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Paper Trail: Where You Can Find the Historical Documents of Jazz

Musicians created jazz’s rich legacy, but schools and other institutions are archiving it

Count Basie
A late-era photo of Count Basie, part of the Basie collection at Rutgers’ Institute of Jazz Studies (photo: Suliman Olatunji/Rutgers University)

Jazz was developed outside of the academy, but it lives on in part through the schools and institutions that have sought to preserve the music’s history, thanks to donations from musicians, producers, writers, and photographers. Universities, libraries, and museums around the country contain the documents that lend jazz its narrative—scores, letters, photographs, and other papers.

“At its essence, jazz is about individuals,” says Michael Fitzgerald, who wrote a paper on jazz archives in the United States and now works as an electronic services librarian at the University of the District of Columbia, which is home to the Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives, “and while it is a music reliant upon the fleeting art of improvisation, there is also a wealth of physical materials that can help researchers of the present and future understand the lives and creative activities of musicians.”

Such materials, Fitzgerald explains, “tell the multifaceted stories behind the official release—giving posterity a glimpse at what musicians do on a daily basis and how creative works evolve over time.”

Here’s a quick look at just some of the places that house those materials (with handy links). 

Institute of Jazz Studies
Rutgers University’s collection in Newark, N.J., is one of the world’s great jazz resources, featuring the collections of Count Basie, Benny Carter, Andrew Hill, Abbey Lincoln, Annie Ross, and Mary Lou Williams, among others.

National Museum of American History
The Washington, D.C., museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, holds what its curators call the world’s largest museum collection of jazz history. The crown jewel is D.C. native Duke Ellington’s collection, which includes 100,000 pages of unpublished music and another 100,000 pages of documents, as well as photographs, recordings, awards, and other artifacts. Other holdings: the archives of Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, and more; 12,000 photographs; 300-plus jazz oral histories; and artifacts of Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, Artie Shaw, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Ray Brown, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Randy Weston, Chico O’Farrill, Paquito D’Rivera, Esperanza Spalding, and the Apollo Theater.    

Jazz Archive at Duke University
Duke’s archive contains, among other things, Mary Lou Williams memorabilia gathered by her biographer Linda Dahl, Les Brown’s scores, and Frank Foster’s papers, with a particular emphasis on musicians from North Carolina. 

James R. and Susan Neumann Jazz Collection at Oberlin College
Oberlin’s sizable collection, made possible through a private donation, comprises more than 100,000 recordings, along with books, periodicals, photographs, sheet music, and memorabilia. 

Erroll Garner Archive @ Pitt
Garner was a Pittsburgh native, so it’s fitting that his collection—music, photos, correspondence—would end up at the University of Pittsburgh. 

Living Jazz Archives
William Paterson University’s archive in New Jersey contains materials from Clark Terry, Thad Jones, Michael Brecker, Art Farmer, and James Williams, with more in the works.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Part of the New York Public Library, the center holds materials from Ron Carter, Billy Taylor, and Sy Oliver. In 2017, it acquired Sonny Rollins’ extensive archive.

Brubeck Collection
For decades Dave Brubeck’s alma mater, University of the Pacific (previously known as College of the Pacific), owned the great pianist’s collection, featuring audio recordings, photographs, news clippings, and interviews. But in December 2019, most of the Brubeck Collection was removed from the university, according to the Brubeck family’s wishes. In January 2020 it was announced that the collection will be transferred to the Wilton Library in Brubeck’s longtime hometown of Wilton, Conn.; a public opening date for the new location is still to be determined.

Louis Armstrong House Museum
Louis Armstrong’s former home in Corona, Queens, is now a museum and mecca for Pops aficionados; Armstrong’s collection—including quirky scrapbooks, tapes, and letters—was also recently digitized

Benny Goodman Papers at Yale University
Goodman’s papers remain secure in the New Haven, Conn., archives of Yale. 

Library of Congress
The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., holds collections from some of the most important artists in jazz, including Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Ella Fitzgerald, Dexter Gordon, and Gerry Mulligan. 

Hogan Jazz Archive
Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive in New Orleans is a formidable source, featuring the papers of Nick LaRocca—who recorded the first jazz album with the Original Dixieland Jass Band—as well as trumpeter Al Hirt and scholar Donald M. Marquis, who wrote the definitive biography of Buddy Bolden

Los Angeles Jazz Institute
The archive at the Los Angeles Jazz Institute contains a wide variety of resources, such as photographs, recordings, interviews, books, periodicals, artwork, and memorabilia. 

W. Eugene Smith Collection at the University of Arizona
The photographer W. Eugene Smith’s archive is located at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. Smith documented New York’s jazz scene in granular detail in the 1950s and ’60s.

Paul Whiteman Collection at Williams
Housed at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., Whiteman’s collection includes scores, recordings, and photographs, among other items. All told, there are “600 linear feet of material,” according to the Williams webpage.

Chicago Jazz Archive
The University of Chicago’s archive contains the collections of Anthony Braxton, Marian McPartland, and more. 

Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives
The archives at the University of the District of Columbia (named for the pioneering D.C. jazz radio DJ Felix E. Grant) include a vast trove of recordings, including critic/author Will Friedwald’s collection, which was started by his late father Herb.

Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection
Located in Pennsylania at East Stroudsburg University’s Kemp Library, the Cohn collection contains valuable material from the archives of Zoot Sims, Eddie Safranski, and other significant figures in jazz history, including its namesake.

Julius Hemphill Papers
Among the many treasures residing in New York University’s Special Collections & Archives are saxophonist, composer, and World Saxophone Quartet member Hemphill’s papers, including about 250 compositions represented through autograph scores, sketches, compositional notebooks, and parts in manuscript, as well as approximately 180 audio and visual documents of rehearsals, concerts, recording sessions, interviews, practice sessions, and multimedia and collaborative theatrical works. Originally Published

Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and The Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications.