"Watch a jazz group gather on a bandstand.
The pianist plays some introductory chords, then repeats them.
The other musicians talk, joke, trade suggestions about tunes
and tempo, and play seemingly random riffs. Finally, to the
relief of the audience, they begin. "Vamp till ready"
is music business jargon for this Zen-like ritual of marking
time until performance overtakes preparation. The phrase applies
just as well to the founding of a museum like the one in whose
birth I am involved, the Jazz Museum in Harlem.
"In 1996, Art D'Lugoff, then proprietor
of the Village Gate, the historic Greenwich Village jazz club,
suggested the idea of a jazz museum to his friend David Levy,
who is director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington,
a sometime saxophonist and a lifelong jazz enthusiast. The
two of them enlisted me. Before entering the practice of law,
I had spent some time as a jazz musician; my performing career
was brief, but my love of jazz proved permanent. Daryl Libow,
a Washington lawyer and amateur jazz historian, joined us.
We had lots of enthusiasm and no funding. We soon discovered
the limitations of the former and the importance of the latter.
"Some of our early decisions were easy.
The most appropriate place for the museum was clearly Harlem,
reflecting as it does the dominant African-American contribution
to the jazz art form. The music in Harlem's clubs and theaters,
during and after the Harlem Renaissance, indelibly shaped
the way jazz entered and informed virtually all of American
culture. A jazz museum in Harlem would be a companion to the
jazz performance space being developed at Lincoln Center.
"In those early days we also received some
indispensable funding. Through friends of mine who are involved
in antipoverty efforts in Harlem, I met Deborah Wright, then
head of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, Harlem's principal
development organization. The Empowerment Zone provided the
jazz museum with its first funds, a grant of $125,000. Those
funds were matched by the Scheuer Foundation and by Abraham
Sofaer, a State Department legal adviser, federal judge, and
"We had enough money to hire an executive
director, who struggled for a year to assemble an organization.
We gathered a distinguished board. Jazz historians, archivists,
educators, and musicians advised on museum structure, themes,
and exhibits. We were assured of access to the vast jazz collections
of the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress.
We acquired the help of Wendy Evans Joseph, architect of the
new Women's Museum in Dallas. Design work began for a small
experimental facility, modeled on the Los Angeles Temporary
Contemporary Museum, where we could test relationships among
historic text, live music, and technology.
"But our inadequacies soon overtook with
us. To begin with, we were all part-timers; our meetings were
sporadic and our communications mainly by remote means. We
groped to answer basic questions: Where would the museum be
sited? Who would do preliminary organizing? How would we raise
more money? More important, what was the museum's mission?
How could it display and illuminate music, an invisible art
form? We properly identified these issues but did not have
the expertise to resolve them.
"We flailed around for three years; and
while we did, the money ran out. We had been awarded a $20,000
grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, to be used
for planning conferences; but several hundred thousand dollars
was what we needed to refine and develop our primitive planning.
We did not have it. Our executive director departed, sensibly
enough, for employment in California. Work came to a halt.
"At this point, Congress produced what
it occasionally does: an act of creative generosity. I had
worked to interest Senators and Congressmen in the museum,
and some responded-notably, Senators Daniel P. Moynihan and
John Warner and Congressmen Charles Rangel and John Conyers.
Most unexpected was the crucial concurrence of Senate Appropriations
Committee chairman Ted Stevens. Congress provided a $1 million
line item in the fiscal year 2000 federal budget for development
of the Jazz Museum in Harlem. It turned out that Senator Stevens
was a jazz fan who, during his undergraduate years at Yale,
had spent many weekends in the jazz clubs of Manhattan. You
"To be sure, this kind of largesse is not
exactly drive-by funding. The money is earmarked within the
budget of a host federal agency-in our case, the Small Business
Administration-whose standards the grantee must meet in exacting
detail before the disbursement of actual money is authorized.
The process took us the better part of a year to complete.
If Daryl Libow had not kept at it with his litigator's tenacity,
we would have lost our chance.
"That is how the museum stayed alive. But
the idea gained major impetus from another event: the accelerating
momentum of change in Harlem. For years, a new Harlem Renaissance
had struggled to be born; it was finally happening. On February
10, 2002, the Sunday New York Times reported on "The
Changing Look of Harlem." Parcel by parcel, it said,
Harlem was finally being remade. The principal actors in this
development drama were the Empowerment Zone and the state
Metropolitan Economic Revitalization Fund. Though the organizations'
names are less than poetic, the transformation they have wrought
is dramatic. Indeed, Harlem now faces a new problem: the displacement
of small businesses through gentrification.
"In this changed urban setting, the jazz
museum came back to life like a rim shot. The head of the
Empowerment Zone, Terry Lane, is supporting the jazz museum
as a natural addition to Harlem's landmark Schomburg Center
for Research in Black Culture, the expanding Studio Museum,
the rebuilt Apollo Theater, the new Museum for African Art,
and other major cultural establishments. Discussions have
begun for access by the jazz museum to major jazz archives
such as the Rutgers University archive administered by Dan
Morgenstern. The museum is the natural institutional home
for a collection of which I am executor, Willis Conover's
spectacular Voice of America collection of jazz music and
history. The National Endowment for the Arts has officially
confirmed its planning grant to us; now we have the capacity
to use it.
"Most important, we have a new executive
director for the National Jazz Museum, Loren Schoenberg. Mr.
Schoenberg's quarter-century playing and conducting career
in jazz has included close associations with eminent musicians
ranging from Benny Goodman to Wynton Marsalis; the latter
has become a friend and supporter of the jazz museum. Mr.
Schoenberg's extraordinary range is what we hope for in the
museum: an illumination of jazz as art form, jazz as a teaching
instrument, jazz as a model of combined discipline and improvisation,
and jazz as a supreme narrative, literary and musical, that
has flowed through virtually every capillary of the nation's
culture and set the mood for what we Americans think and feel
"It has been a long haul, because we started
with a big idea but no money and because, until recently,
the Harlem community was not ready for a jazz museum. Now
these conditions have changed. So why, after six years of
vamping, is all of this suddenly happening? Because, in the
words of the Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie breakthrough modern
jazz recording, "Now's The Time!" (Savoy, 1945.)