Annie Kuebler, jazz archivist who survived near-fatal fire, dies at 61


Annie Kuebler helped compile the archives of Duke Ellington at the National Museum of American History and later compiled the papers of Mary Lou Williams, a prominent jazz pianist and composer, at the Institute of Jazz Studies. (Ed Berger )
August 18, 2012

In 1985, Annie Kuebler was living in Baltimore when a fire broke out in her rowhouse. She was badly burned over much of her body and lost many of her possessions.

After years of therapy and more than 40 reconstructive surgeries, she wanted a job that wouldn’t put her in the public eye. In the late 1980s, she began to volunteer in the Archives Center of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Eventually, she was hired to work full-time on the museum’s collection of materials related to Duke Ellington.

Ms. Kuebler (pronounced KEEB-ler) later moved on to the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, where she became the head archivist. At the institute, she catalogued and archived a huge collection devoted to jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, spurring a resurgence of interest in her life and music.

Ms. Kuebler, who was 61, died Aug. 13 at a hospital in Atlantic City after a brain hemorrhage. Her son Roman Kuebler confirmed her death.

She brought an interest in music to her work in jazz — she was an amateur pianist — but Ms. Kuebler had no previous experience in libraries, museums or archives. Before volunteering at the Smithsonian, she had been a bartender.

Ms. Kuebler’s slow recovery from the near-fatal fire, which altered her facial features, turned her life in an unexpected new direction.

“I was an attractive woman before,” she told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2001, “but I was dealing with a whole new set of circumstances, as far as society goes.”

At the Smithsonian, her first assignment was to file sheet music. She soon began working on the museum’s vast collection of Ellington artifacts, which included 100,000 pages of unpublished music manuscripts and more than 100,000 other documents.

To trace the lineage of musical works, Ms. Kuebler learned to distinguish between Ellington’s handwriting and that of composer Billy Strayhorn and other members of the Ellington band. By handling the music and other artifacts that belonged to Ellington, a D.C. native, Ms. Kuebler became an indispensable source for scholars, writers and musicians from around the world.

“She really immersed herself in Ellingtonia,” John Edward Hasse, the Smithsonian’s curator of American music, said Saturday. “By the time she left, she was really an internationally recognized expert on Ellington.”

Ms. Kuebler delivered a paper about Ellington in 2004 at an international conference in Helsinki. In 2001, she wrote liner notes for a reissue of a live performance by Ellington’s band made in Fargo, N.D., in 1940 — a recording originally made and then restored many years later by Jack Towers, a sound engineer who lived in Hyattsville.

In 2001, Ms. Kuebler moved to the Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark, which had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to catalogue the archives of Williams, who lived from 1910 to 1981. The haphazard collection included everything from musical compositions to handbags to cocktail napkins with scribbled song requests.

Ms. Kuebler spent years on the Williams artifacts, which constitute the largest collection at the Institute of Jazz Studies. The Kennedy Center presents an annual festival of women in jazz in Williams’s honor, and there has been renewed interest in her music in recent years.

Before her retirement in February, Ms. Kuebler helped the Rutgers institute acquire the papers of pianist and composer James P. Johnson and worked on a variety of other projects, including exhibits, broadcasts and conferences.

But she always felt a special affinity for Williams, whom she described as “a good friend.”

“Ellington and Mary Lou were both definitely a part of my recovery,” Ms. Kuebler said in 2001. “I found solace in their music. It gave me something to offer people, a springboard to return to normal life.”

Ann Katharine Byrnes was born July 9, 1951, in Baltimore and attended the University of Detroit.

While raising her family, she worked as a bartender and helped coach her sons’ baseball teams. She was a skilled quilter and pianist.

Her marriage to Walter Kuebler, a musician, ended in divorce. Survivors include four children, Blanche Ryder of Fanwood, N.J., Austin Kuebler of Locust Valley, N.Y., Roman Kuebler and Jackson Kuebler, both of Baltimore; and six grandchildren.

After recovering from the 1985 fire, Ms. Kuebler said, she discovered a depth and spiritual quality in jazz that “helped me find what was beautiful in myself.”

“I found my recovery through this,” she said. “I found myself.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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