The New York Times > Arts > Music > Pieces of Jazz History Head to Auction Block
The New York Times
January 20, 2005
Pieces of Jazz History Head to Auction Block
By BEN RATLIFF
There is Charlie Parker's King alto saxophone, with mother-of-pearl keys, his primary horn in the 1950's. There is Benny Goodman's clarinet, John Coltrane's soprano and tenor saxophones, Gerry Mulligan's baritone. Thelonious Monk's tailored jacket. A ribald 27-page letter from Louis Armstrong to his manager. One of Ornette Coleman's notebooks from the late 1950's, with his practice exercises and, on one of the last pages, one of his greatest compositions, "Focus on Sanity," written in pencil. Home movies of Coltrane shoveling snow outside his house in Philadelphia in the late 1950's. Charlie Parker concert recordings made by his wife, Chan, and high school book reports by Monk.
On Feb. 20 at the Allen Room in Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall, Guernsey's Auction House will put all these items, and many others, on the block at a special jazz auction. Previews will be held on Feb. 18 and 19, but Guernsey's would not estimate how much the auction will make.
"It would be folly to try to come up with a number," said Guernsey's owner, Arlan Ettinger. Very few of the lots have reserves - the secret minimum prices agreed upon by the sellers and the house. Nor is the house listing estimates in its catalog.
Jazz artifacts have been auctioned before, through Christie's and Sotheby's, but there has been no single auction of this size entirely dedicated to jazz. And though there have been jazz collectors of one kind or another since the 1930's, it seems to have taken many of the families of jazz's royalty this long to dislodge the once mundane items, long buried in closets, that now have great value not only to jazz aficionados but also to the larger community of collectors.
But just because these memorabilia are now turning up at a public auction does not mean they will end up in public hands, at least not right away.
Instruments and sheet music have entered the collections of institutions like the Smithsonian and the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University - the country's greatest academic center for jazz studies - which preserve them and make them available for scholars. (The city of Kansas City, Mo., owns one of Parker's plastic alto saxophones, sold at auction by Sotheby's in 1995 for around $140,000, and it has become the centerpiece of the town's American Jazz Museum. The University of Wisconsin owns the bass that belonged to the great Ellington bassist Jimmy Blanton and occasionally lets students play it.) But institutions, which have limited budgets and often rely on donations by the artists' families to acquire material, may not have the money to buy many of the items at Guernsey's auction.
Instead the pieces may be bought by collectors of modest means who dearly cling to their scraps of history, perhaps without giving them proper care. Or they might be acquired by wealthy collectors who eventually lose interest in them and, after death, release them to museums.
"If I were to guess," Mr. Ettinger said, "sooner or later, the majority of this material will end up in museums. But it could take a decade."
In the Smithsonian's collection lie reams of unpublished Duke Ellington music, Lionel Hampton's vibraphone and Ella Fitzgerald's entire archive, among thousands of other items. In nearly every case, the material was donated.
"We'd love to have some of these things in this auction," said John Edward Hasse, the Smithsonian's curator of American music. "But we don't get a penny from the federal budget for acquisitions. So we rely heavily on the good will, generosity and public spiritedness of musicians and their families."
Alice Coltrane, the widow of John Coltrane, is the source for much of the Coltrane material in the auction, including the saxophones and paperwork. In a telephone interview yesterday, she said she had been approached by several museums in the past, including the Smithsonian, but the circumstances had never seemed right for her to donate material.
"We got a letter about this auction in New York," she explained, "and I had never before considered anything like that. All of the instruments that we have are kept here in our family. But once I thought it through, I thought it would be O.K. if we presented some of the memorabilia."
Some of the proceeds, she explained, will go to the John Coltrane Foundation, a fund that has supported young jazz musicians for 18 years by giving them scholarships to music schools. Some will go to Jowcol, the Coltrane publishing company; some to her own charities, including churches and hospitals in Los Angeles and Detroit, the Red Cross, and a small school for orphaned children in Puttaparthi, India, near Madras. She still expects at some point, she said, to strike a deal with the Smithsonian.
One auction piece from Ms. Coltrane's house in California - the original sheet-music sketches for Coltrane's 1964 suite "A Love Supreme," among the most important works in jazz - bears explicit notes and markings in Coltrane's hand. ("Make ending attempt to reach transcendent level"; "Rising harmonies to a level of blissful stability at end"; "Last chord to sound like final chord of 'Alabama.' ") These two pages, which have never been seen by scholars, aren't just a curio: they will affect scholarship.
Many objects are more important than they seem at first glance, revealing something about an artist's early interests, his psychology or the culture of the times. Also in the Coltrane collection is a fifth-grade school scrapbook, solemnly emblazoned in cut-out block letters with the words "Negro History Book," which indicates who made an impression on him in the 1930's. In it, he copied out poems by Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, and pasted pictures of black entertainers like the Dancing Nicholas Brothers, Marian Anderson and Fletcher Henderson, as well as the etiquette teacher Charlotte Hawkins Brown.
In Monk's school essay books, from 1933 (he was 15), there is a book report on "A Tale of Two Cities," an essay in an exquisite, old-fashioned serif-spangled hand about why Boys' Life is his favorite magazine, and one on the topic of good newspaper journalism. And in the left cuff of one of his tailored jackets, sewn in gold thread, is the phrase "Crepé Scole With Nellie." It refers, via a misspelling, to his tune "Crepuscule With Nellie," written for his wife, Nellie. That Monk would stash a secret phrase to himself in a hidden place says something about the hidden compartments of his character and his great affection for his wife.
"My hope is that the purchasers are the more sharing institutions and collectors," said the jazz historian Phil Schaap, who helped Guernsey's evaluate the objects. "Things tended to go more to repositories until recently. Which means, to me, the suggestion that repositories don't have the money to buy these things." He paused. "The pageantry of it, though, is pretty impressive," he said. "It's all going to be in one room."
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