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The Gig: Canon Fodder

Nate Chinen on Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology

The Smithsonian Collection is a sketch, a beginner’s library of jazz history,” reads an introductory note in the booklet for The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, first issued in 1973. “Necessarily, there are many worthy figures and groups left out of it, and there are others who are perhaps not ideally represented.”

All disclaimers aside, the set—curated and annotated by critic Martin Williams, covering six LPs and some 45 years of recorded history—quickly became an influential reissue package, a touchstone of jazz scholarship and a precedent for anyone looking to define (or defend) a jazz canon. For years, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has fielded inquiries about when the Collection, long out of print, would be available again.

Still no word on that front. But in March the label released Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, which broadens the scope of the Smithsonian Collection, adding 40 more years and dozens of previously excluded musicians. Painstakingly assembled, with an advisory board and a formalized process of letter-grading, commentary and debate, the new anthology stakes an ambitious claim: not only as an educational tool but also “a panoramic overview of jazz as well as a solid jumping-off point for further explorations of this inspiring musical culture.” Those words, from a preface written by its executive producer, Richard James Burgess, don’t disclaim so much as declare. This collection—six CDs, with a 200-page book—is meant to be a sweeping thing, and it is.

How much does it actually matter, though? Since the release of the Smithsonian Collection, jazz has effectively embraced a culture of endless commemoration, making a project like this seem noble but faintly obsolete. The rise of extensive CD reissue programs in the 1980s and ’90s, followed by the near-effortless availability of material in the Internet age, has undermined the intrinsic value of repackaged goods, however smartly assembled.


Meanwhile, organizations like Jazz at Lincoln Center and SFJAZZ have institutionalized the practice of historical tribute, as have many independent artists, like saxophonist Joe Lovano (see his recent Blue Note release, Bird Songs). And the generational boom in high school and college jazz history courses, paired with graduate jazz studies programs, softens the impact of this anthology’s fixations and omissions: It’s just one more take, sharing space with the syllabi and study guides, not to mention commercially edifying fare like the five-CD tie-in to Ken Burns’ Jazz.

To get what drives the new Anthology, it helps to dust off the original Collectionand its attendant era. (Bear with me if you lived through it.) The jazz world was in a pensive frame of mind in 1973, due in part to the recent death of Louis Armstrong and faltering health of Duke Ellington, but also to a creeping suspicion that the jazz tradition, as brilliantly embodied by those giants, was itself beginning to slip away. Some blame was assigned, with free jazz or fusion taking it on the chin, but the net result was a movement toward preservation. That same year, 1973, also saw the formation of the National Jazz Ensemble, led by bassist Chuck Israels, and the New York Jazz Repertory Company, founded by producer George Wein. Both were devoted to rejuvenating classic jazz in concert, nearly 15 years before the first stirrings of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

It’s hard to comprehend now just how novel an idea that was. After one New York Jazz Repertory Company concert, featuring Armstrong solos arranged by Dick Hyman for three-part trumpet harmony, Whitney Balliett summed up the critical consensus in the New Yorker: “They brought to the fore attractive and even brilliant copies of superb Armstrong recordings,” he wrote of the arrangements, “that had long ago sunk out of sight and that were completely unknown to a good many in the audience.”


On one level the Smithsonian Collection fulfilled a similar function, gathering tracks from multiple sources, some fairly obscure. But the set also reflected the priorities and biases of Williams, who was director of the Smithsonian’s jazz program as well as a critic of resolute conviction. Miles Davis, for instance, gets three selections, but nothing later than Kind of Blue. There are three tracks by Ornette Coleman but only one by John Coltrane: “Alabama,” an evocative but idiosyncratic choice. And as Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux point out in their recent book, Jazz (W.W. Norton), Williams held fast to the tenets of the New Criticism, editing out context he deemed extraneous.

Williams chose to open with two takes on Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”: first a piano roll made by Joplin himself (1916) and then a version recorded by Jelly Roll Morton (1938). The Anthology, too, begins with “Maple Leaf Rag,” just in case you were doubting its kinship to the original set. (In case you were doubting its footing in a jazz-repertory world, it’s a version recorded by Dick Hyman in 1975.) As the new set progresses, you begin to grasp its mission of inclusion. In other words, sure, you’ll find classic Sonny Rollins—wedged happily between Lucky Thompson and the Sun Ra Arkestra.

The flip side of this ethos is that fewer artists, even the marquee heavyweights, get to hog the spotlight. Williams’ Collection has eight tracks by Louis Armstrong—or nine, depending on how you classify King Oliver’s “Dippermouth Blues”—all dating from the 1920s and early ’30s. The new anthology, by contrast, has a mere four (five, counting the same Oliver track), venturing as late as 1957. That’s a key difference. So is the treatment of Thelonious Monk, who gets a luxurious six cuts (one of them an excerpted solo) in the Collection, and a single paltry track on the Anthology (not counting a version of “‘Round Midnight” recorded by the George Russell Sextet). “What Martin obviously did was, he wanted to focus on these canonical artists and go into depth,” said Burgess. “I think it was brilliant, and it’s a perfectly valid approach.” But, he added, “We were also cognizant of the weaknesses in the Collection. Martin not only picked canonical artists, but he kind of created canonical artists as well. If you put people in these sets and they get picked up by the schools as a core teaching tool, then you can have an influence. We wanted to reflect thinking more than define it, I think.”


The Anthology does cast a broader net, for better and for worse, than the Collection. It includes some female instrumentalists. It doesn’t ignore fusion, or skimp on modal and Afro-Cuban jazz. Its purview, stretching to 2003, allows for statements from saxophonist Steve Coleman, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and even Medeski, Martin and Wood. Of course it also invites complaints, both substantive and petty. (You’ll find more of mine here.) If the old Smithsonian set was “a beginner’s library,” this one might best be likened to a map. Major points of interest have been highlighted, but there’s a lot of uncharted territory out there.

Originally Published
Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WRTI and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).