In 1973, the Smithsonian kicked off its recordings program with a hush. Frankly, they didn't expect it to get off the ground.
W. W. Norton publishing company pruchased 10,000 copies of the first release, the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, to distribute with a book on the history of jazz. The Smithsonian itself ordered only 250 additional copies.
"We were flooded with letters asking for the album," recalled James H. Morris, director of the division of performing arts. "We sure getting 250 pieces of mail a day."
The Smithsonian recently received a paltinum award after the six-record album sold 200,000 copies, making a grand sales tally of more than a million records.
Ritting platinum isn't usually associated with archivists and collectors. For the Smithsonian, it's only part of the institution's successful move to resurrect old recordings, jazz, musical theater, blues and country, and make them available to associates, schools and libraries.
Soon after he took over the new division in 1967, Morris started planning a recordings program.
"Like a lot of people, I have a lot of recordings at home," said Morris, a member of the original cast of "My Fair Lady" and a former opera singer. "People keep up with artists through recordings. So we thought that rather than put out books about music, we would put out the music itself.
"One of the things I was interested in was the history of jazz. Whenever we talked about it, we'd get around to what recordings were missing."
The Smithsonian has also issued newly recorded albums of Bach's music performed on original instruments of the baroque period.
Since 1973, the Smithsonian has released 34 albums, jazz sets by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Fletcher Henderson, and reconstructed original cast musical theater albums of "Ziegfeld Follies of 1919," "Anything Goes," "Lady Be Good" and early, rare Victor Herbert songs.
"When we started the recordings series, we immediately thought of musical theater," said Morris. "You've got to remember that the first original cast recording was of 'Oklahoma' in 1943. Before that there was no documentation. So we've had to sift through lots of old recordings and patch together musicals, sometimes using a recording by a person different from the one who sang it in the original show. But we always get the sequence from old programs."
In any case, the albums bring back a clear picture of America's musical heritage -- vaudevillian Bert Williams delivering a bittersweet version of "Somebody" in 1919, Eddit Cantor singing a bursting-at-the-seams "Making Whoopee" in 1928 and John McCormack performing a soaring "I'm Falling in Love With Someone" in 1911.
But finding original records has been something like a scavenger hunt, Morris said.
"The problem is that people collected the records over the years, but they'd discard last year's hit and buy this year's hit," he explained. "So we've had to engage in some cultural detective work. The record companies have been cooperative, but they don't have everything. So we've had to find collectors who have some of the records."
Right now J. R. Taylor, a researcher in the jazz program, is trying to piece together a Charles Mingus albums from music the bassist-composer performed or wrote between 1945 and 1949.
"It's been a challenge," he said. "I've been working on this project for six months and leads on records come slow. All the labels he recorded for were quite small and obecure and have gone out of business. Plus, there're not many people specializing in collecting modern jazz." In his search, Taylor has contacted collectors in Austria, Norway, Japan, Australia, England and the United States.
"Many of these records have gotten out of the country," he said, "and in those cases I ask collectors to have a professional master copy made for us."
Finding the records is sometimes only the beginning. Then comes the worry about copyrights. Taylor is trying to unravel the ownership of two or three companies that recorded Mingus. One firm, American Recording Artists, was owned by Borris Morros, a shadowy figure who wrote a book about his 10 years as a counterspy. He died in 1960 and the state of California has no legal record of his firm after 1949.
When Taylor finishes, he hopes to have a two-record set of 25 or more selections that will help fill in gaps in the early career of one of the most important jazzmen.
"No project I've worked on has required as much sleuthing as the Mingus project," said Taylor, who's researched 32 albums.
The next step is to edit and remaster the old, scratchy records. Martin Williams, director of jazz and popular culture programs, has spent long evenings in the basement studio of recording engineer Jack Towers going over tapes.
In the case of musicals they may excise a singer or instrumentalist to make the program more accurate.
"I'm not trying to rewrite history," Williams said with a slight smile, "but we'll take certain liberties to restore shows to what they were."
Morris is particularly proud of the recordings made with historic instruments owned by Smithsonian. Besides the boxed Bach sets, there are albums of music for harpsichord, the one-keyed flute and the orchestrion, a mechanical music device.
"A couple of European companies have had similar programs for several years," he said. "But for us to sell 33,000 copies of the Bach set is tremendous."
The chief attraction of using original instruments, said Morris, is that they faithfully reproduce the sound of the 18th century.
"The sound of a modern violin is so big that players tend to drown out each other," he explained. "With older instruments that had thinner sound harmonies were clearer and more open.
"But they fall out of tune easily. We've always got to hope for a dry day when we record. Even then we might have to stop the recording and tune up."
The recordings program has made a big impact in schools, libraries and bookstores. Cynthia Hightower, director of educational services, said many teachers use the classic jazz collection in their courses.
And the entire recordings collection sells well among the general public in the various Smithsonian museum shops here. Only Smithsonian Associates can buy the records through the mail.
Looking back over eight years of success, Morris is busily planning the future. He says he'd like to produce an album on the life and career of Bert Williams, the most popular black ever to appear on Broadway and one-time partner of Eddie Cantor. Another project is an album of Irving Berlin's first musical.
Other plans include a springtime recording of Duke Ellington's film score, "Symphony in Black," conducted by Gunther Schuller. Records by the 20th Century Consort and the Smithsonian Chamber Players are awaiting release.
"Our plans stretch well into the future," Morris said with a big smile. "I don't think we'll run out of things to do."