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Flame Keepers: National Jazz Museum in Harlem

Karl Ackermann By

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Curiosity is one of the defining characteristics of jazz fans. —Loren Schoenberg
On 129th Street, in the heart of Harlem, Loren Schoenberg emerges from a crowded back room with an unusual looking recording. Aluminum discs like the one he holds, were the first instant, electrical means of recording. Invented in 1929 they were a means of allowing radio stations to record and archive live programs that could be played on a delayed basis or used for promotional purposes. The discs made for more convenient recording, compared to the standard wax discs of that era but required a wooden or fiber stylus for playback. Their history was a brief one as the new technology of lacquer discs emerged in 1934. Schoenberg hands me the disc and points out the initials etched into the surface near the center hole. Because the aluminum discs were not made for commercial sales, they did not have the customary paper labels, but rather, crude etchings for identification purposes. This one appears to be marked with the letters "BG." It's possible, Schoenberg tells me, that this disc may be from a Benny Goodman broadcast but that has yet to be determined. This investigative process is one of the research projects taking place at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem where Schoenberg serves as Founding Director and Senior Scholar. In a very real way, this was a road that Schoenberg started down decades before he could have realized his destination.

The Brief and Troubled Life of the New York Jazz Museum

It was over-sensationalized in media but there is no question that New York City in the 1970s was a dangerous place. The metaphors of a lawless frontier played out in designations like "Fort Apache" and "Fear City." The October 29, 1975 New York Daily News painted an ominous picture with its infamous headline, FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD, a reference to then President Gerald Ford's refusal to bail out New York City. On the brink of economic collapse, corporations fled to the suburbs and beyond, taking white-collar workers with them, shrinking the city's dwindling tax base and creating a domino effect. Neighborhoods like Hell's Kitchen—now unaffordable to many—were then occupied by drug dealers, street people and transients; unemployment was high and crime was higher. It was in this realm that a newly minted lawyer, Howard E. Fischer, was making some serious career decisions as he struggled to build up a clientele. He answered an unrelated advertisement in the Village Voice placed by a man named Frank Bristol -a jazz fan looking to build a like-minded network to organize jazz related events. Fischer had grown up with jazz, his family listening to Coleman Hawkins, Chick Webb and others, but Fischer's own interest was casual prior to the Bristol connection. With Bristol, he began laying the groundwork for an organization called the New York Hot Jazz Society but within months of their meeting, Bristol died. Through another connection, Fischer connected with Jack Bradley, a photographer who had worked with some musicians. Fischer and Bradley built up the capacity of the society and later became co-directors of the New York Jazz Museum. In 2004, Fischer self-published a chronicle of the museum's history with the sensationalized title, Jazz Exposé: The N.Y. Jazz Museum and the Power Struggle That Destroyed It. The book is less an exposé than a list of accomplishments and grievances; the one-hundred and twenty-six page book relies heavily on reprints of press releases, newspaper coverage and minutia such as the verbatim notes from Board of Directors meetings. Amongst the leaden coverage however, is the story of a substantial public appetite for such an institution, and the museum's relative success in delivering on its goals.

Fischer claims that he originally wanted the museum to be located in Harlem but rejected that location because he felt that the ..."perception and reality...of too much crime..." would deter tourists. Having secured a location in mid-town Manhattan, the museum opened in June, 1972 with an exhibition honoring Louis Armstrong who had passed away less than one year before. Armstrong's wife, Lucille, attended and musicians who had played with Armstrong, performed. Among the jazz-world attendees were writer Nat Hentoff, Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein, Artie Shaw, Clark Terry and John Hammond. Armstrong's wife donated memorabilia including recordings and letters. The museum sponsored a Jazz Touring Program—an outreach platform to bring jazz to younger audiences through a number of events including live performances. It co-sponsored Sunday concerts with a major liquor distributor and it featured revolving exhibitions included ones honoring Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Lester Young and John Coltrane. By Fischer's own account, the museum drew well, sometimes with waiting lines at the door. The museum was recognized with awards, donations and positive national press. Behind the scenes, all was not well.

In the course of the museum's five-year existence, it changed locations four times due to space limitations, rent increases and real estate transactions. Fischer's partner, Bradley began drawing a salary as a Managing Director and Fischer charged him with a breach of their contract. There were additional lawsuits involving contractors and a dispute with New York City over the museum's tax status. In 1977, the Board of Directors for the museum fired Fischer for poor management practices, and Fischer's own lawyers rubbed salt in the wounds by suing him for additional legal fees. The museum closed that same year with its collections moving to the New York Public Library's Schoenberg Center and the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies.

