KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s been said this city’s heartbeat comes from its jazz history.

One of the Kansas City’s top jazz festivals for students returns this week. The celebrated 18th and Vine Jazz Festival opens a three-day stand at the Gem Theatre, bringing students from more than 40 metro high schools.

This festival returns to the city’s Jazz District for the first time since 2019, before the pandemic set in. Music rings out through the Gem’s hallowed hallways again, as young people with brass and bass play before audiences and instructors. Each school’s jazz musicians are assigned a professional music maker, a seasoned pro willing to spend one-on-one time with young players.

“What we try to provide here is something they may not always get in their school bands,” Clarence Smith, 18th and Vine Jazz Festival Director, said.

Smith also works with the American Jazz Museum, which sits across 18th Street from the Gem. Smith said the museum and the Jazz District, have missed festivals like this one, which were either canceled altogether or held with restrictions in place. Smith is among those who are pleased this influx of traffic into the Jazz District will supply the museum with more patrons.

“If you ask people who are not from Kansas City — what do you know about Kansas City? They’ll say barbecue and jazz,” Smith said. “It’s one of the few arts, musically, where students can express themselves individually.”

Students and instructors who haven’t played this theatre in three years said they’ve missed these chances to learn and play. Festival leaders are disappointed that only one percent of music being sold nowadays is jazz-based.

“It’s just so great to be back, and, to a lot of students, to get those performance opportunities,” Travis Barzee, Grain Valley High School’s director of bands, said. “(Jazz) is very unique in the sense that we purposely break rules. That’s the whole narrative. We’re going to do whatever it is we normally do, and we’re going to drop that, and it’s going to sound pretty great.”

“It’s more exciting. I feel like I can express myself more with the saxophone than I could with a guitar,” Emily Knowles, a Grain Valley student who plays saxophone in her school’s jazz ensemble, said. “Jazz has been important to me forever.”

In a city that celebrates the horn and the heritage, it’s good to be back on stage. The 18th and Vine Jazz Festival continues at the Gem Theatre through Saturday. Organizers expect a big turnout this weekend.