Jazz archaeology.


From left to right (above): Sidney Bechet’s soprano sax, Louis Armstrong’s first cornet, Lester Young’s tenor, Roy Eldridge’s trumpet

Aficionados of practically anything enjoy the arcane, the ephemeral, the trivial, the obscure and even the bizarre about whatever it is that captures their devotion. Students of “serious” history are no exception. And they certainly don’t avoid the arcane or the bizarre. Although rumors that Napoleon’s penis resided at the he British Museum turned out to be false, it turns out that it is part of the estate of a prominent New York urologist. Napoleon’s parts notwithstanding, museums do house all manner of memorabilia that most would consider uninteresting at best, and disturbingly excessive at worst. Bullets that killed kings and presidents, bits of human and animal excrement—ossified and otherwise—and all manner of other odd minutiae pepper the collections of museums both great and small. Jazz, as it turns out, is no exception.

There are plenty of small, specialized collections around America and the rest of the world devoted to very specialized facets of jazz. Typically, these collections center around the work of one musician or fan-collector, and are often housed in a University setting. Collections and archives that go beyond a specific focus are less common, and those that cover the entire spectrum of the music are rarer still. Here are a few of the best. A damn fine vacation could be had by taking a long road trip and visiting each of them.

Not surprisingly, the Louisiana State Museum Jazz Collection (click on their name for a link to the website) in New Orleans has one of the great collections of material specific to that city and to jazz in general. Sheet music, letters, and recordings typically make up the bulk of all these types of museum collections, but we’re particularly fascinated by physical, visceral items like musical instruments. The LSM Jazz archives include Louis Armstrong’s first cornet, upon which he learned how to play in the years after 1910. Also on display is a soprano saxophone played by Sidney Bechet. These two items alone might be worth a trip down.

The National Jazz Museum in Harlem (link by clicking on name) houses, among other things, the recently-unearthed William Savory collection of privately-recorded jazz from the 1930’s. Loren Schoenberg is head curator there, and this collection alone will define this facility for generations. Encompassing hours of high-quality recordings of broadcasts featuring a who’s-who of that era’s jazz greats, it will be released in pieces, mostly to avoid the nightmare of tackling royalty issues all at once. Schoenberg, while giving a talk about the collection at the 2011 Detroit International Jazz Festival, explained that the irony of these royalty issues is that whoever might be entitled to them will each only get a couple of hundred dollars, given the age and the relative obscurity of the music, but protocol must be followed.

While listening to Schoenberg speak, we were introduced to Tad Hershorn, author of “Norman Granz: the man who used jazz for justice” and archivist at the Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Studies. Started by musicologist Marshall Stearns in the 1950’s, the ISJ  archives are among the largest and most fascinating in the world. In addition to the papers and recordings of hundreds of prominent figures in jazz, they have an exhibit of great instruments, including tenor saxophones owned by Don Byas, Ben Webster and Lester Young. Young typically played cheap horns, and the one on display at the ISJ bears this out. Fascinating to see, we’ve been told that visitors can occasionally talk the staff into actually letting them hold these instruments. Here’s a link to the Institute’s web site.

The Duke Ellington collection at the Smithsonian Institution is just one of dozens of individual collections that make up the vast jazz archives there. It most likely involves months of study to get a handle on its treasures, but simply knowing that Ellington’s hand-written lasagna recipe resides there is enough for us. Here’s a link to the Smithsonian’s jazz archives.

The American Jazz Museum in Kansas City is smaller than the above, and much narrower in scope, but they do have a sort of “official” Charlie Parker Memorial set up there, one which includes one of Bird’s horns. We’d make the trip just to see that. Here’s a link to their website.

In a similar vein, the Sherman Jazz Museum (click on name for link) down in Texas has an even narrower focus. It’s purely and simply the home to the Maynard Ferguson estate collection. Regardless of our opinion of Maynard’s flamboyant playing, any museum that has a trumpet collection which includes horns owned by Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Miles Davis and Harry James is pretty damn cool.

Maybe it’s just us, but we think this is much more interesting than looking at Madonna’s bra hanging on the wall of a Hard Rock Cafe somewhere. Then again, we do enjoy looking at the guitars in places like that, but that’s material for another story.

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