March 29, 2011
For the past three decades, when historians, critics and educators asked, “What is Jazz?” they turned to the 1973 Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, the landmark album by the late critic and Smithsonian historian Martin Williams. That six vinyl LP—an unprecedented collage of the “genre that revolutionized American music”— became so popular, it went double platinum.
The album became the standard for music educators across the country—college students used the set along with textbooks, or in some cases, in lieu of them.
But the collection went out of production in 1999, a huge loss to a community that had relied on its knowledge and breadth, says John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the National Museum of American History.
Hasse, who says he grew up with the album and once critiqued it in an essay for the Annual Review of Jazz Studies, “knew first hand how valuable it was,” and began dreaming of a way to update and revive it. So did Richard James Burgess, the marketing director of Smithsonian Folkways, who came to the record label in 2001 with a similar vision.
“We wanted to continue to help the country better preserve, understand and appreciate these extraordinary parts of our musical heritage,” Hasse says.
Today, seven years after Hasse and Burgess first began the project and nearly 40 years since the release of the original album, the label releases Jazz: The Smithsonian Collection, a 6-CD, 111 track box set that chronicles jazz from its beginnings a century ago through the early 2000s.
But unlike its predecessor, which was compiled largely on Williams’ tastes and preferences alone, the new album takes a more democratic approach, Hasse says. This set has three producers (Hasse, Burgess and Folkways Director Daniel Sheehy), an executive selection committee (David Baker, Jose Bowen, Dan Morgenstern, Alyn Shipton and Haase) and the tracks were chosen with input from a international panel of 42 jazz critics, historians and musicians.
“How do you take something like three-quarters of a million jazz recordings and boil it down to 111 tracks?” Hasse says. “Going in, my desire was to have this not be the work of one person but to make it broader and more inclusive.”
The result is an album that touches more on Latin jazz, Afro fusion and other international genres, featuring tracks from Tito Puente, French-Vietnamese guitarist Nguyên Lê, and Machito and his Afro–Cuban Orchestra. It includes those like Dave Brubeck, George Shearing and Mary Lou Williams who were left off the old album, Hasse says.
It still features those household names: Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. But where they may have had five or six tracks on the original album, they each only have two or three on its successor—an attempt to include as many artists as possible, Hasse says.
“This album wasn’t about greatest hits: the recordings weren’t based on which were most popular, but on which had the most influence, or were the best representation of major artists, classics whose luster will be undimmed in 10, 30, 50 years,” Hasse says. “Aiming this primarily at students, I argued that we should try to expose student to as many different musicians and approaches as we could rather than doing something that would give a history of any one artist. This wasn’t a place to give a capsule history of anybody, but rather to expose them to as many different recordings, styles and musicians as we could.”
After the initial polls of experts around the world, Hasse and the rest of the executive selection committee began the painful process of deciding what would make the cut. They spent two years working from multiple cities, Hasse says, and twice convened for marathon sessions in New York, working at some points until 2 a.m. to revise the list.
It took several more years to get rights to all the songs, and quite a while longer to solicit the world’s best jazz writers for the accompanying 200-page album notes (really, a small book that’s worth the price of the album alone).
“We wanted to bring the album much more up to date, into the 21st century. Forty more years of music needed to be considered. We wanted to give more coverage to women, besides singers, and more Latin jazz musicians. This couldn’t be an anthology of world jazz but we could be more inclusive of it,” says Hasse.
Hasse hopes that like its predecessor, the album will open the doors for students and music lovers to explore a genre so symbolic of American culture. For those asking what jazz is – or what this album says about it – it provides a new answer, he says.
“Jazz is a global genre. Jazz is an art form that was born and nurtured and develop in the U.S. but was quickly adopted by people in countries around the world. It is today an international lingua franca, one that sounds very different in Cuba than it does in Africa or Norway. It’s an ever-changing river that has been fed by many tributaries, streams, that is constantly moving. It’s a river so powerful and refreshing that people have been drawn to drink from its waters. I suspect as long as people are listening to Beethoven and Bach they’ll be listening to Armstrong and Ellington. The best of jazz will go on as long as anything produced. It’s for the ages.”
Test your knowledge with some Folkways-sponsored Jazz quizzes. There is a 25-song version and the full 111-song ultimate challenge both of which test how many songs on the new album you know.
July 8, 2010
The National Zoo’s tiny, black-nosed red panda cub died late last night, just 21 days after it was born. It was the first red panda cub at the zoo in 15 years.
The cub was found “lifeless” by a Zoo keeper late last night, Zoo officials said, and was rushed to a veterinary hospital, where he was confirmed dead. The cub, born June 16, was also the first cub for adult red pandas Shama and Tate.
Since his birth, the cub and it’s mother were monitored at least twice daily by Zoo officials, and for several hours beyond that by volunteers, who watched the pair interact in person and also via camera. Instead of keeping her cub in a nest box, as Zoo officials said they expected, Shama moved him around her outdoor exhibit, so the zoo closed the area off to the public to allow the pair some privacy.
There is no official cause of death, though the Zoo says it hopes that ongoing testing will provide more answers. The mortality rate for cubs in captivity is 50 percent, the Zoo said in a report.
The Zoo has been breeding red pandas since 1962, a program that has produced 184 successful births at both the zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. These cubs have a mortality rate of about 40 percent, below the national rate of 50. One red panda cub currently lives at the SCBI in Fort Royal, Virginia.
The Zoo says it expects the red pandas to breed again next year.
