At last, this essential American music
gets a museum.
BY NAT HENTOFF
Wall Street Journal
Thursday, March 18, 2004 12:01 a.m.
NEW YORK--Some years ago, a Swedish tourist
much immersed in the music and lore of jazz asked me, when
he came to New York to visit Harlem, "Is there a statue
of Charlie Parker there, or anywhere?" Surprised there
was not, he wondered if there was some kind of jazz research
center in the city, and was disappointed again.
At last, however, a Jazz Museum in Harlem is
taking shape, and is in the process of acquiring a building,
possibly at the site of the Victoria Theater, next to the
fabled Apollo Theater. The first development money was a $1
million line item in the 2000 federal budget. Among its proposers
were then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Rep. Charles Rangel
of Harlem and Rep. John Conyers, very knowledgeable about
the historic Detroit jazz scene. Particularly important was
the enthusiasm of Senate Appropriations committee chairman
Ted Stevens of Alaska, a jazz fan who, as a Yale undergraduate,
spent weekends digging the New York jazz scene.
There is no more obvious site for a jazz museum
than Harlem. In his memoir, "Music Is My Mistress,"
Duke Ellington told of when he was a fledgling bandleader
in Washington, D.C., and "Harlem, to our minds, did indeed
have the world's most glamorous atmosphere. We had to go there."
So did many who became part of the jazz pantheon--from Count
Basie to Charlie Parker.
Directing the planning for The Jazz Museum in
Harlem (www.jazzmuseuminharlem.org) is multi-instrumentalist,
arranger, conductor and jazz historian Loren Schoenberg, who,
like Ellington, sees and performs the music as a wholly living
continuum, not contentiously locked into categories and styles.
The resourceful chairman of the museum's board
is Leonard Garment, an equally skilled attorney and writer
(as in his beguiling memoir, "Crazy Rhythm," published
by Da Capo Press). A former White House counsel to Richard
Nixon, Mr. Garment was the only presidential counsel to have,
in his youth, been in Woody Herman's reed section.
"The museum," Mr. Schoenberg emphasizes,
"must be deeply rooted in the Harlem community,"
and it already has encouragement from such community leaders
as Lloyd Williams, head of the Harlem Chamber of Commerce.
But vital in the long run is the determination of Mr. Schoenberg
to connect to the museum the schools of Harlem, and, for that
matter, those of the rest of the city.
Museum docents, who will be musicians, will
guide school groups through the museum, bringing history alive
through performances, storytelling and interactive exhibits.
For all visitors, there will be--among other adventures--a
"Jazz Way," invoking each decade of the music's
During the big-band era (1931-40), for example,
visitors, in a circular environment, will see different musicians
from such bands as Ellington's or Benny Goodman's, each projected
so his playing can be heard as it interacts with the whole
arrangement. Then, standing in the center, the visitors will
experience the score in its reverberating entirety.
The museum will have a jazz theater, a jazz
club and a learning center with a library and other research
sources. And there'll be live sessions, lectures and workshops.
I suggested to Mr. Schoenberg that the museum
could also be particularly valuable to young players, because
missing from the jazz scene for years has been the opportunity
for newcomers to learn from their elders, who helped shape
the language. As alto saxophonist Phil Woods recalls, that
used to happen when the generations were mixed into the big
bands, and newcomers could tune in, on the bus as well as
the bandstand, to the "oral history of the tribe."
Accordingly, Mr. Schoenberg is planning to have,
at the museum, conversations among musicians across generations,
and those will be open to visitors and transcribed for historians.
When Charlie Parker died in 1955, drummer and
leader Art Blakey--a persistent proselytizer for jazz--said
forlornly, "I doubt if many black kids knew who Charlie
Parker was." Soon, there will be a vivid source of immersion
in jazz past and future. And since the music has long been
an international language, tourists from around the world
will be coming to Harlem in ever greater numbers. They won't
see a statue of Charlie Parker, but they'll be in his presence,
along with that of his progenitors.
They, and visitors of all ages, will learn,
interactively, dimensions of American history through the
lives of embodiments of what Ellington called the "unhampered
expression of complete freedom reflecting the ideals of American
Ralph Ellison said of blacks, and other Americans,
"We all do have institutions. We have the Constitution
and the Bill of Rights. And we have jazz."
And we have Ellington's "Harlem Air
Shaft, a Tone Parallel to Harlem," and his band's occasional
theme, written by Billy Strayhorn, the infectious "Take
the 'A' Train" to--as the song says--"find the quickest
way to get to Harlem."