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Jazz Scholar John Szwed on Visiting the Library

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The following is a guest blog by 2016-2017 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar John Szwed.

Notes on My Visit to the Music Division
By John Szwed

Courtesy of John Szwed

I’ve visited the Library of Congress a number of times over the years for many different reasons, sometimes for research on a writing project, at others just out of curiosity. When I was very young, like many people I thought that the Library contained all the books ever written in the United States, all the films, recordings, magazines, everything, really, and that it was something endless, like Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The Library of Babel.” I soon learned that not only was this untrue, but also that it was impossible, even though it seemed that some of its librarians had given it a try. When he was Director of the Archive of American Folk Song Alan Lomax persuaded recording companies to deliver copies of all their folk and country records to the Library. Soon the staff was overwhelmed, not just with cataloging the new acquisitions, but with the large and weighty boxes of 78 rpm records that were piling up on the loading dock. Though I now know better, there are still times when I wish that all the knowledge of America might yet be in there, waiting for someone to discover it.

At least that’s what I felt when I stumbled across something in the Library like an unknown recording by jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz made for a Haitian record company; I had the same thought when I learned that the Library had a copy of The Experimenters, a rare 1965 NET television program on which Ralph Ellison introduced the avant-jazz of Cecil Taylor and Charles Mingus, only to then express his misgivings about what he saw as the intrusion of European art music into jazz; it was the Library where I found in the copyright files that novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston had once written blues songs. On another occasion I saw a microphone used by early jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton when he recorded there in 1938, and where I discovered that playwright Arthur Miller had written scripts and collected folksongs for the Library’s radio programs in 1945. I also found there unknown artworks by the folklorist, filmmaker, and painter Harry Smith. That same sense of serendipity still occurs when I meet librarians who are themselves bearers of rare knowledge, things unknown to specialists, scholars, or fans.

Recently I was given the opportunity for a more extended stay at the Library as a Jazz Scholar, and I was able to look closer at the treasures in the Music Division. My first thought was to further explore the trove of scores, lead sheets, arrangements, and solo piano manuscripts written in the clear and precise hand of Sun Ra, the mysterious and inventive musician whose biography I had written. But what caught my eye and kept me busy for days was the recently fully catalogued Max Roach Papers. And how could it not? It’s one of the largest collections of materials about a single jazz musician, with close to 100,000 items, filling 106 linear feet of shelving with writings, manuscripts of compositions, correspondence, business papers, photographs, programs, sound recordings, videos, and other materials.

Anyone interested in jazz will likely know that Roach was one of jazz’s greatest drummers, a founding figure of bebop, a composer and bandleader, and they might also be aware that he was a college professor and a tireless and passionate advocate for social justice and cultural equity. A few minutes of looking through the contents list of the Max Roach Papers can be an education for even the most serious student of jazz. Roach wrote extensively on many subjects and gave interviews that were among the most informative and revealing by any musician in any style or era of music. The collection also contains a variety of materials pertaining to his wife, jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, and many other jazz artists, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker.

Among the many things about the Roach collection that fascinated me was learning that Charlie Parker, Roach, and others among the first bebop musicians, were deeply affected by Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, and had gone back to see it again and again. Or that Roach and Parker were thrilled to hear in the music of Paul Hindemith that a prominent classical composer was using some of the same harmonic devices that were being dismissed as wrong notes by critics when they appeared in bebop. “He was our ally,” Roach said.

Other surprises: Roach wrote the scores for Eugene O’Neil’s The Hairy Ape, for a Los Angeles production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, for plays by Amiri Baraka and Wole Soyinka, and music for Alvin Ailey’s dancers. In 1985 he was awarded an Obie for the music he did for Sam Shepard’s plays Back Bog Beast Bait, Suicide in B-flat, and Angel City. Roach also did soundtracks for a number of films and TV productions, and appeared in a number of them. Most notably, he was as an actor and musician in Otto Preminger’s film Carmen Jones.

Roach was scrupulous about what he said and wrote and kept notes and drafts of his interviews, essays, and lectures. His various publications show him continually formulating and revising a history of jazz that he wanted to communicate to others. But in that history Roach never let the reader or listener forget that jazz is music with international origins and is part of the history of slavery, segregation, and social inequity. He was an active participant in efforts to end colonialism in Africa, and was always at the front of the struggle for civil rights in the United States. His 1960 recording We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite shook even the jazz world, and moved the music into political headlines. The Roach collection documents that music and the controversy that followed by including original scores, notes, and critical reviews.

Late in life he worked (with the help of Amiri Baraka) on an autobiography to be called Making a Way Out of No Way, and though it was never finished, Baraka’s interviews with him and the drafts of chapters give a deep understanding of Roach’s life, and his views on art and society.

It’s exceedingly rare to find in a musician’s papers the letters, contracts, and legal documents that reveal the workings of the music business, matters like salaries, royalties, and copyright. The commercial side of the music has always been and still is a well-guarded secret and neither the musicians nor their audiences have much knowledge of how it works. The Roach papers, like those of Dexter Gordon (whose collection is also in the Music Division) offer rare insights into the economics of being a musician, and who owns music.

Throughout this material there are notes about Charles Mingus, with whom he often played, and a co-founder of Debut Records, one of the first music companies owned by jazz musicians. The Music Division also holds a Charles Mingus collection, rich with his scores and recordings, his financial and business dealings, and several versions of his remarkable meta-autobiography, Beneath the Underdog.  There are also letters from Mingus to Roach that deal with their musical and social lives, and the chance to read about the interaction between musicians in their own words offers a valuable experience to those who want a deeper sense of the lives of musicians within the community of performers.

The Library of Congress may not contain everything American, but what it does have is collections such as Roach’s that can take us from his birthplace in Dismal Swamp, North Carolina (the site of refuge for escaped slaves) through hardships to triumph – the professorships, MacArthur grants, honorary degrees, and the world’s recognition of a distinguished body of artistic work. This is more than a Horatio Alger story of success. It’s a key piece of the story of the United States. With documents such as these in hand I’m reminded of lines from an old blues song: “I got the world in a jug and the stopper in my hand.”


About John Szwed

John Szwed is an adjunct senior research scholar and former professor of music and director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. He is the John M. Musser Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, African American Studies, and Film Studies at Yale University, and previously was Director of the Center for Urban Ethnography and Chair of the Department of Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, and in 2006 he was awarded a Grammy for Doctor Jazz, a book on Jelly Roll Morton, and in 2016 received the Jazz Journalists Association’s book award for Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth. Szwed has written a number of other books, among them biographies of Sun Ra, Miles Davis, and Alan Lomax, and from 1979 to 2006 he wrote on music, performance art, and dance for the Village Voice. He served as Library of Congress Jazz Scholar during the 2016-2017 season of Concerts from the Library of Congress.


Library of Congress Jazz Scholars

The Library of Congress Jazz Scholars program, made possible by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, provides leading jazz experts with the opportunity to spend extended periods conducting research in the Library’s jazz collections. Library of Congress Jazz Scholars participate in interviews and deliver lectures to present the results of their research. Recent scholars to hold the title include Ingrid Monson, John Szwed, Dan Morgenstern and Abdullah Ibrahim.

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