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A poster of the famous Esquire Magazine jazz family portrait, taken on the stoop of a Harlem brownstone. The museum doesn’t say much about the creation of the picture, but the 1995 documentary “A Great Day in Harlem” covers it well.
Hey there, daddy-o, if you’re a swingin’ hep cat and you dig the syncopated sounds of America’s native musical form, have I got a museum for you!
Actually, I don’t. I went to the Jazz Museum skeptical but hopeful, and ultimately I can’t recommend it.
Skeptical because how do you put jazz in a museum? Music of any sort is a tricky thing to museum-ify. But jazz in particular, with its energy and improvisation… you could have a Hall of Fame for jazz. But a museum?
Hopeful because, hey, you never know. The right combination of stories, artifacts, and interactive listening kiosks might be able to do justice to the vast sweep of traditions that comprise jazz and its influence across the whole of music.
In the event, the Jazz Museum is at best a proto-museum. An aspirational museum. A sketch or an outline for an institution in the future. It occupies a small ground floor space on a side street in Harlem, and seems largely to exist as a shrine to one of Duke Ellington’s pianos. They have a couple of other instruments from less famous instrumentalists, and a chunk of a living room emphasizing the importance of music in homes in Harlem. But really there wasn’t much to see.
They had Ella playing in the background, but even that proved a mixed blessing. There were a couple of touchscreens where visitors can listen to jazz, but the background music, while good, interfered with listening to the headphones.
On the other hand, their space includes a tiny, informal performance area in the back, and while I was there an older gent stopped in and just started playing the piano. Really well. As a musically untalented person, I hate people who can do that. But deeply appreciated it in that space.
Visiting the National Jazz Museum made me think about the regular reports of the death of jazz, which may even be deader than opera at this point. I wondered if having a museum to it serves as yet another piece of evidence for the demise of the form? They have a display with photos of young jazz musicians, and sorta reach toward hip-hop, kinda. But really nothing I saw there suggests anything innovative or interesting has happened in jazz since the 1970s.
I firmly believe that museums for specific groups or cultures can emphasize the aliveness of the cultures they represent. Both the Museum of Chinese in America and the National Museum of the American Indian do that in different ways and at different scales. But I don’t think the National Jazz Museum succeeds. If jazz isn’t dead yet, maybe the museum will kill it.
If you are in New York City and are curious about or interested in jazz, here are an assortment of things I’d suggest you do rather than visit the Jazz Museum:
- Hear a show at Smoke, Jazz Standard, Village Vanguard, Minton’s or any of a dozen or so other clubs.
- Go to Jazz at Lincoln Center. A bit more stuffy and formalized — more like a museum for jazz if you will, but Wynton Marsalis is the reigning king of the art form. And the Allen Room has the best view of any music venue in New York City.
- Check out art from the Jazz Age–either the exemplary show currently at the Cooper-Hewitt, or any time at the Whitney.
- Make a pilgrimage to the final resting places of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis in Woodlawn Cemetery.
- Rent or stream Ken Burns’s PBS jazz series
- Visit Louis Armstrong’s house in Corona, Queens
As for the Jazz Museum, maybe, possibly go to a performance there. But skip it otherwise.
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