April is Jazz Appreciation Month, but Wayne Winborne can list the many reasons why jazz should be enjoyed every day.
Winborne is executive director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark, the world’s largest jazz archive and library, where thousands of vinyl records are housed along with artifacts such as Miles Davis’ green trumpet and jewelry in rhinestones by Billie Holiday.
For Winborne, jazz is not just beautiful music, but a great unifier and a window into American history. “Jazz is critically important to human beings in terms of expressing our hopes and fears. It helps us make sense of the world,” says Winborne. “We often talk about it as a metaphor for democracy, to create links between and among people. It’s unique in that sense of coming out of a deeply inhumane situation – slavery and segregation – but it’s such an expression of humanity, speaking of pain and suffering, but also of better days ahead.
And, he points out, jazz is the source of so much American music: blues, swing, R&B, rock and hip-hop, among other genres. “It’s this river that has all these other tributaries,” Winborne marvels.
To celebrate, the institute has scheduled a series of Jazz Appreciation Month concerts throughout the month at Clement’s Place, its regular showcase for local, national and international artists. Performances are also booked for May and June.
Shows were halted at the height of the pandemic, but recently resumed at 60% capacity, meaning Clement’s Place can now accommodate audiences of over 50 people. “We try to navigate it easily,” says Winborne, who became director of the institute in 2015 and assistant professor in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at the School of Arts and Science.
Today, jazz is recognized as a great American art form, worthy of scholarly attention. But that wasn’t the case when the institute, the first of its kind, was founded by jazz pioneer Marshall Stearns in 1952. Before trying to find a place for his archives in academia, Stearns had them stored in his Greenwich Village apartment. “He was one of the first to argue that jazz was a subject worthy of serious study. He contacted a few universities in New York who turned him down before coming to Rutgers. value,” says Winborne.
Rutgers-Newark agreed to house the Stearns Archive in 1966, and since then the study of jazz and the work of the institute have grown. In addition to publishing the Journal of Jazz Studies, the institute houses more than 200,000 recordings, 6,000 books and periodicals, as well as the personal possessions of many legendary artists, including instruments, clothing, sheet music and other memorabilia. .
This week, the staff was thrilled to receive Count Basie’s first Grammy Award, given to him in 1958, which was loaned to the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Staff members are happy to share stories and anecdotes with visitors.
One of Winborne’s favorite items is a wig worn by Ella Fitzgerald in the 1960s. Archivist Elizabeth Surles loves an acoustic Victrola, the volume of which can only be controlled by opening and closing the upper cabinets. She is also curious about a cassette in a box of tapes belonging to Ella Fitzgerald. “It says ‘mixed rock’,” she observes. “I wonder what’s over there, what rock was she listening to?”
Surles won’t know the answer until the tape is digitized. In the meantime, no one can play it because the tape is too fragile and could get damaged.
Other objects may seem insignificant or even disposable but serve to document the life and times of the artists. “There are important ephemera: receipts, articles, telegrams, which help paint a picture of artists as human beings and give us a glimpse of that time,” Winborne said. “They give us an understanding of life in America and the social and economic conditions in which artists shaped and their music.”
Although many jazz artists faced racism and discrimination at home, they were loved abroad and the US government viewed them as cultural emissaries. “The State Department sponsored jazz musicians going overseas in the 1950s and 1960s to exemplify American values, even when we weren’t exemplifying them ourselves,” Winborne explains.
Although he is an authority on the intersection of jazz and US history, Winborne also knows a great deal about Newark’s relationship to music. Located between New York and Philadelphia, and once home to more than 20 breweries, Newark was full of bars and speakeasies with live music. It was a popular tour stop for major jazz artists and nurtured some of the greats, including Newarkers James Moody, Sarah Vaughn and Wayne Shorter for whom a street will be renamed next week. “He has a deep and rich jazz tradition,” notes Winborne.
He helps carry on this tradition. As LP sales dwindled over the years, many predicted jazz’s demise. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t listening, according to Winborne.
“Almost every city in America has a jazz festival. You even have them in Idaho and Montana,” he says. “Every high school has a jazz band. Many colleges offer courses and degrees in jazz rendition. You can hear it on movie soundtracks, on the radio and in commercials. And it’s celebrated around the world as this incredibly wonderful export.”
And it continues to grow and evolve. “There are more trained jazz artists than ever. Some artists merge jazz and hip-hop to make it more commercially viable and reflect their times. I feel like artists and their communities will pull through,” Winborne says confidently. “They will understand what it means to swing in the context of the 21st century.”
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Photo credit: Adriana Cuervo