The National Jazz Museum in Harlem Finds a Permanent Home

The musicians Terri Davis, left, and Bill Saxton at the opening of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. (YANA PASKOVA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)

article by Nate Chinen via nytimes.com

The National Jazz Museum in Harlem has always been, like the music it honors, a study in adaptability. For the last 15 years, it has operated out of a modest fourth-floor space in East Harlem, while developing big plans for a permanent home. Now, after weathering a few disappointments, the museum has relocated to a new storefront on West 129th Street, in a move that signals not only an improvement to its public facilities but also a renewal of its mission.

“Being in a new space has shifted our approach to what is possible,” Ryan Maloney, the museum’s director of education and programming, said during an opening reception on Tuesday night, as a quartet led by the pianist Marc Cary played a hard-swinging Hank Mobley tune.

The museum now sits off Malcolm X Boulevard, a couple of blocks north of Sylvia’s and Red Rooster, the emblematic culinary institutions of old and new Harlem. It occupies the ground floor of a new condominium building, and while it’s not a large footprint — just under 2,400 square feet, of which 1,900 is devoted to public space — the design and layout were carefully considered.

In some ways, the embrace of that small scale reflects well on the institution. Founded in 1997 by Leonard Garment, former counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem began with noble intentions but limited resources. “We flailed around for several years, and while we did, the money ran out,” Mr. Garment wrote in a 2002 article for The New York Times. (He died in 2013.)

The museum found its footing, in incremental steps, under the executive leadership of Loren Schoenberg. A veteran saxophonist, pianist, educator and historian, Mr. Schoenberg brought an air of authority to the museum, while strengthening its bonds with the jazz public and institutions like the Smithsonian. He enlisted two artistic directors, both still actively involved: the bassist Christian McBride and the pianist Jon Batiste. (Mr. McBride is the recently announced new artistic director for the Newport Jazz Festival; Mr. Batiste, the bandleader on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” was one of Mr. Schoenberg’s students at Juilliard.)

“While we were looking for a space, we realized that it was necessary to do public programming,” said Mr. Schoenberg, who is now a founding director and senior scholar. “And during that period of a decade or so, we became known for the public programming. We began to think that the future of the museum was not really bound up in a huge space, but in being an institution that does hundreds of public programs a year, and is uniquely anchored in the community.”

The museum has held guided listening sessions, along with musical performances and exhibitions. A series called Harlem Stride — equal parts history lesson, demo and cutting session — was led this year by the pianist Ethan Iverson. Among the featured programs this spring are a concert and lecture series called Mies and Miles: Design and Architecture in Music (Tuesday through April 26), led by Tim Porter, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, and “Albert Murray: 20th-Century American Genius” (May 10 and 12), a symposium organized by the writer Greg Thomas.

The schedule reflects a continuing commitment to jazz outreach at street level, with few pretensions. “We’re more like the Duke Ellington Band than the New York Philharmonic,” Mr. Schoenberg said. “The effect that a single member can have — they vibrate much more vividly in the organization, because it’s still relatively small.”

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