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.