When the New York Jazz Museum opened in 1972, it was one of only two dedicated jazz museums in the U.S., the other being the New Orleans Jazz Museum which opened in 1961. Despite Fischer's personal misadventures, the museum was a success by many measures bringing regular concerts to the city at a time when jazz clubs were in decline, and exposing the art (and artifacts) to new audiences. The museum brought in a number of well-known musicians who would often convene there and share stories with each other and the volunteers who ran the facility on a day-to-day basis. In the early days of the museum, one of those volunteers was the seventeen year old Loren Schoenberg.

The National Jazz Museum in Harlem

An affiliate of the Smithsonian, The National Jazz Museum in Harlem was founded in 1997 by Leonard Garment and Abraham D. Sofaer. Garment was the White House Counsel to Richard Nixon following Nixon's firing of John Dean during the Watergate debacle. He was also a talented saxophonist with strong ties to jazz. Soafer was a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Schoenberg serves as the Executive Director and resident jazz scholar for the museum. The museum has two Artistic Directors -pianist, composer and bandleader Jon Batiste and GRAMMY winning bassist Christian McBride. Batiste has a focus on keeping the museum relevant to modern jazz fans while McBride acts as an ambassador and advisor on program development. The bassist also hosts the NPR radio program "Jazz Night in America." The Board of Directors includes very notable names such as Ken Burns and Wynton Marsalis.

Schoenberg's extensive reach in the industry makes him uniquely well-suited to his role in the museum. Originally schooled in piano, Schoenberg took up the tenor saxophone in 1974 and he has a resume that touches every corner of the jazz business. He attended the Manhattan School of Music as a Music Theory major in 1976 while minoring in piano. In the same approximate time frame, he played in the Eddie Durham quartet and formed his own big band shortly afterwards. The band performed at the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, Michael's Pub and other New York venues. In 1979, Schoenberg produced a Carnegie Hall tribute to Charlie Parker and Lester Young at that featured Howard McGhee, Herb Ellis, Dicky Wells, Mel Lewis and others. In 1985, Benny Goodman hired Schoenberg's band to appear on a Public Broadcasting Service program and he later became Goodman's archivist and his personal manager. In 1997, Schoenberg became Bobby Short's musical director, playing with Short at the Cafe Carlyle. He later joined the faculty of The New School and the Manhattan School of Music, and is an artistic consultant to Jazz at Lincoln Center. Schoenberg shared honors with Dan Morgenstern in winning the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes.

If New Orleans birthed jazz, then no setting cultivated the genre more than Harlem, and the National Jazz Museum makes the local community a significant part of its focus. Jazz was the cornerstone of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that had far-reaching implications in the broader culture of the United States. Home to poet Langston Hughes and novelists Claude McKay and Zora Neale Hurston, the area between 110th Street and the lower 150s was a cultural mecca. Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington drew throngs of fans to the north of Manhattan and destinations such as the Savoy Ballroom, Small's Paradise, Club Hot-Cha, The Radium Club, and, most famously, the Cotton Club. It is in upholding this legacy and promoting a forward thinking approach toward the future of jazz, that the The National Jazz Museum in Harlem is on a one of a kind mission to bring art to life.

Ryan Maloney, Director of Education and Programming at the museum, articulates much of what goes on beyond the exhibit space. By way of a formal statement, the museum's mission is to ..."preserve, promote and present jazz by inspiring knowledge, appreciation and the celebration of jazz locally, nationally and internationally." The long view is to ..."secure a permanent home in Harlem with space large enough to showcase Harlem's vast contributions to jazz, American music and world history." Maloney explains that the museum's programs reach out to a broad spectrum of ages from kindergarten through adult, with tours, presentations, live performances and interactive involvement. They also offer ongoing education curriculums for every age group. For all its prestigious trappings, the museum is as much a Harlem neighborhood hang-out as it is an institution. The exhibitions are surrounded by untethered instruments, there for visitors to pick up, examine and be inspired by. In a prominent space near the entrance to the museum, sits a period piece, player piano. Schoenberg explains that "In Harlem, in the early days of jazz, the piano was at the center of most homes regardless of the financial stability of the household." It was a pivotal part of the cultural and social structure of the area.

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