|104 E. 126th Street • Suite 2D • New York, NY 10035|
"A Home in Harlem
for America's Music"
When talking about the planned Jazz Museum in Harlem, its executive director, Loren Schoenberg, like to use the metaphor of the overtone series in music. When you strike a not on a piano, he explains, you not only hear that note itself, but the adjacent notes on the keyboard will also resonate sympathetically. This, he feels, is the reason why there should be a jazz museum in Harlem: There, it will be perfectly placed to resonate throughout the entire world.
Marin Williams once wrote about a foreign jazz fan who, upon arriving in New York, was astonished that there was not a major statue of Charlie Parker displayed prominently in the center of the city. "A museum is a way that a culture declares what's important and what's worth preserving," says Mr. Schoenberg. "It's shocking to folks around the world that the United States does not have a national jazz museum."
Jazz is not, hoary truisms to the contrary, America's sole contribution to world musical literature: there's blues, country and western, show music, and the Great American Songbook, rock, and other varieties of pop. Yet jazz is the bridge that connects the various American forms to one another.
The idea for a museum was developed by Art D'Lugoff, impresario of New York's Village Gate jazz club; David Levy, president of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.; and Leonard Garment, a lawyer and politician who began his career as a professional saxophonist in the 1940s. "If we're correct," says Mr. Garment, "there's something very valuable, very essentially American here. Slightly crazy, very smart, full of energy, enhanced by the fact that America is separate from the Old World. And Harlem is fresh terrain - things have not been done here before."
Although they tried to get the project going several times in the immediately pre- and post-millennial years - and secured a $1 million grant from Congress in 2000 - the project didn't gain momentum until 2002. Early in that year, the principals hired Mr. Schoenberg: With a background as a full-time musician and bandleader, as a leading jazz historian and writer (he worked for many years for the legendary Benny Goodman), and as a jazz educator, he was and is a uniquely qualified man.
Though formerly neglected, jazz is increasingly well-served by various formal institutions. Jazz at Lincoln Center is generally regarded as the central organization for presenting the music in a non-profit context; it is also currently the leading exponent of the movement known as Jazz Repertory, dedicated as it is to revisiting the great composers, players, and styles of the past. The Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, convenient to New York in Newark, N.J., is considered the most significant collection of jazz recordings and literature in the Western Hemisphere.
There was a Jazz Museum of New York that existed briefly in the early 1970s, run by the eminent photographer and Armstrong scholar Jack Bradley, at which Mr. Schoenberg volunteered as a teenager. But the new jazz museum will have less in common with the earlier one - or any traditional museums - than with such cutting-edge institutions as The Holocaust Museum in Washington and the national Civil Rights Museum in Memphis: The goal is to convey as much of the jazz experience as possible. "What will make the Harlem museum unique," says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, "is that it can take advantage of the latest technology - virtual exhibits, digitization, holograms - which is not contingent upon an actual exhibition of artifacts."
Live music will also be an important part of the picture at the forthcoming museum, according to Mr. Schoenberg, "It's crucial that you'll start hearing live jazz within about 14 seconds of walking in the door," he says. Though the museum will incorporate an archival component, it won't be the sort of place where the chief thrill is seeing an original Commodore 78 rpm record or Lester Young's porkpie hat.
The museum itself has not yet taken shape, but already Mr. Schoenberg has assembled an all-star band to trumpet the news of its impending existence. Over the course of the summer, The Jazz Museum in Harlem All-Stars have made three important appearances. On July 10th, as a septet - with Mr. Garment sitting in on tenor - the band performed at a reception in the gallery under the museum's current offices on East 126th Street. Two days earlier, he mounted an all-Duke Ellington program with a full 12-piece band for Sirius Satellite Radio (for whom both Mr. Schoenberg and I are part-time consultants).
Most important, however, was the show on June 24 - when, in honor of Black Music Month, Mr. Schoenberg and the All-Stars performed at the White House. The president and other government figures were present, and speeches were given by Mr. Garment and jazz spokesman Stanley Crouch (long associated with Jazz at Lincoln Center), and a very special guest performed with the band. This was Herb Jeffries, the 92-year-old baritone (known for his hit record of "Flamingo"), and sole surviving member of the 1940-42 Duke Ellington Orchestra, whose appearances are very rare.
The White House appearance helped transmit the message that, as Mr. Schoenberg says, "Jazz has not been treated correctly in this culture, it has not received what it deserves. We want to let it be known that jazz will no longer be on the back shelf or on the back street, or condescended to, or somehow used for other means."