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The National Jazz Museum In Harlem

AAJ Staff By

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The National Jazz Museum in Harlem is at 104, E 126th Street, a few steps from the bridge that carries the Metro North trains to and from Connecticut from the 125th Street station. Situated on the second floor, the museum is primarily a suite of offices with a large front area that presents photographs, video documentaries and books on jazz to the public.

The Museum's executive director is Loren Schoenberg, saxophonist, arranger and conductor, and a former assistant of, then manager for, Benny Goodman in the '80s. Goodman played with Schoenberg's Loren Schoenberg Big Band in 1985, on a PBS television special. In the Museum's office reception area, there is a photo of Schoenberg in front of a clowning Benny Carter, who is pretending to look shocked at something. Schoenberg became Executive Director in 2001, and has overseen substantial growth in activities and presentations. The Museum hosts cultural and educational events all year round.

In 2005, bassist Christian McBride became co-director of the Museum, and performs an ambassadorial role for the Museum as well as occasional educational work.

The Museum hopes to move to a new development across from The Apollo Theater on 125th Street, possibly in 2012. Instead of the current suite of offices, this site would be 10,000 square feet in size, providing space for interactive presentations including a listening library and a theater for performances. The Museum also sponsors a number of jazz events at other venues in New York City.

An array of photos, taken by jazz chronicler Hank O'Neal, line the main wall of the public area. O'Neal had the idea to write a book on living jazz legends. He interviewed and photographed many musicians, and published a book called The Ghosts of Harlem: Sessions with Jazz Legends (Vanderbilt University Press, July 2009). Subjects include the well known and the slightly less well known. Fats Waller sideman guitarist Al Casey (who died only in 2005), Basie alumni and inventor of the electric guitar Eddie Durham, and Milt Hinton, himself a major jazz photographer as well as famous bassist, are among the portraits.

Museum volunteer and jazz expert Burt Westridge says a number of the musicians photographed by O'Neal were, in later life, members of the Harlem Blues And Jazz Band, a famous orchestra of older musicians that was founded by jazz aficionado Al Vollmer in 1973. The idea was brilliant, as the band kept jazz musicians form the big orchestras and smaller groups of the past actually performing. Many former sidemen of names such as Louis Armstrong and even Joseph "King" Oliver played in the band. (A documentary on the band was released in 2004).

Westridge is a goldmine of information, relating where musicians lived as well as other facts. He tells how Durham made his own electric guitar in 1929 when with the Jimmie Lunceford orchestra.

By Phil Klein

Westridge also reveals that here was a predecessor to the current museum, a downtown location, that was open for a brief time in the 1970s on W 55th Street. Westridge was there, and tells of the opening of the Count Basie exhibition, where Basie himself played with a trio. Charlie Mingus attended, and took over from Basie's bassist Eddie Jones.

The piano in the public area of the Museum belonged to pianist Dick Katz, who had played with Charlie Parker, and whose family donated the instrument.

Books of photographs are also on hand. In addition to the book by O'Neal, there is Images Of Jazz by Lee Tanner, that sits appropriately on a table in the reception area, an ideal coffee table book.

There are also, of course, the famous books by bassist and photographer Milt Hinton. His first book was Bass Line, and has excellent photographs from Hinton's days on the road including the early days in the 1940s. One masterpiece is a photograph of the young Dizzy Gillespie asleep on a train, circa 1940. The young guy in the photo, wearing a pullover, could be from almost any era. The ability to communicate a timeless quality must surely be a major objective of photographers.

Shortly afterwards in the book, there is another photo of Gillespie in 1981, blowing up his cheeks for a group of French children in Nice, on the Cote d'Azur.

As Westridge says, the book is primarily a kind of biography, told partially through the photographs. Hinton's second book, Over Time, focuses on a wide range of musicians. A great example is a photograph of drummer (and composer of the Ellington band track "Skin Deep") Louie Bellson in Tehran, Iran in 1973. Bellson is leaning forward on a chair, while two broad shafts of light advance through the doors up the back of the auditorium.


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