Perks of the Job: Up Close and Personal with the Jazz Collections

Let’s start with something obvious: I have a cool job! Here at the Lemelson Center, I spend most of my time thinking about American independent inventors, or Places of Invention like Hartford and Silicon Valley. However, I recently had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Museum’s incomparable jazz collections. Let me explain…

One of my job responsibilities is to coordinate the Lemelson Center Staff Projects Initiative, an internal grant program in which the Center makes modest grants to our NMAH colleagues to stimulate new research, exhibitions, and programming on innovation. One of our grantees is the Create: Smithsonian project, directed by Susan Evans and Amy Bartow-Melia in the Museum’s Office of Education and Public Programs. With Create: Smithsonian, Susan and Amy developed a yearlong series of six workshops designed to inspire a Smithsonian organizational culture of creativity, innovation, and risk-taking, while having fun and building esprit de corps with our colleagues. The workshops draw upon literature (like Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Andrew Hargadon’s How Breakthroughs Happen) suggesting that, in order to foster innovation, organizations must create opportunities where smart people from diverse backgrounds and experience can collaborate. This mashing together of disciplines, techniques, and perspectives can spark unlikely partnerships, leading to all kinds of creative outcomes. So it’s been fun to attend the Create: Smithsonian workshops to see how the grant funds are being used and find out what happens when the Smithsonian’s zookeepers, fundraisers, housekeeping staff, vertebrate biologists, art historians, and docents all come together.

Create:Smithsonian Flyer

The Create: Smithsonian workshops are one of the Lemelson Center’s grantees. Courtesy of Susan Evans.

On January 31, I attended the latest Create: Smithsonian workshop, which focused on what we as an organization can learn from the history and artistry of jazz. We were treated to a talk by Dr. John Hasse, the NMAH’s jazz curator extraordinaire, who described the various leadership lessons we can learn from jazz masters like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. For example, it sounds basic, but in jazz (and on your work teams) you must listen closely to your band mates. Bandleaders must recruit and nurture great talent—like when Miles Davis recruited sax greats Cannonball Adderley AND John Coltrane to play on the seminal Kind of Blue. Finally, team leaders, like bandleaders must create a basic structure for the tune, but loosen the reins and let their best players improvise occasionally.

John then walked to a table where he described some of the treasures of the NMAH’s musical collections. He picked up a pair of black sunglasses and said casually “So these are Ray Charles’ Ray Bans….”—there was an audible gasp! Then he showed us Ray’s special chess set for the blind and his Braille copy of Playboy magazine—he really did read it for the articles! Then it was on to Ella Fitzgerald’s Grammy and Duke Ellington’s conducting baton—real treasures of American musical history.

Ray Bans worn by Ray Charles.

Ray Bans worn by Ray Charles. Photo by Eric Hintz.


Grammy won by Ella Fitzgerald.

Grammy Award won by Ella Fitzgerald. Photo by Eric Hintz.

Then we got a DEMONSTRATION!  A trio from the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra—Ken Kimery (drums), James King (bass), and Chuck Redd (vibraphone)—played a few selections, demonstrating how to listen, how to lead and sometimes follow, and how to improvise. But the most amazing part of the performance was Chuck’s instrument—he was playing the vibes donated to the museum in February 2001 by the late, great Lionel Hampton!

Lionel Hampton's Vibraphone.

Lionel Hampton’s vibraphone, donated to the National Museum of American History in February 2001. It still sounds awesome. Courtesy of Eric Hintz.

Chuck Redd playing Lionel Hampton's vibraphone.

Chuck Redd of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra playing the vibraphone donated by Lionel Hampton. Photo by Kate Wiley.

I play the drums and have dabbled a bit in the other members of the percussion family, so it was thrilling to think that I was so close the same set that Lionel himself had played “The Price of Jazz” and so many other classic tunes. I left the Create: Smithsonian event feeling even more energized than usual about working at the Museum—clearly the grant funds were going to good use!

2013 Jazz Appreciation Month featuring Lionel Hampton.

Legendary vibraphone virtuoso and bandleader Lionel Hampton graces the 2013 Jazz Appreciation Month poster. Courtesy of Smithsonian Jazz.

April is Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), and we do it in style here at the National Museum of American History, with a full schedule of donation ceremonies by jazz legends, talks on jazz history, and several live performances. Lionel Hampton is featured on the 2013 JAM poster and to kick things off on April 9, his vibes again emerged from the Museum’s vaults to be played in a tribute performance by members of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Quintet.

So, like I said at the top, I have a cool job.  For a music buff like me, working at the Smithsonian is Seriously Amazing!

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