Sunday, August 16, 2009

Jazz Outreach in Harlem

Willard Jenkins has investigated a series of of successful grassroots jazz programs around the United States for In previous installments, he has looked at Albuquerque’s Outpost Productions, Seattle’s Earshot Jazz and Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh. Now he talks to Loren Schoenberg of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. T.G.

The focus of our series of conversations with folks who set the stage for jazz in their locale this time takes us to the mythical jazz Mecca, New York City—specifically to uptown Manhattan and the burgeoning National Jazz Museum in Harlem. This project is an example of community development with a capital J[azz}. And it is an unusual project in that it’s co-directed by two first-call jazz musicians, bassist Christian McBride (whose latest record is Kinda Brown on the Mack Avenue label) and saxophonist-educator Loren Schoenberg. The latter is the primary 9-5 administrator of the project, so we got the inside perspective straight from the erudite Schoenberg.

Talk about the origins of the National Jazz Museum project, and why it is centered around Harlem?
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem was founded in the mid-1990s by Leonard Garment. The thought was there was really no community that resonated with jazz the way that Harlem did. The operative analogy we use is overtones and undertones; if you strike a low note on a piano and hold the sustain pedal down you’ll find that other strings start to vibrate at the same time, even though they haven’t been physically struck, sympathetic vibration. In terms of creating a museum to celebrate jazz’s legacy it seemed as though Harlem was the place that really reverberated and resonated with that idea. The entire community of Harlem is a living museum in a sense of jazz. The project gained traction around 2000/2001. I came aboard as director in 2001 and I brought Christian McBride in as my co-director in 2004 and its been uphill ever since.

When you talk museum there’s an edifice expectation. Where are you with that essential piece of the puzzle?
We were designated by the New York City Economic Development Council two months ago to be the lead cultural component in a redevelopment project that will be across the street from the Apollo Theatre. It’s called Mart 125 and it will be a combination of affordable housing that will also have culture. We will be on the ground floor at 125th. We’re being given 12,000 square feet by the city—2,000 we will lease to another cultural organization—and we’ll have 10,000 square feet of exhibit space. There’ll also be a restaurant and a small performance venue.

What will visitors see and experience when they enter this proposed space?
We’re going to have both, rotating and permanent exhibits. Early on we spent a lot of time with Ralph Appelbaum’s group; they are exhibit designers. They did the Newseum, the Holocaust Museum, the Civil Rights Center, the Constitution Center, the Clinton Library, the Rose Planetarium. . . . We spent a lot of time with him when I first came onboard determining what our approach to exhibits would be and now it’s a matter of adapting them to the current reality.

What’s the targeted launch?
Probably late 2012 would be fair.

In the interim you’ve seemed very busy with developing a presence for the museum project itself in Harlem and really kind of working to develop a sense of ownership on the part of the community with the museum. You’ve been doing that out of a temporary operating space in East Harlem. What’s been your intent as far as developing these initial programs and public forums?

I’ve studied the successes and failures of various museums around the world, some of which have brilliant programming but failed when it came to bricks & mortar; some that succeeded when it came to bricks & mortar but didn’t have great programming. I’ve seen museums imposed on a neighborhood that couldn’t support them either financially or culturally. . . . So we started out on the grassroots level of just trying to build a program that was worthy of the music and worthy of the community. We’ve built from there. We opened our visitors’ center last July and it’s packed with school groups, college groups, people from elder homes, and people from the New York Public Library. It’s the second room in our office space, about 1200 square feet. If you look at our website, you’ll see that there are a lot of photos and we have a visitor’s gallery and you can see the kind of people that we attract, they’re from all over the place. I like to think that we have a slice of the demographic cultural pie that I know is unique.

When I used the term ownership, I meant developing a sense of ownership with the community in terms of the community owning the museum.
I understand. . . well then, yes you are correct. . . . Well actually I don’t know, I don’t know about the word own, I’d have to think about it.
I mean ownership in this respect: something that the community values to the point where once you have that edifice in place there will be a familiarity with your mission and people will think of this as our place.

Yes, absolutely. . . .Here’s a representative anecdote along those lines: there is a foundation that we are seeking support from and the foundation said they don’t do museums, they don’t do culture, they don’t do music. . . . but outside of that ‘good luck.’ So I went and read their mission and came back to some of the people here—we have a staff of 2.5 and we do over 150 events a year, so we have a very close group. It turns out that we satisfy the prerequisites of this foundation because you could really look at what we do as socialization for elders, and also for people who live in a community where there are financial challenges and is underserved in many ways.

Broaden that for me…

A lot of the people who come to our events I don’t think are coming because they’re Jazz fans with a capital J, they’re coming because it’s a nice community event, because we attract interesting people, and I take it as a significant marker that when we take intermission at our interviews, our classes, or our concerts, you cannot stop the people from intermingling and socializing. And at the end of the evening we have to virtually kick people out because it’s late and the super wants to close the building [chuckles]. So I think ultimately what we have built here is a real community organization that is socializing for people and jazz is the common denominator, but we’re not preaching to the choir and we’re not even really looking for the jazz fans.

So you are developing audience…
That’s one way to quantify it…

And are you finding that people come to your programs who may not necessarily patronize other jazz activities around town?
I think a lot of the people who come to our programs are people who want to have an interesting evening, or an interesting event, or meet interesting people, or experience an interesting performance, concert or lecture. And it happens to be jazz…

So people who are coming to your programs are not necessarily folks you might find at the Vanguard?

We hope it’s everyone you’d find at the Vanguard plus…
Detail your programs, their thrust and content.

