A Jazz Museum for
By John Robert Brown
"Some people say to me, 'You should have been born fifty
years earlier'," says Loren Schoenberg. Surprisingly,
he disagrees with that idea. "Of course I would have
grown up to the great music of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.
And I'd have probably spent my life interviewing the widow
of Scott Joplin!"
It's a Tuesday in late June. Loren Schoenberg has invited
me to catch a show during the final week of Bobby Short's
current season at the Carlyle Room, where he appears for twenty
weeks each year. Loren is Bobby Short's musical director,
and plays saxophone and clarinet in the nine-piece band. The
Carlyle Room is on the ground floor of the elite Carlyle Hotel,
in Manhattan on Madison and 76th Street.
After the second show, Loren greets me and packs away his
horns. We move from the Carlyle Room to the hotel lounge,
where we can talk. On the way through the hotel corridors,
Loren chats to the Bobby Short fans, some of whom have traveled
from as far away as the West Coast to catch the show. He's
flawless at making the customers feel comfortable, adjusting
the register of his vocabulary and responses to suit the circumstances.
We begin by discussing the job at the Carlyle. Even in this,
Loren has a keen sense of history. "When Bobby came here
in 1968, he was 43 or 44," says Loren. "People think
that his career started at the Carlyle, but he's been around
since the 1930s. He's been doing vaudeville since he was
seven or eight years old. He appeared with Fletcher Henderson's
band, Bunny Berigan's band. He's amazing." Bobby Short
appeared in the film, 'Blue Ice' starring Michael Caine. He
performed as himself in 'For Love or Money' which starred
Michael J. Fox, and in Woddy Allen's 'Hannah and Her Sisters'.
But the career of Bobby Short is fascinating, I'm here to
talk to Loren about his own role. Loren Schoenberg has recently
been appointed as the new Executive Director for the National
Jazz Museum in Harlem. He begins by making an important point.
"There is no Jazz Museum. Make that clear," he
says. "I'm already getting phone calls from people who
find it on the Internet. 'We'd like to bring our family up.
What time does it open?' It's very clear that this is and
idea whose time has come. It's long overdue. America does
not have a first class jazz museum in a major city. That's
"There's a man named Leonard Garment, a very famous
American lawyer, and advisor to presidents. He was here for
the first show at the Carlyle tonight because we went to a
fund-raising event together. He's going back to Washington
in the morning. He's convinced Congress to give us a million
dollars. Of course you can't build a jazz museum with a million
dollars in New York City." His realistic attitude, and
his ability to get to the heart of the matter, are two of
many reasons why Loren Schoenberg is an excellent choice to
be Director. In addition he has a deep knowledge of jazz history,
is a working musician, and is very well established in the
jazz community. Leonard Garment summed up Loren's qualifications
perfectly in a Sunday New York Times article back in February,
when he wrote:
'Mr. Schoenberg's quarter-century playing and conducting
career in jazz has included close associations with eminent
musicians ranging from Benny Goodman to Wynton Marsalis;
the latter has become a friend and supporter of the jazz
museum. Mr. Schoenberg's extraordinary range is what we
hope for in the museum: an illumination of jazz as an art
form, jazz as a teaching instrument, jazz as a model of
discipline and improvisation, and jazz as a supreme narrative
, literary and musical, that has flowed through virtually
every capillary of the nation's culture and set the mood
for what we Americans think and feel about ourselves.'
Of course, there is much more to Loren than the above paragraph
conveys. Born in New Jersey in 1958, Loren entered the Manhattan
School of Music in 1976. In the interim, he began playing
the tenor saxophone, and throughout his college years, worked
in Eddie Durham's quartet. This led to further associations
with legends such as Russel Procope, Al Casey, Harold Ashby,
Jo Jones, Sammy Price, Willis Jackson, Jabbo Smith, Eddie
Barefield and Panama Francis. Loren has been a featured soloist
with the big bands of Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Heath,
and Buck Clayton.
In recent months, Loren has led the Smithsonian Jazz Tribute
to Benny Goodman, playing the piano. He conducted the Lincoln
Center Jazz Orchestra in an acclaimed Woody Herman program
that included the premiere of Ralph Burns's 1949 extended
composition Red Hills And Green Barns.
