[Dixielandjazz] Pieces of Jazz History Head to Auction Block

Robert S. Ringwald robert at ringwald.com
Fri Jan 21 19:32:10 PST 2005

      Pieces of Jazz History Head to Auction Block

        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, 
Coltrane's soprano and tenor saxophones, Gerry Mulligan's baritone. 
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 
"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 
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 
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 
the 1930's, it seems to have taken many of the families of jazz's royalty 
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
      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 
      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., 
one of Parker's plastic alto saxophones, sold at auction by Sotheby's in 
for around $140,000, and it has become the centerpiece of the town's 
Jazz Museum. The University of Wisconsin owns the bass that belonged to the
great Ellington bassist Jimmy Blanton and occasionally lets students play 
But institutions, which have limited budgets and often rely on donations by 
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 
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 
of this material will end up in museums. But it could take a decade."
      In the Smithsonian's collection lie reams of unpublished Duke 
music, Lionel Hampton's vibraphone and Ella Fitzgerald's entire archive,
among thousands of other items. In nearly every case, the material was 
      "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 
penny from the federal budget for acquisitions. So we rely heavily on the 
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 
In a telephone interview yesterday, she said she had been approached by 
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 
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 
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 
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 
hand. ("Make ending attempt to reach transcendent level"; "Rising harmonies 
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 
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, 
copied out poems by Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, and pasted
pictures of black entertainers like the Dancing Nicholas Brothers, Marian 
and Fletcher Henderson, as well as the etiquette teacher Charlotte Hawkins
      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 
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 
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 
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 
he said. "It's all going to be in one room."

--Bob Ringwald
Placerville, CA USA

"There are three kinds of men:
The ones that learn by reading.
The few who learn by observation.
The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence and find out for
--William Penn Adair (Will) Rogers B: 11/4/1879 D: 8/15/1935

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