A Smithsonian look at the Valentine

Posted on Posted in Richmond Jazz Stories


(John Edward Hasse’s a guy from out of town who has visited the Valentine Museum’s jazz history exhibition. I figured he could offer some perspective…and he responds graciously to ignorant questions!)

What is your current work?

I’m Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where I served for 33 years as Curator of American Music.

(There’s a bit more to him than that…see below)

What’s your impression of the jazz history exhibition at Richmond’s Valentine Museum?

The exhibit is pioneering—the first-ever effort of which I’m aware to throw a spotlight on jazz in Virginia—a fascinating story. I’ve lived in Virginia for 34 years and I was surprised at what I didn’t know!

If money and time were not limited, how could it be more ambitious?

…I loved it. It could be expanded in at least three ways. It could be made into a traveling exhibit to move around the state, in multiple copies—libraries, museums, community centers, and universities. The booklet could be expanded into a full-length book. A CD set of Virginia Jazz could be produced.

Is this happening in other cities?

There are hundreds of exhibits—on various subjects—circulating through the United States on any given day. I am not aware of any traveling exhibitions on jazz currently being circulated.

What’s the significance of these artifacts and reminiscences, for people who don’t give a rip about jazz, let alone jazz history, and/or who are not much attached to Richmond or Virginia, either — except that they live here, for the moment?

The stories are part of our cultural heritage, part of the American story and soundtrack. America wouldn’t be America without jazz—it’s as American as it gets. And Virginia can lay claim to a number of important musicians. Ella Fitzgerald alone is worth everyone’s respect and admiration—her voice has captivated people around the world and will no doubt resound through the ages.

For that matter, what’s the importance of museums at all, these days? We have the Internet!

There is something visceral about seeing an object in person. Especially a “three-dimensional” object—a musical instrument, award, piece of clothing, etc.—that a still picture on the internet simply cannot capture.

Another valuable aspect of a museum exhibition is that it draws in the visitor, it’s immersive to a greater or lesser degree in ways that a flat computer screen cannot be.

Further, when you visit a museum exhibition, usually you focus on what’s in front of you for longer than you may focus on a website. The typical visit to a website lasts less than two minutes!

When museum masters get together to think things through, at this point in our cultural evolution, what are they thinking about?

How to very selectively collect and preserve the present and past; what stories to tell; how to tell them in the most effective ways; how to draw in more diverse and younger audiences; how to compete for the public’s discretionary time and attention. These are but a few of the challenges facing museum professionals today.

John Edward Hasse is a museum curator, author, speaker. For 33 years, he served as Curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, where he curated exhibitions on Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles, and founded the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and Jazz Appreciation Month, now celebrated in all 50 states and in 40 countries.

He is author of the biography Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington, with a Foreword by Wynton Marsalis, and editor of Jazz: The First Century, with Forewords by Quincy Jones and Tony Bennett. Hasse is co-author of Discover Jazz and co-producer of Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology. He is a contributor to The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and eight encyclopedias.