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At Last, a Jazz Museum
"After years of planning and hoping, there will be a Museum of Harlem. It isn't ready to open yet. A building has to be found, and a lot more money has to be raised - following Congress' allocation in 2000 of $1 million for development through the Small Business Administration. The president of the museum is Leonard Garment, who was briefly an alumnus of the Woody Herman band (reed section) and for a longer time, a counselor in the White House to Richard Nixon.
"Having a notable wit, Garment survived the latter experience. Through conversations with him over the years, I know how deeply knowledgeable and indeed passionate he is about jazz. And Garment has been instrumental in selecting as executive director - the one I would have chosen - Loren Schoenberg, a first-rate musician, arranger, leader and a critic with rare comprehensive perception in the tradition of the late Martin Williams. Garment told the New York Sun that a focus of the museum will be on the music's history, as it "evokes the American experience [through] the narrative nature of the jazz experience." At the core of that ext the core of that experience, of course, is free expression. Every player who has shaped that narrative has a signature sound from his or her distinctive experience as an American or exposure to American musicians.
"Before offering a suggestion for a permanent program at the museum, I want to comment on the firing of Stanley Crouch, the very embodiment of free, unfettered, spirited expression. When we were colleagues at the Village Voice, Stanley used to hold court in the corridors, punctuating the political correctness of some of the staff, black and white. At that paper, he wrote the most incisive profile of Louis Armstrong's astounding achievements that I've ever read; and for JazzTimes, his column on the essence of jazz time itself was matchless. And Stanley actually knew many of the musicians he writes about who are not longer here. He doesn't have to go to secondary or tertiary sources when he assesses their life's work. There aren't many of us left with in-person knowledge of some of the key shapers of the music. Or, as a young tenor player said to me, "My God, you actually spoke to Lester Young?" To terminate Stanley Crouch with a brusque e-mail is a discredit to JazzTimes - and its readers, however purgatively angry some got at Stanley.
"As for the Jazz Museum of Harlem, where I know Stanley will be welcome, I hope it will consider a regular series of oral histories of jazzmen and jazzwomen in a somewhat different context than is the usual practice at the invaluable oral history programs at various colleges and other institutions. While I have interviewed many musicians over the years, I have learned the most about how the American experience affected their lives, and therefore their music, when they have reminisced among themselves, and I just listened.
"I learned how valuable this approach to oral history could be during my apprenticeship as an A&R man. I had never directed a recording session when Lester Koenig, creator of Contemporary Records, asked me to do some sessions in New York in the late 1950s. Eagerly, I asked a musician I much admired on and off the stand, Willie "The Lion" Smith, and the equally legendary Luckey Roberts, to do a session - each on solo piano. They were among the early masters of Harlem piano, who transmuted ragtime into jazz. Luckey was the dean, having taught James P. Johnson and influenced Duke Ellington, as the Lion also had the Duke.
"Before the session, I went to California to lean how Les Koenig ran his dates. I noticed that he opened the mikes as soon as musicians came into the room - before any official takes. "You never know," he said, "what you might regret missing and we picked up some interesting conversations and music." When Luckey and the Lion came into the studio, I forgot to tell the engineer to start recording. For the next hour or so, during sound checks and other preliminaries, Luckey and the Lion were swapping stories about the wondrous "ticklers," as they were called, along the Atlantic seaboard from whom both had learned their art. There were tales of Jess Pickett, One Leg Willie, Jack the Bear, Sam Gordon, Lonnie Hicks. And on the piano, they played some of their progenitors' ingenious licks. But they also revealed what the American scene was like for itinerant black virtuosi playing places without a maitre d' and told about the audiences they played for. I was so fascinated that I almost forgot to start the session; and it was only when I got home, trying furiously to write down fragments of some of the stories, that I realized I had forgotten Les Koenig's first rule for A&R work.
"Also, though I knew Duke Ellington and a number of his sidemen, the most illuminating insights into what it was like to be in that nonpareil band was at a Jazz at Lincoln Center reunion of Ellington alumni a few years ago. Those reminiscences were taped, and I wrote about them here. The session with Luckey and the Lion was for Good Time Jazz's Luckey & The Lion/Harlem Piano (part of the Fantasy catalog). Coming soon: the very model of an optimum jazz oral history concept for the ages and all ages: The American Jazz Institute/Claremont McKenna College Oral History Project in Pasadena, Calif."