‘Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology’ highlights genre’s history

March 26, 2011

One of the most unlikely hit records in history came out in 1973, when a critic and historian at the Smithsonian Institution named Martin Williams released an anthology called the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz.

It consisted of six vinyl LPs that explored and summarized the history of jazz and was later released on compact disc. It was the first comprehensive collection of its kind and immediately became part of the jazz curriculum at colleges throughout the country. Music lovers bought it to introduce others to jazz. Over time it sold so many copies that it went double platinum.

Now, 38 years later, the Smithsonian’s nonprofit Folkways label will release a revised collection Tuesday. Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology updates and amplifies, in more ways than one, Williams’s effort with a slickly produced six-CD package that touches the high points of jazz’s century-long history.

Replacing Williams, who died in 1992, as the driving force behind the project is Richard James Burgess, a musician, producer and native Briton who is the director of marketing for Folkways.

Burgess, 61, came to the Smithsonian in 2001 and almost immediately began thinking about revising the anthology. Early on, he enlisted the help of John Edward Hasse, a music curator at the National Museum of American History, who made significant contributions to the project.

Rather than make it a reflection of his own tastes, Burgess began to enlist about 50 experts in 2004.

“This was a passion of mine,” Burgess says. “I didn’t think it was going to take seven years.”

When Burgess first reached out to musicians, critics and educators, they responded with 2,500 titles they thought should be included. After sometimes contentious late-night sessions, Burgess and a five-person executive committee emerged with 111 tunes to encompass the history of jazz, beginning with Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” from 1899.

“So many sets are the ‘best of,’ ” Burgess says. “We want this set to be totally objective. This is considered a collection across all genres, eras and labels.”

It took years to find the best recordings — in many cases, master tapes were missing — and to make the licensing arrangements with copyright holders. About 40 percent of the tracks are not commercially available in any other form.

“We pulled takes from wherever we could pull them,” Burgess says.

He approached record labels and collectors and bought rare discs on the Internet. One of the most difficult tracks to find was a recording by the 1970s Cuban group Irakere, featuring trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and pianist Chucho Valdes. Burgess obtained permission from the Cuban government to release a rare live recording right before the anthology went into production.

Once Burgess and his panel had chosen the music, engineers compared various recordings to make the best audio restoration possible. To create a complete package — “We wanted to make it beautiful as well” — Burgess and his staff went to archives and photo collectors to look for pictures of each of the 100 or so featured musicians.

A 200-page booklet contains introductory essays and extensive notes for each of the 111 tracks. Some of the annotators take the music apart note by note, and others take a wider historical perspective, pointing out, for instance, that black and white musicians were playing together in jazz bands long before baseball, the military or any other integrated institution.

“It’s important that the music that has been so important to America’s development be available,” Burgess said.

Little unanimity

Jazz may have a relatively small audience, but each fan seems to have his own fiercely held views about the music.

Everyone agrees on the prime movers of the music, the people who created the jazz language and helped define its repertoire: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But once listeners step down from these mountaintops of genius, there is little unanimity and they can quickly lose their path.

“With a music as wide and deep as jazz, it’s almost impossible to come to an ideal solution,” says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University and a member of the five-person committee.

In Williams’s 1973 anthology, the choices were idiosyncratic at best. There were eight selections each allotted to Armstrong, Ellington and Parker, but you could almost re-create a full history of jazz with the artists Williams left out: Nat King Cole, Mary Lou Williams, Clifford Brown, Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Woody Herman, Oscar Peterson, Stan Kenton, Cannonball Adderley, Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker — as well as ­Cuban- and Brazilian-influenced jazz.

Those oversights (or slights) have been corrected in the new edition. Still, jazz wouldn’t be jazz without its sectarian arguments. As with Ken Burns’s 2001 PBS series about the genre, the Smithsonian anthology is sure to provoke plenty of second-guessing.

With five individual tracks and an appearance on a sixth, Davis has suddenly become the most important musician in jazz history, if you go by sheer numbers. Meanwhile, Jelly Roll Morton and Monk have been cut to one entry apiece, and singers seem sadly under-represented: Billie Holiday makes one appearance, and there’s nothing from Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Jimmy Rushing, Mark Murphy or Mel Torme.

The most heated debates probably will be about portions of the fifth and sixth discs, which bring the history of jazz into current times. When Burns made his series, he largely passed over the modern scene. That might have been a wiser choice for the Smithsonian anthologists as well. Too many tracks seem to have been chosen not out of a consistent sense of historical taste by a well-meaning but divided committee.

The anthology contains too many tracks with Moog synthesizers, distorted electric guitars and other examples that shouldn’t be heard outside an elevator. The electronically amped-up music of 1970s fusion groups like Weather Report, the Headhunters and the Mahavishnu Orchestra seems, with the passage of time, to be a noisy aberration that has little in common with the jazz tradition of Armstrong, Ellington and Parker.

The modestly interesting rock organ trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood is here, but there’s no room for such major and very active jazz musicians as Maria Schneider, Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau.

Somehow Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer — terrific players, but with all the historical significance of a 1962 Ford Fairlane — find their way onto Disc 5. Yet there’s nothing by Thad Jones, Joe Lovano or Ahmad Jamal.

Burgess acknowledges that the choices are likely to stir passions among jazz lovers.

“We tried to be as current as we can,” he says. “We want to show the continuum. The more you try to define jazz, the more it’s indefinable.”

Collection’s reach
At a time of rancor-filled debate about federal budgets and the role of the government, it’s worth noting that Folkways Recordings is self-supporting and does not receive taxpayer dollars. The anthology project, which cost about $500,000, was financed by foundations and private grants.

Private record labels eventually came on board, but without the prestige of the Smithsonian name — and the expertise that comes with it — a project of this scope probably would not have been possible.

Even with reservations about the choices from the past 40 years, the Smithsonian anthology is a landmark achievement. It is the most important and most comprehensive collection of historical jazz recordings and will be a valuable educational tool for years to come. But the collection reaches beyond the classroom, capturing something of the spirit of America as well.

“Jazz represents freedom,” Burgess says. “It’s a democratic approach to music. I think jazz is an amazing representation of America at its best.”

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