From Lead Belly to Lady Day: “Roots and Branches of Jazz in Library of Congress Collections”
A Seminar for Strathmore Artist in Residence Grad School
The following is a guest post by Jennifer Cutting
Thanks to an ongoing partnership between the American Folklife Center and the Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda, Maryland, fourteen young musicians were treated to a multi-media feast of collection materials significant to jazz history from three different divisions in the Library of Congress during their in-person visit on Tuesday, November 15, 2022.
The visitors consisted of past and current Artists in Residence and several Mentors from Strathmore’s Artist In Residence (AIR) Program, a flagship program of Strathmore’s Institute for Artistic and Professional Development. The AIR program was created in 2005 to support young artists as they transition to professional careers in music. Since its inception, the program has mentored 94 musicians ages 16 to 32. Every year, a class of six is chosen after a competitive selection process. Strathmore’s Artists In Residence benefit from the support of mentor musicians, participate in professional development seminars, and are offered extensive performance opportunities throughout the 10-month program. (Find more information on the program at this link!)
I designed this particular professional development seminar, “Roots and Branches of Jazz in LC Collections,” at the request of AIR director Betty Scott, who wanted the artists and their mentors to become more familiar with the wealth of resources available to them right here in their own city, at the Library of Congress. I first met Betty Scott back in 2008, when she invited me to be one of the program Mentors for that year’s AIR class.
Because I am a Staff Docent as well as a Folklife Specialist at the American Folklife Center, I was able to start the Strathmore group’s day with a look at the “big picture:” a tour of the art and architecture of our historic Jefferson Building, a Beaux Arts masterpiece that was completed in 1897. After pointing out sculpture and paintings that symbolize the role of knowledge and the arts in American democracy, I took them to our see our beautiful Coolidge Auditorium, completed in 1925 with a bequest from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and shared with them the role of the Coolidge Foundation’s support for commissioning and presenting new work from artists such as Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and more; and how the composers’ autograph manuscripts for the commissioned works become part of the Library’s collections. I then took the group next door to our 1939 Whittall Pavilion, which houses the Library’s six precious instruments made by Antonio Stradivari: three violins, two violas, and a cello, all made between 1690 and 1727, and played regularly by visiting string quartets at our Music Division’s annual Stradivari Anniversary concert in the Coolidge Auditorium.
To encourage our visitors to become lifelong researchers at the Library of Congress, I took them upstairs to Reader Registration to get their LC reader identification cards, which will allow them to do research in all 20 of the Library’s reading rooms. Once they had their reader cards, I was able to take them into the Main Reading Room for a look at the grandeur of its giant marble columns, stained glass, statuary, and soaring 160-foot dome.
Our next stop was the American Folklife Center (AFC), for an engaging audio-visual presentation from Folklife Specialist Stephen Winick on the history of AFC and some collection items with relevance to jazz, including blues songs, African American string band music, Alan Lomax’s 1938 sessions with Jelly Roll Morton, and field recordings from Spain that influenced Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. After Steve’s presentation, AFC Reference Librarian Allina Migoni gave the group a research orientation to the Folklife Reading Room, and shared some treasures from AFC collections, including letters from Muddy Waters to Alan Lomax requesting copies of his earliest recordings, historic banjos owned by Frank Proffitt and Frank Warner, and a historic guitar donated by Burl Ives.
The seminar’s afternoon session began with a treasure talk and display by Morgan Davis, Reference Librarian in the Library’s Performing Arts Reading Room. Davis’s carefully curated display included portraits of Mildred Bailey from the William P. Gottlieb Jazz Photograph Collection; portraits of Billie Holiday from the William P. Gottlieb Jazz Photograph Collection; and handwritten or hand-typed correspondence, scores, lead sheets, and other items from Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Ida C. Craddock, Mario Bauzá, Max Roach, Esperanza Spalding, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, and others.
The last stop of the day for the Strathmore group was the Library’s Recorded Sound Research Center, where Reference Assistant David Sager treated the artists not only to a display of early and contemporary jazz recordings, but played many of those recordings to the group as well. The display included the 78 rpm disc “Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, recognized as the first commercially released jazz recording, as well as albums recognized as the first jazz reissue album and concept album. It also included the copyright deposit lead sheet “Cornet Chop Suey,” a handwritten manuscript by Louis Armstrong
There was an additional “wow factor” when Sager wound up an antique Columbia Graphophone and played them a 1909 celluloid cylinder of Frank C. Stanley singing “Take me up with you, Dearie,” the sound emanating from the Graphophone’s huge flower-shaped bell–see the photo at the top of this post.
A cylinder might have been a hard act to follow, but Sager continued to astonish the group by playing a 78 rpm disc of “Crazy Blues” on the Magnola Talking Machine, opening and closing the top lid and cabinet front to demonstrate the era’s rudimentary methods of volume control. Moving through a chronology of carefully curated jazz recordings, Sager regaled the group with everything from “Git Along,” recorded by the Mills Brothers for Brunswick Records in 1932, to a recording of the Sonny Rollins Quartet made at the 1974 Newport Jazz Festival, to the startling finale of String quartet, no. 1, for 2 violins, viola, ‘cello, and voice, composed by Charles Mingus (1972).
The American Folklife Center is grateful for the teamwork exhibited by our colleagues in the Performing Arts Reading Room and the Recorded Sound Research Center, as well as Library Collections and Services Group Events Liaison Elizabeth Schreiber-Byers, who helped greatly with logistics. Our four-division quartet played in complete harmony to create a great day for our Strathmore visitors. AIR Director Betty Scott’s desire to share LC’s treasures with her artists dovetails well with the Library of Congress’s desire to foster creativity and develop new user communities. And what better way to do this than to share our collections with artists at the threshold of their lives as professional musicians, who will benefit from collections across the library for the duration of their artistic careers.