In 2011, the Smithsonian Folkways label released Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, a six-CD project that purported to represent the history of a diverse and complex music genre, one that is celebrated worldwide even as it is underappreciated in its nation of origin. Ironically, but inevitably, the record company that took up the difficult task of chronicling jazz—which emerged just over a century ago, among a disenfranchised culture in one city in the American South (New Orleans, of course), but which soon served as the soundtrack for the modernizing Western world—was Smithsonian Folkways, overseen by one of America’s most elite cultural institutions. Preceded by The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (1973), Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology is the second major effort by the Smithsonian to sponsor a comprehensive compilation of jazz recordings.
As a genre, jazz evolved rapidly, until it existed as a multiplicity of styles, some of them overtly, even garrulously commercial, and others as individualistic and sophisticated as the musical geniuses who created them. The genre had given those geniuses a measure of psychic freedom from a wider society that—because of its entrenched racism and its middle-of-the-road tastes—couldn’t appreciate visionary outsiders.
In his notes for Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, producer Richard James Burgess confessed that this new release was intended to achieve three primary objectives: 1) to “stimulate aficionados and interested listeners”; 2) to “serve as a tool for educators and students”; and 3) to “provide an overview of jazz as well as a solid jumping-off point for further explorations of this inspiring musical culture”—a tall order for any compilation. It is certainly arguable that Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology falls short of the first two objectives. The project will likely have limited success in stimulating “aficionados and interested listeners” because the release more resembles a “greatest hits of jazz” collection—however painstakingly conceived—than a groundbreaking anthology. Indeed, there’s relatively little here that true jazz aficionados haven’t listened to and treasured for years.
Any success in achieving the second objective (the educational mission) depends largely on the impact of the album notes, and unfortunately the notes are uneven. Having been written by dozens of scholars with different perspectives and writing styles, they include a broad range of interpretive approaches, some analytical, some biographical, and some impressionistic. Strongest are the notes that provide detailed structural analysis of a recording, such as James Dapogny’s discussion of “Dipper Mouth Blues,” a 1923 piece by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (which includes one of Louis Armstrong’s earliest appearances on a recording). The short but illuminating note for this recording argues that this and similar early jazz compositions differ from true blues songs because the latter possess “a single melody and changed lyrics in each chorus,” while jazz pieces are instrumentals that utilize several contrasting melodies and other musical devices. Dapogny’s note includes a table showing how the jazz performance style unfolds in “Dipper Mouth Blues.” This kind of graphic is useful in helping the layperson better understand such an elusive music genre. Dapogny’s note is uniquely educational; unfortunately, most of the notes in Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology simply provide the kind of contextual and biographical information that listeners can find on the Internet.
The third objective for this project is certainly achieved. Many novice listeners who immerse themselves in the recordings on Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology will no doubt be compelled by the music to explore jazz further.
Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, which involved many people, was in some respects an effort to update The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, an anthology that largely reflected the scholarly vision of one person (Martin Williams). For Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, an advisory panel of more than fifty experts worked together to select artists and tracks to consider for the new release. 2,500 selections were reduced to 111 tracks, and more than thirty writers were asked to contribute album notes. Jazz offers a solid representation of the international reach the genre, session details for each anthologized recording, revelatory photographs of the included musicians, and resplendently remastered sound throughout.
As with any anthology, listeners might quibble with the track line-up. I wondered why Jazz features five tracks from Miles Davis, but none from Ahmad Jamal, an important pianist who influenced Davis and others. And why does a celebration of the historical trajectory of jazz not include tracks by such significant figures as bandleader Glenn Miller, pianist Phineas Newborn, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, and the innovative ensemble Oregon? And why is the opening track a rendition of “Maple Leaf Rag,” from 1975, featuring pianist Dick Hyman? Hyman is a master of ragtime performance, but shouldn’t such an historical anthology include the version of “Maple Leaf Rag” performed by its composer, Scott Joplin, instead?
Indeed, Williams had selected Joplin’s recording of “Maple Leaf Rag” as the first track on The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. That earlier, much acclaimed anthology may have reflected the perspective on jazz of just one person, yet it seems destined to survive—and perhaps outlive—this newer, committee-guided effort.