Jazz in the Display Case

The music gets some prime space in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, but is that enough?

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

A replica of Parliament-Funkadelic’s mid-1970s Mothership tour spacecraft, one of James Brown’s ’70s black wool jumpsuits with the word “sex” in sequined beads around the waist, the lipstick-red ’73 Cadillac Eldorado that Chuck Berry drove in the 1987 documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, and Michael Jackson’s black fedora worn during the Jacksons’ 1984 Victory tour are just some of the cherished memorabilia you can see at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. Those items are part of the museum’s “Musical Crossroads” exhibition, which—through an assortment of musical instruments, sheet music, clothing, records, posters, films, and audio snippets—attempts to convey the polygonal evolution of African-American music through a compelling narrative.

Jazz is represented too. Louis Armstrong’s 1946 Henri Selmer B-flat custom-made trumpet; Miles Davis’ deep purple velvet jacket from the 1960s, designed by Joe Emsley; and Ella Fitzgerald’s black beaded dress from the late ’40s, designed by Zelda Wynn, are all among the exhibition’s jazz artifacts. According to Dwandalyn Reece, music and performing arts curator at the NMAAHC, the museum currently has around 200 jazz-related objects.

“Musical Crossroads” was curated in-house under Reece’s direction. She and two colleagues, with guidance from an advisory committee, built the exhibition almost entirely from their own acquisition efforts, including all of the Cab Calloway and Ginger Smock collections. (The museum is currently pursuing other jazz-related collections, but is prohibited from disclosing any specifics until they’re officially secured.)

Since the museum’s opening in 2016, enthusiasm has been high, so much so that visitors have needed to order tickets nearly five months in advance, even though entrance is free. According to the Smithsonian’s visitors’ statistics, the NMAAHC had approximately 623,000 visitors between January and April 2018; last year, visitors totaled 2.4 million. Not surprisingly, some of that fervor spilled over into the jazz community. But just as some hardcore fans took issue with Ken Burns’ 2001 PBS documentary series Jazz, some will surely criticize “Musical Crossroads” for not including various key points, innovators, and idioms. Reece seems well prepared for this, acknowledging that the exhibition isn’t designed to be an exhaustive repository of any genre.

“When I took on this job, part of my mission was to really tackle a story about African-American music instead of just stories about artists,” she explains. “It’s easy to just have famous people and [information about] what made them great. But I’m not sure if that’s giving the visitors the kind of information that we want them to have, as we do in the rest of the exhibits.”

“Musical Crossroads” occupies part of only one museum floor; to be fair, a comprehensive jazz exhibition could easily inhabit a smaller building of its own, as does the New Orleans Jazz Museum or the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. “If you look at the exhibition’s floor plan, you’ll notice that it’s not a linear path because it’s impossible to do this chronologically, not only because of the periods of time but also because so many of these genres and idioms overlap,” Reece argues. “Just trying to deal with that chronologically, just as one would deal with classical music or folk music, is difficult. The open floor plan gives visitors the ability to gravitate toward things that interest them, but it also allows them to browse.”

Louis Armstrong's 1946 Henri Selmer Trumpet
Louis Armstrong’s 1946 Henri Selmer B-flat custom-made trumpet. Photo from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture

The exhibition’s jazz content examines the roles of various rhythms; the creative dialogue between instrumentalists, composers, and singers; how women have helped shape the music’s development; and how the music provided avenues for racial integration in the U.S. before legislation caught up. “Musical Crossroads” also explicitly affirms jazz’s African-American roots with the inclusion of such artifacts as a copy of Nina Simone’s 1964 single “Mississippi Goddam” and Wayne Miller’s photo series, “The Way of Life of the Northern Negro.” It’s something that Reece was particularly mindful of, especially given how jazz is often touted as “America’s classical music.”

“I understand where people are going with that,” she says, “but sometimes I think [that phrase] dilutes jazz’s origin stories. A lot of musicians of various genres say that they never think about color, they just play music. But color and racism was and is real, [and] the way that race impacts artists, the way that it shapes their music, is still very real. It’s important not to lose that insight.”

It’s worth noting that jazz also has a significant presence at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History through the Duke Ellington Collection, the Smithsonian jazz oral history program, and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, among others. It was through the efforts of that museum’s retired music curator, John Edward Hasse, that April was officially designated as “Jazz Appreciation Month” beginning in 2001. Other parts of the Smithsonian institutions such as the Anacostia Community Museum, the American Art Museum, and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage have all hosted noteworthy jazz exhibitions and programs.

Reece recognizes the various museums’ parallel efforts to tell stories involving jazz, pointing out that the NMAAHC isn’t in competition with its counterparts and that there’s room for collaborations. “We don’t necessarily need to replicate what another institution is doing,” she says. “But we would be remiss in not having a jazz presence at this museum. So part of the framing for the collecting effort is how should a jazz collection be represented from an African-American point of view.”