June 2004 By Gary Giddins
Collecting the Collectors
The compulsion to collect has inspired a copious literature, ranging from the sublimely sober Walter Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library" ("ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects") to the tabloid hysteria generated by the Collier Brothers: Depression-era hoarders who buried themselves behind barricades of junk-one brother was presumed missing for weeks until his corpse turned up beneath an avalanche of old newspapers. My own home often feels like a sarcophagus lined with books, recordings, movies and art in an attempt-no less vain than that which built the great pyramids-to absorb the wisdom of the universe and prolong my life until said absorption is complete, a task that could take two or three hundred years if I buckle down to it.
In his essay, Benjamin wrote of the "profound enchantment" of the "magic circle" in which items are fixed by "the thrill of acquisition." But he also recognized that the collector's primary inspiration is to "renew the old world." Collectors, then, are conservators; the evidence is everywhere, especially now, when archives compete for materials sanctified by age, scarcity and mere existence. We save everything, and mourn whatever has been inadvertently or deliberately lost. One generation's reclamation of its childhood becomes the next generation's history and the next generation's anthropology. The Colliers were modern prophets, and eBay is their vindication.
Some university archives begin single- or double-mindedly. Gonzaga University, for example, specializes in Gerard Manley Hopkins ("skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow") and Bing Crosby ("where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day"), and is more likely to broaden into showbiz than poetry. Michael Cogswell, director of the Louis Armstrong House & Archives at Queens College, has published a handsome illuminating book, Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo (Collectors Press), drawn from a collection that has the potential to grow from Satchmocentric to Satchmo-related.
The University of Idaho, in Moscow, Idaho, joined the ranks of jazz archives in 1992, when Lionel Hampton donated and bequeathed scores and papers. As curated by Michael Tarabulski, the collection has grown to include comprehensive gifts from the estates of Al Grey and Conte Candoli, and significant contributions from those of Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Gerry Mulligan, Doc Cheatham and others. In addition to customary archival essentials-10,000 recordings, 1,000 scores, 5,000 photographs, 17 instruments, dozens of videotapes, uncounted letters and books-holdings include band uniforms displayed with the pomp of 19th-century gowns at the Smithsonian.
I went to Moscow in February as a speaker at the annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival-a remarkable event featuring dozens of musicians, including Slide Hampton, Roy Hargrove, Bill Watrous, Russell Malone, Paquito D'Rivera, Lorraine Feather, Freddy Cole, John Clayton, Houston Person, Jeff Hamilton and 10-year-old local wunderkind Ben Walden, who swings "Ain't Misbehavin'" on alternating mouth harps. But the highlight of my visit was the Leonard Feather collection.
Feather's intriguing letters are at the Institute of Jazz Studies in Rutgers (still the biggest and best jazz archive in the country), but his other papers are in Idaho, including meticulous scrapbooks that document his career from 1929 to 1994. Reading through the early volumes, one finds not only an awkward young writer attempting to uncover his voice, but an ambitious critic out to codify a relatively new profession. He also donated hours of tape-recorded interviews and TV shows. If Feather's memoir, The Jazz Years, proved exceedingly defensive and discreet, this material offers a more forthright look into his perspective and career.
Among the Hampton festival speakers was Larry Appelbaum, a senior studio engineer at the Library of Congress, who brought several very rare TV broadcasts from the LOC. In one, Steve Allen takes a camera crew to Birdland where the Basie band is strutting its stuff. For someone like me, who never saw the original Birdland, this was pretty amazing, even if part of the sequence was given over to a piano duet with Steverino. It reminded me of how furious Allen was when he learned that NBC destroyed kinescopes made from his show-appearances by Art Tatum, Miles Davis and Bud Powell lost forever. Another Appelbaum clip gave me a more personal frisson, and allows me to correct a misstatement in Visions of Jazz. I had written of first hearing Cecil Taylor on an NET broadcast-in 1965, I thought, on a show emceed by Nat Hentoff. Wrong on both counts. The program was shown in 1967, and the twin emcees were Martin Williams and Ralph Ellison. At least the music was as recalled.
Getting to Moscow from New York is no picnic (given the four-hour wait in Seattle before catching a puddle-jumper to Pullman), though the festival is worth the effort. One can only hope that before too long, researchers will have a less expensive and time-consuming alternative as archives are made available online. In that regard, Lewis Ricci, director of UI's International Jazz Collections, and Tarabulski are attempting to launch a consortium of jazz archives to coordinate acquisition, preservation and presentation. Jazz musicians, critics and collectors who want to unclutter their homes have several institutions they can support-in almost every corner of the country.
Originally published in June 2004