Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology

By Komara, Ed | ARSC Journal, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology


Komara, Ed, ARSC Journal


Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW CD 40820. 2010, 2011 (6 CDs).

Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology (henceforth the Anthology) is advertised as the successor to the long-standard Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (1973, revised 1987; henceforth Smithsonian Collection, or simply, the Collection). This edition is issued through the Smithsonian Folkways label; the previous incarnations were produced jointly by the Smithsonian Institution and Columbia Records (Smithsonian P6 11891, distributed by W.W. Norton), later CBS Records (Smithsonian RD 033). This appearance is timely, as the Collection has not been available for most of the past decade, during which time new listeners to jazz had no collection to start with, and teachers and librarians who wore out their copies couldn't replace them.

The Anthology's "Jazz" logo may be familiar to older jazz fans for having been used on the 1960s covers for the Jazz series, which was released by Folkways on 11 LPs in 1950-1953. As the Smithsonian curator Daniel E. Sheehy acknowledges in his Anthology essay (pp.8-9), the Folkways Jazz series was "a milestone in [Folkways'] jazz output." So it may be worth looking briefly at that series for qualities not in the Smithsonian Collection. Would such qualities help to transform the Collection into the Anthology? If so, then with the logo is Smithsonian Folkways signaling its right to transform? In each individual Jazz LP, one category of jazz was presented: southern U.S. antecedents (volume 1) and blues (2), jazz in New Orleans (3), Chicago (5 and 6), New York (7) and Kansas City (10), with surveys of singers (4), big bands before 1935 (8), and piano (9), plus a supplement (11). For the most part, jazz up to the beginning of the 1942-1944 American Federation of Musicians ban on recording was included--8 to 10 years before the Jazz series--with postwar developments represented by two tracks by Dizzy Gillespie and one by Lennie Tristano. Frederic Ramsey Jr. chose the recordings and wrote the booklets except for the first volume, which was handled by Charles Edward Smith. The achievement of the resulting series falls between the pioneering 1939 book Jazzmen, (1) co-edited by Ramsey and Smith, and the classic 1956 history The Story of Jazz by Marshall Stearns, (2) whose syllabus appendix makes much use of the Folkways Jazz series. As Ramsey stated in his notes to Volume 11 (p.3), "The Series [sic] was prepared primarily for students and amateurs who wish to begin a varied and stimulating acquaintance with the sources, classic strains, and later developments of jazz on records. It tends to be representative and compact rather than diffuse and sprawling." Despite the changes in jazz during the 1950s, the Folkways Jazz LPs with their notes are still worth keeping as they remain of historical interest. Vinyl copies of individual volumes fetch anywhere from $8 to $50 from dealers; younger collectors may want to download the notes and to order "custom CD" copies from the Smithsonian Folkways website.

The original Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz was issued as a 6-LP box set. In fact, the outward appearance of the set in 1973 was no different than the various LP sets that were being produced as companions to academic textbooks and sold in college bookstores. It could be said that the Smithsonian Collection was a recordings companion awaiting a textbook that had yet to be written. Eventually there were histories of jazz that cited the Smithsonian Collection as an anthology source for recordings, such as Frank Tirro's Jazz: A History. (3) The scope of inclusion for the Collection was more narrow than that for Folkways Jazz, and not merely because the Collection contained fewer records. The compiler and chief annotator Martin Williams wrote (p.16) that he "[hopes] it offers a balanced view--balanced in the sense that major figures are given major attention, and balanced under the conviction that once the contributors [sic] of such figures are appreciated, the value of their worthy, and sometimes individualistic, followers will also be clear. …

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