubs, says Haghirian, are conveniently located next door to each other in the Crossroads Art District—Green Lady Lounge and the Black Dolphin. Green Lady is open daily with up to four acts per evening, while the Black Dolphin is typically only open on weekends. If you’re lucky enough to snag a coveted seat at Green Lady, Haghirian recommends checking out the basement, where you’ll find one of Kansas City’s best-kept secrets: the Orion Room. It’s more intimate than upstairs, getting you up close and personal with the musicians.
Another one of his favorite places to hear jazz is the the Blue Room, located within the American Jazz Museum. The space functions as part exhibit, part jazz club, with a multifaceted display about the many musicians who helped craft “Kansas City jazz” and regular performances by the best local and national jazz talent. “Even the tables here serve as time capsules, with memorabilia beneath the glass tops,” Haghirian says.
Where to hear Kansas City blues
For a tried-and-true Kansas City experience, Haghirian suggests BB’s Lawnside Blues & BBQ, where you can fill up on burnt ends, slow-smoked chicken, and sauce-smothered ribs while enjoying some live blues music. He also recommends Knuckleheads, a former motorcycle shop that now hosts a half-dozen acts nightly on six stages across multiple buildings. “There’s always someone playing at Knuckleheads and you never know who you’ll run into,” he says, recalling when Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine snuck in to see Steve Earle.
Come late night, however, the Mutual Musicians Foundation is the place to be. Opened in 1917 by the African-American Musicians Union, the National Historic Landmark remains the best place in town to catch a jam session. “Musicians will wander in with their guitars, horns, harmonicas, and drumsticks and end up sitting in on an all-night jam,” Haghirian says.
Where to see local bands in Kansas City
According to Haghirian, many of the top spots to see local bands are in the Crossroads Arts District, including recordBar and the Brick. There are also a few great venues in Westport, like the Riot Room and Westport Saloon. “All of these rooms have KC acts playing all the time. Stop in while you’re in town and chances are good that you’ll leave with a new favorite band and a great story to tell when you get back home,” he says. For even more of the latest local music, he also swears by the small, intimate stage at the Rino in North Kansas City.
Where to go for major concerts in Kansas City
When world-renowned artists like Garth Brooks, 50 Cent, and Santana come through Kansas City, they play at top performance venues like the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts or the open-air Starlight Theater. Haghirian also recommends trying to see a show at the historic Midland Theater or the Uptown Theater; both have been in operation since the 1920s. “They were both once movie palaces, and now they host some of the biggest bands in the world that are touring across Kansas City and provide amazing backdrops to see your favorite bands,” Haghirian says. When at the Midland, don’t miss the Chandelier Bar, which occupies the top floor of the theater and features a circular bar surrounding an inverted chandelier.
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