— Mabel Scott —
For nearly four decades a big magnet down on East Main has been pulling in fragments of local jazz history. Now they’re assembled, glued together with hundreds of hours of detective work, in a vivid and provocative mosaic.
The Richmond Jazz Society’s exhibition “Virginia Jazz: The Early Years,” which runs until the end of April at the Valentine Museum, brings together sounds, images and artifacts whose vibe stays with you long after leaving the premises.
B.J. Brown is the curator of the exhibition, and executive director of the Richmond Jazz Society. Preservation, she says, has been part of the group’s mission since it began in 1979.
“People come in and bring us programs, photos and posters, records and old magazine articles. They’ve been in the basement or the closet. One person’s father died and he left it in his will to donate his material to the Society. So we have an extensive archive.”
The value and the fragility of these artifacts became clear. They were carefully cataloged and kept in temperature-controlled storage. “We’ve been trying to find a way to make it accessible,” Brown said. “What’s the point of having it, if it’s all in boxes?” The exhibition is perhaps the first phase of revelation, for all that history.
This is a narrative, not just a yard sale, a hoard of memorabilia. “We work very hard to get people to understand that jazz is American music, African-American classical music,” Brown says, and Virginia has been one of its creative centers — “all the way back to the 1890s before jazz was called ‘jazz’, and the musicians played a new syncopated music that became jazz.”
In the late ‘teens or the 1920s, ads in the Richmond Planet began to use the word. Furniture stores sold Victrolas and jazz records; music stores sold sheet music for 10 cents. It was part of an evolving cultural landscape in which Richmond’s Jackson Ward became known as the “Harlem of the South,” and live music clubs prospered.
The exhibition’s video, audio, photos and biographies take us as far as the 1960’s. Much of what the research turned up was a surprise even to Brown, and will be to you, too, I’d bet. I’ve been twice, and I’m going back.
The boundaries of jazz are never fixed. So Mabel Scott, born in Richmond in 1915, and often spoken of as an R&B artist, is here in the exhibition. So is the late Joe Kennedy Jr., a jazz master who was also a principal violinist at the Richmond Symphony –one of the first African-Americans to join its ranks. He was a powerful inspiration for the Society’s preservation of historical materials, Brown said.
You could tug at loose ends here, just to be that way, and ask: What if I’m from Cleveland or Los Angeles? I might live in Richmond for now, but it’s a temporary, even trivial connection. Why would jazz or its practitioners linked to this particular place be of special importance? It’s like baseball, where I’m supposed to root for the home team? What’s the hook?
That will take a little ‘splaining…
Next: Unsung heroines, who sing
Joe Kennedy Jr.