National Museum of African American History & Culture Honors Jazz Icons


Former First Lady Laura Bush (left), President George W. Bush, First Lady Michelle Obama and President Obama at the Sept. 24 opening ceremony in Washington, D.C.


As part of Freedom Sounds, a weekend-long festival in Washington, D.C., that celebrated the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, the virtuosic Stanley Clarke hosted an occasionally illuminating bass workshop inside the Fannie Lou Hammer stage, one of several makeshift tents, on the Washington Monuments Grounds.

Clarke was one of many illustrious musical acts to participate in the Sept. 23–25 festivities, along with Public Enemy, The Roots, Meshell Ndegeocello, Living Colour and Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Armed with just an acoustic bass, Clarke demonstrated his tremendous command over the instrument only twice. But those moments indeed proved to be highlights as his playing alternated between languid melodicism and rapid-fire rhythmic motifs. In between, he spoke on a variety of topics, ranging from his childhood years in Philadelphia and meeting Miles Davis to scoring music for the TV show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the advantages of being a versatile musician.

One audience member—an aspiring bassist who said she wanted to “transition” from gospel music to jazz—prompted Clarke’s insights into the values of being versatile. “If something is bad or evil, I can see transitioning or going another way,” Clarke replied. “But if it’s something that you do in your life and you’re able to use time to keep it all in there together, it’s very important to art and music that you do keep it all together.”

With various asides about his journey into composing for film, Clarke concluded by advising artists of any discipline that its better to add to your repertoire than subtract from it.

The National Museum of African American History & Culture houses one of Clarke’s basses, among such other music treasures as a 1946 Henri Selmer trumpet once owned by Louis Armstrong, a red Cadillac Eldorado once owned by Chuck Berry and the Parliament-Funkadelic’s legendary Mothership spacecraft.

Those items are part of the museum’s “Musical Crossroads” exhibition. For sure, music is intrinsic to the telling of African American history and culture, with jazz being one of the significant touchstones. In this regard, one of the challenges of the new museum was cultivating a collection that was separate from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which has its own formidable music collection, including the massive Duke Ellington archives.

Nevertheless, jazz enthusiasts visiting the National Museum of African American History & Culture can view a 1938 neon sign from Minton’s Playhouse, a jacket worn by Miles Davis in the 1960s and dresses worn by Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Ross (in her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the movie Lady Sings The Blues).

The “Musical Crossroads” exhibition is located on the top level of the four-story museum. But the museum was designed with hopes that visitors would start at the bottom level, which contains such treasures and artifacts as one of Harriett Tubman’s shawls, slave shackles and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation read from soldiers bringing news of freedom to the U.S. Colored Troops. The museum examines the brutally inhumane slave trade, which brought blacks to the United States, the institution of slavery, and the subsequent fight for freedom and civil rights.

From there, the museum wants visitors to work their way upward to other exhibits such as “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom, Era of Segregation 1876-1968,” “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond,” “Power of Place” and “Making a Way Out of No Way,” eventually arriving at the top floor’s cultural galleries, which also touch on African American contributions to the worlds of visual arts, film, television, dance, food and fashion. In all, the museum boasts 21 exhibitions and approximately 37,000 artifacts at this time.

The efforts to establish the National Museum of African American History & Culture began more than a century ago. The opening ceremonies on Sept. 24 drew an incredible array of politicians, celebrities and noteworthy attendees.

President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush, former First Lady Laura Bush, Rep. John Lewis, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Stevie Wonder, Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith were among those delivering speeches on the historic occasion.

“This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are,” President Obama stated in his welcoming speech. “It helps us better understand the lives, yes, of the president, but also the slave; the industrialist but also the porter; the keeper of the status quo but also the optimist seeking to overthrow that status quo; the teacher, or the cook, alongside the statesman.

“And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are American, that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story; it’s not the underside of the American story.”

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