We started with a program called Harlem Speaks, which is an extended oral history interview, 2-3 hours, and we do it every two weeks. We interview mostly musicians but people for whom jazz has played a significant role in their lives; we can have clubowners, authors, lawyers, and promoters. . . . all kinds of different people. We’ve had Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Roy Haynes, Clark Terry, Representative Charlie Rangel and well known people like that, but for the most part we try and celebrate people whose lives have not been celebrated and have not been interviewed to death and just spit out the ossified anecdote. We try and find fresh [folks] so to speak. We make the audio from a lot of these events available on our website.

After Harlem Speaks we went to what we call the Harlem Speaks Education Initiative, in which we took some of these great elders like Joe Wilder, Grady Tate… and take them into the public schools and do a program that lasts anywhere from one-two weeks up to eight weeks, in which we introduce the students to this great elder, then someone interviews them, then the kids watch the interview and comment on it, and then the students interview the person the following week. So they have a videotape of it for their archives.

This program has many different forms; one is the interview format, the other is we’ll send a great young musician like [trumpeter] Keyon Harold or Jason Marshall or Aaron Diehl or Jonathan Batiste into a school and just let them mentor the kids for a few weeks. Out of that grew a Tuesday night series called Jazz for Curious Listeners, which came from the title of my NPR book, and that’s just a class for lay people that I teach pretty much every Tuesday night. We have guest instructors; we’ve had everybody from Stanley Crouch to Nat Hentoff to all these wonderful young musicians who I encounter. Then we branched out from there to Jazz for Curious Readers, which is an interview series with authors that’s once a month. We’ve had James McBride, Nat Hentoff, Gary Giddins, Ira Gitler, Herb Boyd and others.

We have a program called Jazz in the Parks that we do with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. We have another program that we do with the Central Parks Conservancy; we have a children’s band that we do with the Children’s Aid Society. Not bad for a staff of 2.5!

You also have a relationship with the Rubin Museum?
Yes, that’s the only program we do for which admission is charged. It’s called Harlem in the Himalayas…

Where’d that name come from—the curious Himalayas part?
The Rubin Museum was founded by Donald Rubin, who is a devotee of Himalayan art. I met with them and we were trying to find something that we could do together and I came up with this idea in which we would have jazz musicians—and a lot of the musicians we hire are from Harlem, or live in Harlem or play in Harlem a lot—play a concert and part of the concert would be writing or performing a piece of music that dealt specifically, in a serious fashion, with Himalayan art and culture. The results have been phenomenal! We’ve had such a wide range of artists appear there: Roswell Rudd, Gene Bertoncini, Marc Ribot, Randy Weston, Grachan Moncur, Ray Bryant, Jack Walrath, Jonathan Batiste. . . . I can’t even begin to name all the people who’ve played there; you can look on our website and see the list. It’s a very broad thing that we do there, and it’s very successful. That’s Friday nights 7-8:30 and we do 25-30 concerts a year.

So it’s one of those kinds of programs that people can attend right after work.
That’s exactly the kind of programming that we want to build into our permanent home in Mart 125. In our Harlem Speaks and the various classes that we do we always try to create an intimacy. When you come to our events you sit right near the people that are doing the thing. If there’s one thing we try and get away from it’s the standard relationship between an audience in chairs removed and people up on a stage and somehow physically and emotionally removed from the audience; we try and get right down there with it. And that’s something about Harlem in the Himalayas, they are on a stage but it’s a relatively small hall and it’s a relatively intimate chamber feeling. So much of jazz is so intimate but the performance scale is so out of whack. It’s like when your hear a string quartet in Carnegie Hall, it can be a wonderful experience but it’s not all it could be because that music was written for an intimate setting and should be experienced where you can hear and feel the actual overtones and vibrations of the instrument in the floor.

The funding atmosphere here in the 21st century encourages community partnerships. What kinds of community partnerships have you forged?
We have profound, deep and lasting community relations. First and foremost with the Harlem Arts Alliance, founded by the leader of culture in Harlem, Voza Rivers. We are a proud member and very, very involved. We’ve done programs at the Apollo Theater, the Museum of the City of New York; we’ve run programs at our expense at the Thurgood Marshall Academy and the Frederick Douglas Academy, and at the Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts; we are in constant discussion with Jazzmobile. . . . I’m proud of what we’ve done in our neighborhood community programming and sharing, and I’m proud that we’ve been accepted and are a serious member of the Harlem arts community.

In an ideal world what will the National Jazz Museum in Harlem become?
Most people who come to New York to visit, or even come to the States to visit, are shocked that there is not a jazz museum in New York City. So I guess in an ideal world we would have this place for all these people to come visit. We think of ourselves as a spoke in a wheel. In other words you come to the Jazz Museum and you are spun out, to the Lenox Lounge, to Jazzmobile, to the Schomburg Center, to the Apollo, to the Vanguard, to the Library of Congress, to the Smithsonian, to the American Jazz Museum (Kansas City), to the Experience Music Project (Seattle). . . . We’re just one of many, but we’re proud of the fact that we’re a Smithsonian affiliate and we are in the process of creating our first external exhibit. We’ve been commissioned to make an exhibit that will be opening at Jazz at Lincoln Center in May 2010.
I want to acknowledge the influence of Christian McBride as co-director. Our philosophy of how to build an entity that relates to contemporary culture has been profoundly influenced by the guidance of Christian in many ways. I’m kind of like home director and he’s the traveling director, and wherever he goes in the world he’s helping spread the message and bringing feedback to us from all the countries that he visits.

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