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Getting to Know Rashida Phillips, KC Jazz Museum’s New Director

'I Fell in Love'

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Jazz was Rashida Phillips’ first love. 

And now, Phillips assumes the role of executive director at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. She’s performed as a jazz vocalist and studied jazz and its history in graduate school, so joining the city’s only jazz museum was a no-brainer. Over the course of her career, she’s dedicated her efforts to the arts, education and community work. 

Phillips started on Jan. 6 after almost a year-long search. She took over for interim director, Ralph Caro, who’d been in the role temporarily since April 2018. 

Phillips, who is from St. Louis, lived and worked in Chicago for 16 years before moving to Kansas City. She was drawn to the museum, she says, which is nestled in the city’s historic jazz crossroads. 

Here’s what she told Flatland one month into her new role: 

This interview has been edited for clarity. You can listen to the conversation here.

Flatland: We’d like to learn a little bit about you, your history. So you came to Kansas City from Chicago, and you’re from St. Louis? Can you talk about that just a little bit?

Rashida: I’ve sort of danced around the Midwest, had a little jaunt East doing my graduate studies at Rutgers University. But, yeah, I’m a Midwest gal, seems like, right? (Missouri is) a ‘Show Me’ state for a reason. And it’s just a pleasure to come back to serve in my home state and really follow my passion. Jazz is really deep in my heart and in my roots and it feels good to be … nested in that space.

Flatland: And your history with jazz, I mean, you were a vocalist?

Rashida: That’s right.

Flatland: Talk to me a little bit about that and how that’s influenced your work.

Rashida: I sort of tripped on (jazz) researching a musical theater role. I was supposed to be a sassy jazz diva my junior year of high school – Geneva Lee Brown. I’ll never forget. And so aside from all the furs and pearls and things they dressed me up in, I had to do a lot of that character work behind the scenes and really do a lot of deep listening to some of the greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. (I) sang a lot of those songs and really tried to understand the story of the times and what those women went through and what that music was about. So honestly, I fell in love. I tell folks that it was the first time I really understood what love was. Most people think sort of romantically, but honestly, I fell in love with this music.

Ella Fitzgerald poses for a portrait in New York sometime in 1946. (Library of Congress)

Flatland: What was your family like growing up? Any musical influences there?

Rashida: My parents were kind of straightforward teacher and military background and I wouldn’t say that they weren’t into music, but it’s not something they practice regularly.

(T)he music just hit me hard. And so from there I just continued to delve deeper and deeper into the music itself and the stories behind it, the narratives, the times. It really just kind of created a pathway for me to…discover myself, discover the community more, and really think about the ways in which jazz spoke to the times, but also could speak to our present times too.

“It’s something about culture that really holds us true – I think – to a lot of our American values.”

Rashida phillips, executive director of the american jazz museum

Flatland: So your work in Chicago, that spanned several years. What sorts of things that you learned working there will you bring into this space?

Rashida: Well, certainly the power of collaboration. A lot of people look to Chicago to be sort of an example of how that works best. And it’s not easy in the world’s largest cities, particularly in those sort of urban tangles where you’re really dealing with a lot of the issues that we see some of here. Whether it’s dealing with under-resourced communities of poverty, you’re dealing with sort of the suburbs versus sort of the central city core, what education looks like, public education versus charters and private.

There’s power in cross-disciplinary groups working together. So the social service people are really tapping into (is) the cultural and arts community because I think that we realize for young people in particular, that’s the verve that keeps young folks going. Those are the reasons that people rise every day.

Whether they are listening to the music, whether they’re finding their ways to make beats with their friends, maybe finding their ways into museums. It’s something about culture that really holds us true – I think – to a lot of our American values. So Chicago was a city rich with cultural institutions all across that place. And while it’s challenging because it’s a city of neighborhoods, you’re dealing with divisions.

I’m hoping that going sort of beyond those borders, beyond the divisions, can work well for me here in Kansas City. I understand that there are some challenges here with city lines and folks living on different sides and living in (the) suburbs, et cetera. But in Chicago, we were really moving past that, working hard with each other to uplift each other. So I think here – at the local level – we just need to see ourselves a little bit more.

Count Basie plays a show sometime in the late 1940s. (Library of Congress)

Flatland: What are you excited most about?

Rashida: I think all the things. A lot of people, I think, feel as if this institution has the challenges of being what I call a hybrid institution. I came directly from a hybrid institution, which means that you have sort of the core business itself, which here is the museum. But these elements of having a jazz club and having a theater also under, sort of under the umbrella of what we do here is richly exciting.

The fact that there’s a changing gallery space, which means we can bring a sort of modern lens into the jazz community and offer really different opportunities for the public to come back and revisit us and see sort of different viewpoints, to me, is highly exciting. So me being sort of an interdisciplinary, not necessarily nerd, but really coming from that from Chicago, it’s exciting to me to be able to delve into sort of all of these pieces.

Flatland: Can you expound on the interdisciplinary aspects of the museum?

Rashida: Yeah, there’s a lot of things that jazz encompasses, right? I mean, some of us feel like (jazz), to borrow from New Orleans, is sort of a gumbo, right? There’s lots of things in that mix. And so I think of poetry, for instance, which is strong and rooted in jazz as well as the music itself. There’s some things that have happened here that have combined poetry with what’s going on in the museum. And again, that’s another sort of modern opportunity, I think, for people to really voice what’s going on in their lives. So that’s exciting to me. A lot of the things I’m looking at, visual arts mixed with performing arts. I hear a lot of people who claim if they are performing artists then they’re not a visual artist, et cetera, et cetera. But I don’t think that we make those sorts of divisions in our lives.

