Sid McKnight: In his own words  

Sid McKnight explains why he and his wife Carole decided to give UMKC's Conservatory of Music and Dance a $500,000 gift.


March 12, 2014

I was fortunate to grow up in a home where my mother was a violin prodigy and my father sang opera. Mom had left the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music to go to Louisiana State University to study with a violin master. She met my father in the music school. While neither pursued music as a career, my home life routinely included string quartets.  

As a child, I was lucky to spend many hours at my mother’s symphony and opera rehearsals. My mother loved jazz and was very supportive of my playing, at times in places I could not have gone were I not playing! As a teen, I moved from the piano to study percussion, play jazz gigs around the K.C. area, and teach percussion. In retrospect, those were the most fun-filled times of my life. 

However, at some point I became diverted into the healing arts and ultimately to the UMKC School of Dentistry for a DDS degree and specialization in periodontics. I never lost my passion for the music and, if I am honest, wondered what I had missed not pursuing it as a full-time career. So the gift to the jazz studies program is definitely one from the heart.  

I suspect two occasions stimulated our gift. Upon retirement, I resumed playing and studying with my friend, Doug Auwarter who is on our Conservatory staff. At my ripe age, I went to Vermont for a weeklong summer jazz camp for grownups, primarily east coast professionals, Berklee teachers, and retired doctors and lawyers like myself. I was surprised at the amount of attention my Kansas City nametag attracted. Everyone was regaling me with KC jazz history that I had grown up with and already knew! Yet, I came away realizing how much I had taken it for granted: growing up around the Pla-Mor Ballroom; hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach at the Orchid Room; and seeing equally well-known performers at many other famous venues. I was struck with the fact that we have a unique history and tradition that we share with no one and cannot be denied! When these same historians heard that I actually knew and counted Bobby Watson as a friend who headed up our program with Dan Thomas they were even more impressed. I left with much civic pride!  

The second occasion (actually two) was the Jazz Friends annual Barbecue and Auction events. Jazz Friends do a fine job and provided this opportunity to meet and visit with some of the talented students who Bobby Watson and Dan Thomas are mentoring. I saw myself many years back as I chatted with a couple of the students. I scheduled some time with Bobby and Dan to find out what we need to do to make this a national destination for talented young people seeking jazz education. To my way of thinking we have everything in place: great tradition and history; Bobby as an internationally esteemed player and teacher; Dan Thomas and a great faculty, a great local jazz scene with plenty of playing opportunities; and outstanding leadership from Dean Peter Witte. The answers from everyone came back the same: We need scholarship money to compete with heavily endowed eastern schools and universities if we are to recruit our share of the best talent.  

Carole and I discussed doing all of our gift as a bequest, we also discussed an anonymous gift. After a helpful discussion with Peter Witte, we elected to do a bequest, but also do something up front now so that we might have the opportunity to stimulate others to match us. I hope there are others out there who will catch my passion and vision.

The stage is set, we just need the scholarship money to provide Bobby and Dan with the capability of bringing in the extraordinary talent.