Loren Schoenberg seems to be ever-busy. We didn't finish
our conversation and say our goodbyes until 1:30 AM. Later
the same morning he was to depart for Snowmass, Colorado,
where he is a faculty member of the Essentially Ellington
Band Director's Academy. Yet despite - or maybe because of
- being a busy New York-based musician, popular and much in
demand Loren is aware of the realities and many difficulties
he's going to face as Executive Director of the National Jazz
Museum in Harlem.
"The museum must be deeply rooted in the Harlem community,"
he says. "A museum like this will only succeed if there
is a perception that it comes from the community and it receives
support from the community leaders, and all others in the
locality, who have everything to gain from this. Harlem has
been an incredible cradle for jazz. Importantly, it continues
Though there is no museum yet, there is a web site, at http://www.jazzmuseuminharlem.org/
where the overview reminds us that the legendary jazz pianist/composer
Willie 'The Lion' Smith once said: I'd rather be a fly on
a lamppost in Harlem than a millionaire anywhere else."
The site sings the praises of Harlem:
'Harlem is in the midst of a new renaissance of culture,
commerce and tourism. Outside of its native New Orleans, no
community nurtured jazz more than Harlem. Duke Ellington,
Benny Carter, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus,
Count Basie, John Coltrane, Billy Holiday - all of their unique
sounds reverberated throughout these fabled streets. Their
legacy continues as the jazz musicians of today have also
found a home in this community for their own contemporary
sounds. The National Jazz Museum in Harlem is dedicated to
fostering this spirit - the music as a living, breathing entity
that looks as far into the future as it does into the past.'
Commendably, one of Loren Schoenberg's plans is to visit
other museums, nationally and internationally. A Nashville
museum changed his views. "Formerly, country music was
an anathema to me," he says. "That museum made me
care about it. I used to teach a music course called 'Style
and Analysis'. Another was called 'Form and Content'. What
I'm interested in is structural unity, as achieved by great
composers and great novelists. That's the way it's going now
in museums. There are people in the museum world who think
like this. The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC is one of
those places. I still carry the aural impression I gained
from that museum. I'm going to compile a list of about ten
great world museums - not just jazz museums - and visit them."
That's some thought. Already I'm compiling a mental list.
"I'm already receiving advice," he says with a
smile. "I'm encountering jazz enthusiasm in the most
unexpected people. My job is to sift through advice and suggestions.
Ultimately it's going to be the take of the museum's board
of directos, which will include Leonard Garment, Dr. Billy
Taylor, and other jazz notables. I'm very excited about it.
It has a good sense of urgency - though we're taking years
into the future, of course."
Loren reminds me that he has been involved in a Jazz Museum
in New York in the past; "No one remembers about this,
but there was a New York Jazz Museum from 1972 to the late
1970s, and in other incarnations slightly later. I was in
my early teens. My parents would let me come in from the suburbs
in New Jersey to work as a volunteer. The place folded. There
were a lot of lessons to be learned: what was good, what worked,
what didn't work.
"Most people have forgotten about that museum. We want
to build a museum that people won't forget.
"On the most basic level the goal is to celebrate great
jazz musicians. As we broaden the context, with others I share
an obsession to tell the story of America through jazz. This
is something Ken Burns did with his recent documentary film
for television. There's more than one way to 'skin a rabbit',
more than one way to tell a story. That's the second goal.
The third goal is to reflect the international scope of jazz.
That may ultimately be the most significant, because we in
America can't see that. People in other cultures may have
to tell us about from their perspective. Add to that the demographics
of who comes to Harlem, who's going to walk through those
doors, who's interested in jazz. That's another fascinating
set of equations.
Right now there's a large tourist trade in Harlem. Most New
Yorkers who don't live in Harlem don't go to Harlem. Most
New Yorkers don't go to the Empire State Building, or the
Statue of Liberty. There are many historic places where New
Yorkers don't go.
Things are changing in Harlem. Bill Clinton now has an office
at 55 W.125th Street. There's a marvelous organization called
the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. They're behind a lot
of the change. They've been giving money, lending money, seed
money, and different kinds of support to the community there.
So these are some of the things that are going into the generation
of the Jazz Museum in Harlem."
It's clear that other things that are going into the new
museum include Loren Schoenberg's enthusiasm, his intelligence,
his energy, his political and social sensitivity, and his
great knowledge and love of jazz.
We jazz enthusiasts should be pleased that Loren Schoenberg
wasn't born fifty years earlier.