The National Jazz Museum in Harlem
104 E. 126th Street
New York, NY 10035
104 E. 126th Street
The idea for the museum had it roots in the short-lived New York Jazz Museum (1972-1976), where Schoenberg had volunteered as a teenager, enjoying movies of vintage concerts shown in the one-room space on weekends. The new museum was the brainchild of Art DeLugoff, once-owner of the legendary Village Gate. When the Gate closed in the mid ‘90s, DeLugoff opened Swing 52, where he met Schoenberg (who was leading the house big band) and shared his idea with Leonard Garment, a lawyer/saxophonist/ Washington politico who took off with the idea when DeLugoff lost interest, becoming the chairman for the planning committee in 1997. Unfortunately, the tempo didn’t pick up until 2001, when the board received a million-dollar appropriation from Congress to develop the concept. At this time, Garment asked Schoenberg to take over the reins and, with the opening of the office in the Spring of 2002, things began to swing.
The first program initiated was Harlem Speaks, a bimonthly, two-and-a-half-hour-plus oral history interview, carefully videotaped for posterity. The program has featured a host of star musicians and jazz-related community members such as congressman Charlie Rangel, drummer Roy Haynes, pianists Dr. Billy Taylor and Hank Jones and NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (as a Harlem teenager, the hoops wizard often enjoyed free passes to see Thelonious Monk at the Village Vanguard and, with a friend, had fun imitating the pianist’s idiosyncratic body English). But the bulk of the series champions those rank-and-file participants who are the very heartbeat of Harlem jazz, people like Parlor Jazz hostess Marjorie Eliot, veteran saxophonist Max Lucas and singer/instrumentalist Carline Ray. One interesting guest was dancer/choreographer Mercedes Ellington, who not only reminisced about her famous grandfather (the Duke) but related her experiences of being the first woman of color to be featured on the Jackie Gleason television show. In June, author/critic Nat Hentoff will share his wealth of experiences.
The next program to be developed was the Harlem Speaks Educational Initiative, an outreach to high school students at the Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall Academies, followed by related programs for high- and middle-school students at the Frank Sinatra School in Queens and several urban assembly schools in The Bronx. Participants meet and interact with experienced artists with the goal of instilling the youth with an appreciation of and appetite for the living history of jazz in their local community. Jazz for Curious Listeners followed, a free hour-and-a-half music appreciation/history course held every Tuesday evening at the Metropolitan Methodist Church on 126th Street and Madison Avenue. Attended by people from all walks of the jazz village, the program has struck a chord, attracting anywhere from 60 to 150 audience members a week, some of whom live as far away as Connecticut. More recently, Harlem Swings, an alternate-Thursday evening program of live music that toggles with Harlem Speaks, has been initiated at Nubian Heritage (126th Street and 5th Avenue).
Schoenberg is particularly proud of the diverse population attracted to the museum’s various programs: “It’s everything from high school kids to college kids to young professionals to old Harlem people who just live in the neighborhood to people from downtown… Our demographic is the broadest and most diverse of any jazz organization.” More than simply classes or concerts, JMH events are opportunities for like-minded friends and fans to commingle and collaborate. Schoenberg comments: “When we take our intermissions or our breaks, people socialize to the degree that it’s hard to get them back to their seats. And that’s unusual: that doesn’t happen at Jazz at Lincoln Center; it doesn’t happen at other places, just because they don’t have that kind of intimate venue.” In a symbolic gesture, all events are conducted with everyone on the same floor level so that none of the participants, audience included, feel upstaged. Ultimately, Schoenberg notes, the museum is for any and all curious listeners: “A large percentage of the people that come to our events are not what I would call capital-J jazz fans. They like jazz or they like to come to us because it’s going to be a fun time or there’s interesting people, but it’s not just the jazz heads, which is great, because the jazz people will come anyway. We need them; we love them; they’re our base - but you can’t exist on that alone.”
An exciting new branch of the JMH tree, the Harlem in the Himalayas series, was launched in March 2006 at Chelsea’s Rubin Museum of Art (RMA). Boasting an incredibly responsive performance space, the downstairs K2 Lounge (unofficially test-driven and approved by a group of Tuvan throat singers from Mongolia), as well as one of the world’s premiere collections of Himalayan art, the museum concentrates on new music in an all-acoustic environment. Tim McHenry, the co-curator of the series, believes it is important to present music as-is: “What’s important about that is that it finally divorces the musicians from the sound engineer and creates an interactive environment with the audience, the room and the musicians, [so] that the musicians actually have to depend on their own dynamic in order to produce the balanced sound that they want, as opposed to doing whatever they do and having the sound engineer in the back correct and adjust.”
Over its inaugural year, RMA has produced some noteworthy shows, including a comeback concert by trumpeter Dizzy Reece, an exciting evening in which pianist Vijay Iyer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa re-launched their Raw Materials album, an outing with multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson’s trio, a strong performance by flutist/tenor saxophonist Frank Wess’ quartet and the premiere of a new score composed by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon to accompany a color-tinted print of DW Griffith’s classic silent film Intolerance, a performance that McHenry describes as “wild”: “It was really counterintuitive; it wasn’t really a narrative score in many ways, but it served beautifully because it absolutely kept you spellbound and [was] incredibly dramatic… [T]here’s this great climax where all the scenes get faster and faster inter-cuts towards the conclusion and it was this rollercoaster ride. It was amazing in that acoustic space.” In a recent performance, trombonist Roswell Rudd (in his third appearance at the museum) and guitarist David Oquendo delivered up a dynamic set that included, among other things, a fresh take on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”.
The connections between Himalayan art (a decidedly non-improvisative genre) and jazz may not be obvious, but they’re there. Whether their orientation is primarily spiritual or philosophical, artists in both areas share similar goals. “The whole point about the art is [that it’s] a meditation tool,” claims McHenry, “and so these [paintings] are mnemonic devices that enable you to remember the texts that allow you to imagine and visualize who you should be or what you should be divorcing yourself from - anger, desire and ignorance are the three key elements that keep you bound on this Wheel of Suffering.” If, McHenry argues, improvisation is understood as something that incorporates meditation, focus and discipline, than the art forms have much in common, opening up myriad possibilites for cross-fertilization: “Some musicians respond to shape, form and color and if it’s only that, that’s fine, because they’re responding to it as art, not as a philosophical tool. And so that’s what’s interesting: to see how people approach the thematic from very different angles.”
The Rubin Museum of Art will be actively involved when the JVC Jazz Festival comes to town this June: Iyer and Mahanthappa will return with new work, pianist Anat Fort is creating a piece based on a painting from the collection and multi-reedist Ned Rothenberg (a current member of the museum) will be hooking up with percussionist Glen Velez for the first time since the ‘80s. The Chelsea venue maintains a mutually beneficial relationship with the JMH and remains committed to producing new music in the coming seasons.
In the near future, the JMH hopes to lease a 10,000-square-foot exhibit space in the Victoria Theater on 125th Street (next door to the Apollo), a multi-use arts facility currently under development; the staff also hopes to locate a suitable brownstone in which to house a rapidly growing collection of historical artifacts. If all goes well, the JMH will soon be moving from the backroom to the front lines.
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