On the very same day that the United States Postal Service held a ceremony in Newark, New Jersey, to celebrate the new Sarah Vaughn postage stamp, Harold Closter, Director of Smithsonian Affiliations, told a funny anecdote about his contribution to the history of jazz. Addressing the audience at the opening night of The National Jazz Museum in Harlem’s new location, Closter joked that his contribution to jazz history was the time he was tasked with carrying the train of “the Divine One’s” (as Vaughn was known) dress onstage once. It was an appropriate anecdote for a night celebrating the opening of the NJMH’s new location on West 129th Street, on the day that one of jazz’s greatest singers was finally commemorated by the USPS. Another unique story was told a bit later, when the dancer and choreographer, Mercedes Ellington, the granddaughter of the great bandleader, pianist and composer, Duke Ellington, told how her grandfather passed on to her a pair of ivory dice that had been given to the jazz legend by Haile Selassie, the former Emperor of Ethiopia. The younger Ellington had no idea what to do with the dice, and stated that turning them into a pair of earrings was one option. The intricately carved memento did not become a fashion accessory, however, as Ellington has passed them on to the NJMH and they are now on display as part of the museum’s current exhibition, VIBRATIONS.
Vibrations was the subtext for the night, as NJMH’s Founding Director and Senior Scholar, Loren Schoenberg, sat down at the piano and hit a few chords on the ivories. The point was not to display his skills as a pianist; more to illustrate how the vibration of jazz and music is such a significant part of the culture of Harlem and the rest of the city. The National Jazz Museum in Harlem’s new location on West 129th Street is a sweet note for the neighborhood, situated at street level now, in a new building just a few blocks north of the legendary soul food restaurant, Sylvia’s, and Marcus Samuelsson’s hugely popular Red Rooster. The location is also a brisk five minute walk from the 2 and 3 metro stop at 125th Street and Malcom X Blvd. (Lenox Ave.), which puts it soul center in the heart of one of the city’s most vibrant and culturally burgeoning neighborhoods. Harlem is the cradle of jazz culture, and the Museum’s ongoing exhibits and weekly evening public events that feature a unique blend of thoughtfully curated talks, recordings and live music are a just a portion of the Museum’s contributions to the preservation and promotion of jazz in the community. Educational outreach is a big part of the NJMH’s profile; the Museum’s archives, recordings and live performances engage and stimulate the community’s children, students and seniors, many of whom are big jazz fans.
The Museum’s current exhibition, VIBRATIONS, is a variation on Ellington’s philosophy that music should go beyond labels, and to that end his greatest superlative was to call something “beyond category”. Inspired by the vibrations put in motion by Ellington and others, the NJMH has put together a photographic presentation that features prominent musicians whose music defies labeling and speaks to his or her generation while honoring the legacy of previous generations. A sample of the artists featured are Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Esperanza Spalding, Stevie Wonder, Kendrick Lamar, and many more. In addition to the exhibits, the NJMH will present ongoing talks and performances, like tonight’s event featuring soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome reading from his essay, The Straight Horn of Africa, followed by a discussion on the influence that African music had on the creation of his critically-acclaimed CD of the same name. Newsome will close the evening with a solo saxophone performance.
Tuesday, April 5, is the first in a four part series entitled Sound, Architecture and Music, a program with music and visual illustrations; Tim Porter on mandolin will be joined by guitarist Joe Selly and bassist Don Byron. The group will explore concepts, principles and elements common to both the design of physical objects, like the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, and the structure of music such as that of Miles Davis. With its principal musical focus on jazz, the program will examine how elements such as space, time, color, contrast, texture, shape, motion, proportionality and perspective are similarly conveyed, and how artistic and historical periods influence similar aesthetic expressions in diverse fields.
Porter is also NJMH Board Chairman, as well as an accomplished musician, and he spoke about how the new location for the Museum, as well as its design, makes the Museum a lot more accessible, with more opportunity for partnering with more people and organizations in the arts community, and the expectation that more people will want to partner in the educational programming. “The educational programming that we do sort of spans the age gamut of people; from youngsters all the way up to senior citizens. We want to make sure that we are nurturing talent; not just people who are on the bandstand, but people who work behind the scenes in jazz music as well. People who do production work, and the work behind the curtain.” Porter states that “What I see is arranging opportunities for young people to get experience in those areas. Just as the old way of teaching musicians how to become jazz musicians was by sitting in, we would like to develop opportunities that parallel that so that a young person sits in with a producer of an event, or an electrician doing the lights, or a technical person. It’s the full range of avenues and areas in the field of jazz that we’ve got to be mindful of.”
Porter is an encyclopedia of the facts, details and minutia of the history of jazz music, and he can rattle off the names of obscure yet important bands and artists from all over the world, as well as going back into the history of jazz in America. Discussing the ubiquity of his instrument of choice, the mandolin, in jazz, Porter talked about a string band from New Orleans called The Sixth and Seven Eighths String Band of New Orleans, who began playing together in 1913, and also listed every iconic mandolin player from practically every continent. He saw the amazing Indian mandolin player, Srinivas, who passed away in 2014, perform at Carnegie Hall with the banjo player Bela Fleck, and expressed dismay that, sharing an ancestral connection with India, the two were never able to connect during the occasions Porter was on Srinivas’ home continent. “Mandolin has been a part of the jazz scene since the very beginning of jazz.” Porter states.
Guests at Tuesday night’s opening event enjoyed performances by celebrated pianist Marc Cary with vocalist, Terri Davis; tenor saxophonist, Bill Saxton; drummer, Russell Carter; and bassist, Rahsaan Carter, and were among the first to experience VIBRATIONS, an exhibit featuring over 100 years of Harlem history in one room. Speakers included Tim Porter, Esq, Board member, and newly named Chairman of the NJMH’s Board of Directors; Loren Schoenberg, NJMH Founding Director and Senior Scholar; and Harold Closter, Director of Smithsonian Affiliations;, among others. Though unable to attend, NJMH Co-Artistic Directors Jon Batiste (celebrated pianist and Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader) and Christian McBride (renowned bassist / Artistic Director of Newport Jazz Festival) as well as Board Member, Ken Burns (award-winning documentary filmmaker)– each gave remarks via video.
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem
58 W 129th St
New York, N.Y. 10027
Admission: Free ($10 donation suggested)