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Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

A Jazz Museum for Harlem
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 the fact.

"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 to be."

Though there is no museum yet, there is a web site, at 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.