As young people, we kind of experiment, we sort of jump in all hands in and all sides of what the arts are. So looking at the combinations of those, the power of bringing all of that together. (Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey’s Studio Dance Program) down the street dance. Again, another wonderful discipline. Just love to see some more sort of rich partnerships around these communities and disciplines.

Alvin Ailey is a renowned dancer, choreographer and activist. Ailey founded Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. (Library of Congress)

Flatland: I want to know about you as a teen, getting into music and that sort of thing. What was that evolution for you?

Rashida: Gosh, the evolution. Well, I mentioned musical theater. I kind of had become a nerd there for a minute and really thought about honestly going to Broadway. (But) I wasn’t quite the triple threat that I wanted to be. I didn’t really have that choreographed dance skillset that I wished I could have. Certainly, I love dancing, but the choreography can be another challenge. So just a lot of music.

I’d really gone through a salsa stage too as a kid, I would go to sort of the South Side of St. Louis where they had a lot of the Mexican community and we’d go do salsa and merengue and really explore a lot of that side of music. And what was funny about that is when I landed in Chicago, I ended up working directly with the person who was sort of responsible for the salsa scene in St. Louis. So it’s funny how pathways sort of just all converged and sort of lead you.

Flatland: They do. That’s amazing. What was it like being jazz vocalist?

Rashida: You know what’s interesting, I went to Oberlin College, which has a wonderful music conservatory. So it helped that I was in a place where music was embraced and really uplifted as much as the other subject areas. And that was very exciting. But just having sort of the access and having the flow to great musicians, great professors in college, and also being able to sort of work with my peers. And it’s fun, because at this point, there are quite a few of my peers who have, quote unquote, made it.

We sort of think about ourselves as being in these bubbles when we’re young and kind of having these sort of experimental points where we’re sort of vibing with each other and thinking big. But a lot of folks that I’ve gone to school with have kind of gone out there to make it. To either have major record deals. There’s someone who’s writing for Marvel right now, who’s having movies made.

So I came from a real artistic class, which was pretty exciting. And so we’ve all, in some way, I think fulfilled sort of our pathways of really uplifting the arts and really doing that kind of work.

Flatland: And now you’re doing it for the community.

Rashida: Yeah. And that’s always kind of been me. I tell people I get a joy from being onstage and off. A lot of folks would ask me, why aren’t you sort of out there doing the gig-to-gig lifestyle? Or why aren’t you sort of traveling the world and using your voice in this way? And I enjoy that and I think that’s very important. But I also enjoy working with folks in the community and providing opportunities for young people to sort of get involved with the arts and get involved with music. And honestly, I feel rewarded at the end of each day just as much so as if I got on stage and sort of had a great night of performance. I feel just as rewarded with the work that I’m doing to be able to open up these opportunities.

Rashida Phillips calls Sarah Vaughan (pictured here in the 1940s) her “shero” and inspiration. (Library of Congress)

Flatland: And also, you’re in a very historic space. How does it feel to be in (the 18th and Vine) area?

Rashida: Well this is one of those cradles, right? So for me, it’s a thrill to come here because this is where all of the bands came through here. This was the kitchen in many ways. Folks, in terms of the jazz world, they would come here, those territory bands would come here and put in that work. They’d roll up those sleeves, they’d get involved, they’d create something magical and then some of them would move on to the East coast or outward and other areas.

But this was it. It was like, this is where you cut your teeth, right? And so for me, it just made sense for me to come from Chicago and not necessarily do a reverse migration, but really sort of pick up those points historically that have really contributed to the music, to the culture, to sort of the power of what we could create as a people and really influence the world.

Flatland: I know that so much is happening for you right now. I’m curious to learn a bit about what your plans are for the next five years.

Rashida: I’m working through that. I’m doing a lot of listening, really ear to the ground. So I’m hustling around town sometimes to exhaustion, but (it’s) really rewarding to just listen to all of the constituents who are involved in this work. So I’ve been on that sort of listening tour where I’m getting out and about in the communities all over town where they send me, where they don’t send me. I spent some time in a couple of jazz clubs this weekend, starting to check out the scene there. So it’s exciting to sort of see how jazz existed in other ways here.

But really, I just want to understand the community a little bit more. I was on a panel with the mayor this past Saturday and I know he talked a lot about gun violence, talked a lot about affordable housing. So I just want to see how those elements interplay here in Kansas City. I’ve seen them interplay in other places, but they look different in every space. And this being more of a mid-sized city, I really think it’s a wonderful opportunity for me to get to know, really know people.

Flatland: And then to gather support for the music. That’s the goal.

Rashida: That’s right. I mean, I think we’ve got a jewel here. This is a serious cultural asset. I think everyone wants to see us succeed, which is part of the reason that I’m here and jazzed about being here and we want to kick it to the next level. So we’ve got wonderful neighbors.

We are in a cultural sector and district that is not only historically relevant but certainly presently relevant. So I’ll be looking at what the city is thinking about in terms of helping us build up this area of town. I know that there has been a lot of expansion in the Crossroads district. So with the tourism expanding, with a new airport, with the draft coming, with all of, with the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl… All of these good things that are happening, all of this expansion here, we’ve got to step up to the plate too, as a museum. And really we are presently a destination but become even more of a dynamic destination for folks to come to.

Flatland: Do you want to talk a little bit more about Charlie Parker’s centennial celebration this year?

Rashida: Yeah. Well certainly, we’re working with some citywide organizations about how to celebrate Charlie Parker. We’re not quite ready to announce specifically what they are, but we will be working hard to recognize Charlie and with his saxophone downstairs, that’s motivation every day as I walk by. I keep thinking there’s the reason. So yeah, it’s wonderful.

Kansas City native Charlie Parker’s saxophone is on display at the American Jazz Museum. (Library of Congress)

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