Thursday 7 May 2009

The Jazz Museum in Harlem

You don't need to be a Futurist to find uncomfortable the idea of a jazz museum. Despite the attempts to redefine the role of the institution- a quick Google search brought me: Reinventing the Museum, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift by Gail Anderson & Making Museums Matter by Weil Se- I don't feel inclined to consign West End Blues or Ghosts to what Marinetti called 'museums, graveyards' Jazz is too alive, too lively (pace Frank Zappa & Edward Vesala), too unofficial. Anyway, haven't Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Centre got that covered already?

Despite such reservations, let's praise the Jazz Museum in Harlem both for its attitude & its location; although the museum does not yet exist, for now there's a visitors' centre on 126th St - just a couple of rooms with a small library, a cd collection and a small gallery of photographs. If it were just a building, it would be worthy but unimpressive, but it's far more than that. The museum- see declares itself concerned as much with future of jazz as with its past and its range of activities supports the assertion.

Their Harlem in the Himalayas sessions bring 1st class concerts to the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art on W17th St ( your ticket gets you admission to the exhibitions too). The acoustics are so good in the subterranean theatre that all the gigs are presented without pa. I've heard the Marcus Strickland quartet and the Charles Davis quartet there, and recent gigs have included the great Henry Grimes in a duo with Marc Ribot, and Billy Bang with William Parker.

Jazz for Curious Readers has talks by and interviews with jazz writers as diverse as Ira Gitler, George Lewis, Nat Hentoff, Garry Giddins and Stanley Crouch, while Jazz for Curious Listeners is currently examining classic albums- Speak No Evil as well as Armstrong Plays WC Handy, with Common's Like Water for Chocolate later this month.

And Harlem Speaks presents conversations with musicians- I was lucky enough to be there for the discussion between Cedar Walton and drummer Kenny Washington, whose knowledge of the postwar jazz scene was comprehensive enough for him to be able to prompt Cedar over details he'd forgotten. There were some very funny Art Blakey anecdotes- asked about Blakey's bandleading style he replied: Military- and fond memories of Kenny Dorham, who gave Cedar the nickname 'Steep'- short for 'Steeplehead' because of his high forehead. The audience - mostly Harlemites I'd guess- contributed also; a discussion of how David Newman got his nickname was interrupted authoritatively by: Because he had a big fat ego, that's why- from a woman behind me.

There's more- free concerts in the parks, Saturday panel discussions, an education programme for young people- and most of the museum's activities are free of charge & well-supported. And where better than Harlem as a location?- the site of so much jazz history in the city that still presents more jazz nightly than any other. (My next post will describe a week in NYC last month.)

There's not so much live jazz in Harlem now- the Lenox Lounge, the reopened Minton's, Bill Saxton's Place- but this could change if the jazz museum does move into a building on Harlem's main drag- 125th St- as reported here.

Incidentally, while leafing through a 1972 issue of Down Beat (while updating my website- who says men can't multitask?) I noticed a news piece about a New York Jazz Museum about to open in midtown- does anyone know what happened to that project? There's nothing in the Down Beat online archive. In any case, the Jazz Museum in Harlem appears too well organised, too well-grounded to repeat its fate. If they get the funding...