July 7, 2010
Cool down: If you think it’s been hot for us humans during the current heat wave, imagine what it must be like for our friends at the National Zoo. Collections Search Center offers a few old photos of some of the Zoo’s most beloved animals cooling off. My favorite picture shows two baby orangutans, Bonnie and Azy, playing in a tub. Who wouldn’t want to be in a tub of cool water right now, no less with two adorable animals?
Get out your iPods: “Up Where We Belong : Native Musicians in Popular Culture,” which opened at the National Museum of the American Indian just last week, features the stories and artifacts of famous American Indian musicians throughout history. But when Tim Johnson, the museum’s associate director, and Chris Turner, the curator of the exhibit, did a radio program last week, many callers mentioned artists they hadn’t heard from before. They’ve put a call out on Facebook looking for Native artists that aren’t included in the exhibit. Start digging through your music collection—who knows when you’ll get another chance to tell a museum what else they should include in an exhibit.
For those of us who can’t get out of the office: It’s vacation season, and whether you’re going across the globe or just across the country, odds are there’s someone at home who is expecting a postcard or two to help them live vicariously through your journey. But if you’ve already returned home and forgot a few keepsakes for friends, don’t worry. Bigger Picture directs us to this slideshow of Smithsonian Collection postcards from around the globe. If you’ve just returned from vacation direct the loved ones you forgot about to the slideshow, or if you’re in the midst of a “staycation,” sit back and enjoy the ride. (Though a note to my brother: Don’t think this replaces the postcard I’m expecting from Spain.)
July 3, 2010
When Moses Asch (1905-1986) founded a tiny record label called Folkways with Marian Distler (1919-1964) in 1948, he wanted to be a resource for musicians to document the “entire world of sound.”
And by that, he really did mean the entire world. Between the label’s founding and Asch’s death in 1986, Folkways released 2,168 albums, ranging from contemporary, traditional and ethnic music; documentary recordings of people, communities, natural sounds and current events; and poetry and spoken word in a number of different languages. Asch, a Polish immigrant, also helped the label become an important part of the American folk music revival, helping artists like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Ella Jenkins, Bernice Johnson Reagon and the pioneering bluegrass duo Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard launch or enrich their careers.
Today, the Folkways label, now owned by the Smithsonian, continues to produce records that honor Asch’s globally-minded spirit. Since 1987, they’ve added more than 300 new albums—including some of the most comprehensive albums on American bluegrass and jazz—while keeping all 2,168 albums of Asch’s in print.
This Saturday, the Folklife Festival will celebrate Asch’s dedication and vision at the Ralph Rinzler Memorial Concert, an annual series that honors the founder of the festival’s colleagues and traditions. Starting at 6 p.m., Dickens, Gerard, and Reagon, all of whom recorded with Asch during his lifetime, will perform.
Dickens and Gerrard broke the generational boundaries of bluegrass music, a genre that was traditionally dominated by men. They recorded 26 tracks with Asch in the mid-1960s, which were also included in the 1996 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings release of Pioneering Women of Bluegrass.
Reagon got her start with Asch—she recorded her first solo album, Folk Songs: The South, with Folkways in 1965. Reagon, also a civil rights activist and scholar, will perform with the group the Freedom Singers.
Come down to The Mall this weekend to hear the groundbreaking artists, whose careers, in part, were helped along by a man who wanted the world to hear every kind of music.
The Ralph Rinzler Memorial Concert will begin at 6 p.m. on Saturday on the Asian Fusions stage
June 30, 2010
Send Your Picture to Space: Not many of us can cough up enough money to travel to space. But now we can at least send our faces. The Daily Planet reports that for the final space shuttle missions this fall, NASA is collecting images of space fans and plans to send then into space through the “Face in Space” initiative. Visitors to NASA’s website can upload a picture of themselves along with their name, select a mission (either STS-133 or STS-134) and then print a confirmation page. Before takeoff, check out the participation map to see who else is joining you on your journey (as of this morning, there were about 180,519 participants worldwide—ranging from 3 participants in Chad to 75,957 in the U.S.). After the shuttle launches, the images are sent to the shuttle by mission control and remain on the shuttle’s onboard computer. When it lands, visitors can return to the site to print out a flight certificate signed by the mission commander (which is really the only reason you wanted to go in the first place, right?)
Saving Virtual Dinosaurs: Though it seems like things in the digital world can last forever, that’s not always the case. The Bigger Picture tells us about a project called Preserving Virtual Worlds, an effort by archivists at colleges and universities across the country to preserve and archive early computer games. This summer, librarians at the University of Illinois will complete archiving several early computer games—think Warcraft, Doom, and even what they call the “first fully interactive video game,” the 1960s “Spacewar!” produced by MIT. Read about these efforts and others by other universities in this Bigger Picture post, which also includes a retro commercial for the Atari 2600 system. Let’s hope they get around to my favorite childhood computer game, Midnight Rescue.
Haiti Update: As we mentioned a few weeks ago, American Art Museum conservator Hugh Shockey is keeping a travel log during his trip to Haiti, where he is leading conservation and preservation of art buried or damaged by the country’s recent earthquake. This week, Eye Level checks in with Shockey, who has his first chance to do treatment on an artifact: a small figure Shockey believes belong to the Taíno people, the indigenous residents of Hispaniola who greeted Christopher Columbus.
It’s not too late to be an inventor: Our friends at the National Museum of American History’s Lemelson Center just e-mailed to tell us they’ve extended their design challenge until July 18. That means you still have time to contribute to their upcoming Places of Invention exhibit. Seeing your name in a museum exhibit might be even cooler than having your face fly into space.