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Caught My Eye: The Mystery Bass Player

AFC’s front door. Photo by Stephen Winick.

To the right, you’ll see a photo of the front door to AFC’s administrative office. If you missed the name plaque, it’s to the right of the door! As you can see, these official name plaques are a little small, especially for the grand doorways of the Thomas Jefferson Building.  For that reason, AFC made a variety of “welcome” banners about a decade ago, to let people know they had arrived at an AFC office, reading room, or public event. (See how much easier it is to read our name on the banner?) Banners also travel with us to conferences and other venues, marking the AFC table or booth.  The one you see in the photo, featuring a double-bass player, has become particularly associated with the Center, since it tends to stand watch over our front door.

Over the years, several people have asked us who the bass player is and how he’s associated with AFC. But the banner was designed by a contractor using AFC collection materials, and no one on the current staff was involved in its production, so we didn’t know. A few years ago, therefore, I did some research to clear up this small mystery.

So, just who is our mystery bass player?  Here’s what I found:

Jimmy Garrison photographed by Ira Lax for the Ann Arbor District Library in 1972. Displayed under a Creative Commons License.

The photo is of Jimmy Garrison (March 3, 1934 – April 7, 1976), an important jazz bass player. Born James Emory Garrison, he is best remembered for associations with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. He first appeared on a Coleman recording in 1959, and joined Coltrane’s group in 1961. He appears on 24 John Coltrane albums, including the classics Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, Live at Birdland, and A Love Supreme. He also appears on 4 Ornette Coleman recordings, notably Ornette on Tenor and Love Call. In all, he appeared on over 64 jazz albums in a relatively short career. He also toured with many great formations, and played all over the country. He died of lung cancer in 1976, only a few years after this great photo of him was taken.

Given that he was a jazz musician, you might wonder why it’s AFC that has his photo, as opposed to our good colleagues in the Music Division, who are the Library’s foremost jazz experts. To answer that question, we have to go back to the late 20th Century.

The tale begins during the Library’s preparations for its bicentennial, which was celebrated on April 24, 2000. As part of the observances, the Librarian of Congress invited members of Congress to identify grassroots traditions and activities from every state and congressional district. Members were further asked to document these traditions in photographs, sound and video recordings, and manuscripts, and to send a portion of that documentation to the Library of Congress for inclusion in the AFC Archive. The resulting collection is known as Local Legacies, and provides a snapshot of traditional community life in America at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The project’s guidelines defined a local legacy as “a traditional activity, event, or area of creativity that merits being documented for future generations.” The project staff hoped for representative or signature events and activities that characterized local communities across the country. Approximately 1300 projects were nominated by 412 members of Congress. Projects included a Chinese New Year’s parade in Portland, Oregon; the burning of an effigy of “Old Man Gloom” in Sante Fe, New Mexico; Sacred Harp singing in rural Georgia; the National Storytelling festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee; Nebraskaland Days in Wilber, Nebraska; the California Strawberry Festival in Ventura County; the Bolder Boulder ten-kilometer Memorial Day Run in Boulder, Colorado; arts and crafts from Puerto Rico; Native American dancers from several states; and many more. You can find out more about Local Legacies at this link.

Another shot of Jimmy Garrison photographed by Ira Lax for the Ann Arbor District Library in 1972. Displayed under a Creative Commons License.

The Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival was submitted as a Local Legacy by Rep. Debbie Stabenow. Among the documentation she sent in were photos of the festival, which come from Ira Lax’s collection at the Ann Arbor District Library. As you’ve guessed by now, the photos included our great shot of Jimmy Garrison. The Ann Arbor District Library holds the rights, but the photo has a Creative Commons License, and you can visit their site to see the terms if you want to use it.

Ira Lax, the photographer, is the assistant director for outreach at the Ann Arbor District Library.  Over the years he has photographed the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival for his institution, and has done a truly admirable job. His collection is a great resource for blues and jazz photographs.

In fact, the Ira Lax collection contains photos of musicians with a deeper connection to the AFC Archive than Garrison, including Honeyboy Edwards and Muddy Waters, both of whom made their first recordings for our archive in the early 1940s before going on to play festivals like Ann Arbor. Lax also took another, very different shot of Garrison in 1972, which is displayed at right.

So that’s the story of our mystery bass player. If you visit the American Folklife Center in person or online, and something catches your eye, you can always ask about it while you’re here, email us at [email protected]…or leave a comment on this post!