When John Edward Hasse was named curator of the Smithsonian's division of musical instruments late last year, his appointment was a milestone in the institution's quarter-century-old documentation of "popular" American musical genres.
The background of the 36-year-old scholar, administrator and pianist includes a PhD in ethnomusicology, an undergraduate major in black studies, private study with jazz pianists Jaki Byard and Sir Roland Hanna, research projects in gospel, ragtime and jazz, and a performance career that stretches back to his high school rock group and includes work with modern jazz combos and a Dixieland band.
"I'm really interested in the whole thing, what I call American vernacular musical culture, from the 1880s to the present," says Hasse, "although my emphasis is on 20th century."
His Smithsonian post makes him part scholar and part collector.
"We have about 2,500 instruments of American and European heritage," the South Dakota native says. "We get almost all of our instruments by donation and we're always interested in hearing from people who have one to donate."
The Smithsonian, he adds, is primarily interested in representative instruments and those with historical value, "like the first Hammond organ." While it would like to have more instruments with associational value, so far the institution has acquired only several of this nature, namely Paderewski's piano and Charlie Shavers' trumpet.
In addition to overseeing the Smithsonian's collection of instruments, Hasse is responsible for exhibits that pertain to American popular music. "A major exhibit typically takes three, five or even six years from moment of conception to opening," he says. In place when Hasse arrived was the exhibit on Al Jolson. Plans include a centennial exhibit next year honoring ragtime composer James Scott.
With numerous publications on ragtime to his credit, including the recent "Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music" (Schirmer Books), Hasse is greatly looking forward to this project. Barely beyond the fund-raising stage are plans for public-exhibit videos, so "a patron could come in and press a button and get, say, a two-minute demonstration on harpsichord, violin or player piano."
Hasse's own current research includes a grant-supported compilation and annotation of Hoagy Carmichael's works and a second book on ragtime.
"American music studies are booming now," says Hasse, "but there's so much room for growth. I looked last week at a list of every music faculty in the U.S. and the number that teach courses in American music is two pages of a book of 500 pages."
Asked why there has traditionally been such indifference to the serious consideration of American musical forms, Hasse observed, "It goes way back to the beginnings of music in America when all music was imported from Europe and that music was identified with class, status and moneyed people. It still has the aura today."
If Hasse has anything to say about it, American musical idioms will soon be seen as the classical forms that many presently believe them to be. "Jazz, particularly," asserts Hasse, "in the hands of its greatest musicians, is an art. The musicians who create it take it very seriously. It's extremely difficult to compose and perform -- improvisation is a very difficult art to master -- and there are tremendously more technical demands on all jazz players today than there were 50 years ago.
"The level of technical velocity and virtuosity has increased by a huge magnitude. It's a music of explicit theory, repertory and history. It has, I think, the essential attributes of an art."