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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
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photography. Photo by Alan Karchmer

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.

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