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Jazz Expos?: The Jazz Museum And The Power Struggle That Destroyed It by Howard E. Fischer

Decades before the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, in which Charlie Parker's saxophone is enshrined, or the Jazz Museum in Harlem led by Loren Schoenberg and Christian McBride, there was the New York Jazz Museum. Founded in 1972 by Howard E. Fischer and Jack Bradley, the New York Jazz Museum was reportedly a labor of love that brought together elements of the New York jazz community for the preservation and promotion of jazz, if not for mutual support and longevity. Fischer's apparently self-published book recalls in assiduously collected detail the formation of the New York Jazz Museum as an outgrowth of the New York Hot Jazz Society. His, and others', dreams for a venue to archive jazz memorabilia, present informal concerts and develop outreach programs, all at nominal cost or on a contribution basis only, eventually led to the leasing of a building at 125 West 55th Street. Owing in no small part to Fischer's background as an entertainment attorney, the New York Jazz Museum enjoyed an approximately four-year life and a good deal of success for numerous events. Indeed, according to Fischer, he gave up his practice of law in order to concentrate all of his time and energy on the Museum without any real compensation because of the Museum's continuing financial struggles. Still, he was able to secure grants, acquire artifacts, sponsor concerts, open a gift shop, handle the accounting, initiate publicity and plan fund-raising parties.

At first, Fischer's characterization of the book as an "expos?" appears to be at odds with its real content. The dramatic subtitle for the book, "The Power Struggle That Destroyed It," and the bulleted "Highlights" on the back cover (such as "òthe betrayal" or "òhow Benny Goodman and his estate got entangled in the Museum's legal machinations") hint at continuing conflict and previously unwritten revelations. Indeed, the book does contain continuing conflict and previously unwritten revelations. However, the first three-fourths of the book lay out the case for the Museum's success in attracting performers like Mary Lou Williams or Buck Clayton, contributions from the likes of Calvert Distillers and the Ford Foundation, and growing a collection of valuable jazz memorabilia such as photographs of John and Alice Coltrane and films of various jazz performances.

Fischer intersperses the information about the establishment and growth of the Museum with numerous "NEW ITEM"'s which document, for example, the passing of Louis Armstrong, Reverend John Gensel's Jazz Vespers programs, or laudatory letters to the New York Hot Jazz Society from notables like Harold Vick. Except for an occasional brief reference to incidents like co-founder Bradley's secretive and unauthorized increase in his compensation, the initial reporting about the Jazz Museum is almost uniformly positive and neutral. In fact, Fischer's writing is almost too straightforward with by-the-facts writing that seems to be a chronological compilation of events in the Museum's history.

And then, the chapter called "The Last Riff" astounds with its laying out of complaints. The startling change of tone transforms Fischer from the proud chronicler of the formation of an institution dedicated to the preservation of jazz to an angered lawyer. The reason? Fischer's creation is taken away from him in a series of administrative actions by a hostile Board of Advisors that appeared to support co-founder Bradley over Fischer. The final straw came when the Board proposed giving equal pay to both, even though Fischer claims that Bradley was exposed to far less risk and devoted far fewer resources to the establishment of the Museum. The situation degenerated into a series of accusations and hostile actions culminating in the termination of Fischer at a Board meeting, during which the Museum's locks were changed.

The Museum lasted little more than six months after that action. Nonetheless, Fischer obtained judgments in his favor by the American Arbitators Association and the Supreme Court of the State of New York. His search for restitution continued ten more years. By filing a Freedom of Information Act application, Fischer found that the Board had transferred the Museum's tangible assets to Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz Studies. Ironically, the Institute's director, Dan Morgenstern, was one of Fischer's more loyal supporters throughout most of the years of the New York Jazz Museum's existence. Finally, even Morgenstern withdrew from the Board after the acrimony seemed to be irreconcilable. Fischer doesn't explain if Morgenstern consented to accepting the materials from the Board or if he was unaware of their source. Still, the white knight in the entire saga was the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which satisfied Fischer's judgment and acquired some of the Museum's assets from Rutgers.

And so, the reader realizes at last that the book's preliminary presentation of the facts about the New York Jazz Museum in reality contributes to the buildup climaxing in Fischer's complaints about his termination and the disposition of the Museum's assets. Hurt by losing the institution that he claims to have built, Fischer in the end lends credence to the Board's accusations of his being "paranoid" (p. 120) as he accuses the Board of racism, his lawyers of arbitrarily increasing their fees and his former friend Jack Bradley of betrayal. In addition, Fischer complains that the New York Jazz Museum received no mention in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz or in Ken Burns Jazz or even at the Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz Studies. Indeed, considering the absence of information about the Museum within jazz reference materials, Fischer's book would be an opportunity to document the value of the Museum and the importance of the work done by those associated with it.

However, the structure of Jazz Expos? recalls in some respects the laying out of a case, rational and factually driven, until the summation of all of the details ends in one dramatic conclusion. Fischer doesn't state his feelings or thoughts until the end of the book, when they become contentious. Fischer's reflections on the pleasure that his initial work brought him, instead of ending the book with a rancorous "Reflections and Aftermath" chapter, would have provided balance to the book.

Obviously, Fischer still feels wronged thirty years after the Museum ceased to exist. However, the more important content of Jazz Expos? is the documentation of the facts surrounding one of the country's first jazz museums by the person who founded it. And who saw it dissolve.

Jazz Expos?: The Jazz Museum And The Power Struggle That Destroyed It may be ordered from Howard E. Fischer, 155 West 72nd Street, Suite 404, New York, NY 10023.

Additional Info

  • Book Title: Jazz Expos?: The Jazz Museum And The Power Struggle That Destroyed It
  • Author: Howard E. Fischer
  • Publisher: Sunlog Ltd.
  • Year Published: 2004
  • Book Type:: Non-Fiction
  • ISBN: 193220377
  • Rating: Two Stars
  • Number of Pages: 134
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