Bidders will be shelling out for all that jazz

Instruments, artifacts to be sold Feb. 20

Pop Music


NEW YORK - There is Charlie Parker's King alto saxophone, with mother-of-pearl keys, his primary horn in the 1950s. There is Benny Goodman's clarinet, John Coltrane's soprano and tenor saxophones, Gerry Mulligan's baritone. Thelonious Monk's tailored jacket. A ribald letter from Louis Armstrong to his manager. One of Ornette Coleman's notebooks from the late 1950s, 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 1950s. Charlie Parker concert recordings made by his wife, Chan, and high school book reports by Monk.

On Feb. 20 at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall, Guernsey's Auction House will put all these items, and many others, on the block.

Jazz artifacts have been auctioned before - there have been jazz collectors of one kind or another since the 1930s - but there has been no single auction of this size entirely dedicated to jazz. 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, though these memorabilia are now turning up at a public auction, it does not mean that 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. 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 go to wealthy collectors who eventually lose interest in them and, after death, release them to museums.

"We'd love to have some of these things in this auction," said John Edward Hasse, curator of the Smithsonian's American music collection, which includes reams of unpublished Duke Ellington music, Lionel Hampton's vibraphone and Ella Fitzgerald's entire archive. "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. In a telephone interview, she said she had been approached by several museums, including the Smithsonian, but the circumstances had never seemed right for her to donate material.

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, and to other charities. She still expects at some point, she said, to strike a deal with the Smithsonian.

One auction piece - 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. 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.

"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."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.