Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/6/2013 (1133 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
WASHINGTON -- The late Dizzy Gillespie's B-flat Silver Flair trumpet, with its unmistakable up-curved bell, rests on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. Next to this famous instrument, in a display case on the museum's second level, is Duke Ellington's bandstand, and on the wall behind these objects is a portrait of Ella Fitzgerald.
Just around the corner, on the same floor, is the relocated lunch counter from the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., which, in February 1960, four African-American university students refused to vacate after being told they would not be served on account of their race. This defiant stand triggered six months of non-violent protests in Greensboro and helped lead, after many more years of confrontation, to the desegregation of the public spaces of the South.
Meanwhile, one block away, beneath the Washington Monument, a block-long pit in the National Mall is being dug. Here, in 2015, the Smithsonian will open its National Museum of African-American History and Culture, a half-billion-dollar exercise in remembrance, reparation and apartheid, whose existence compels curators to decide whether each one of thousands of artifacts speaks to the history of a healed nation, or merely to the struggle of a long-outcast race.
It has happened before. A decade ago, the Smithsonian opened its National Museum of the American Indian, which soon was criticized, in one reviewer's words, as "a place where... the deliberate myth-making of an active national revival trumps scholarship." Today, there is almost nothing about this continent's First Nations to be seen in the American History building. In 2011, not to be outdone, a presidential commission that included the actress and Democratic party activist Eva Longoria recommended the construction of a National Museum of the American Latino.
So a museum-goer wonders: Is jazz American or African-American? Who owns Duke and Ella? Where does Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet belong?
"Dizzy's trumpet is MINE," a man named Lonnie G. Bunch III is saying. Bunch is a longtime Smithsonian curator and, since 2005, the founding president of its work-in-progress African-American tower. He does not seem at all pleased when, during a press preview of the new facility, I venture that opening a building solely to commemorate the history of black people in the New World invites the use of the old opprobrium "separate but equal."
"The goal of this museum is to make America better," he counters. "Here is a place for Americans to understand their complex racial past. This is a museum that is the quintessential American story. This is the story for ALL of us.
"You will cry as you think about slavery and segregation," he predicts. "But you will find joy as you tap your toes to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. How DO you craft an institution that gives you both joy and pain? We recognize how hard this is -- that's what the Smithsonian SHOULD be doing."
Thanks to $200 million from the federal government and an additional $340 million (so far) from corporate and private benefactors -- Oprah Winfrey wrote a cheque for $12 million -- that is exactly what the institution WILL be doing, having already acquired items that range from Michael Jackson's sequined glove to an intact slave cabin from South Carolina; from Muhammad Ali's sparring-ring headgear to the family Bible of Nat Turner, the Virginia man who tried to lead his captive people in rebellion in 1831. (Turner was captured, hanged, skinned, beheaded, boiled and cut into souvenirs.)
These, then, will be exhibited a block away from Dorothy Gale's ruby slippers, the Star-Spangled Banner, Abraham Lincoln's top hat, and the original Kermit the Frog, which will remain in the de facto "white" museum.
As it turns out, Dizzy Gillespie left more than a trumped-up trumpet and the seminal works of bebop when he passed away of pancreatic cancer in 1993. He also left a mixed-race daughter from an extramarital affair, a woman named Jeanie Bryson who became a notable jazz and blues singer in her own right, performing in clubs and at festivals across the U.S. and Canada. For decades, Mr. Gillespie did not acknowledge the existence of a child -- he had none with his wife of half a century, Lorraine -- but eventually the secret came out. So I call Jeanie Bryson in New Jersey and ask her, haltingly, where she thinks her father would have wanted his instrument to rest.
"I have no problem with controversy," Bryson says, calming me down.
"My initial reaction would be not to move it," she says. "Bigger than being an African-American artist, he was an American, and his contribution really has nothing to do with being African-American. The music is the music.
"This is not to say that he didn't suffer because of his race. He lived through the Jim Crow South. He had to walk in the street when they kicked him off the sidewalk. But as a human being, he was colour-blind.
"Maybe something like Jackie Robinson's jersey does belong there, because he was the first African-American player, but maybe Robinson's family would disagree about that."
No one from the Smithsonian has contacted Jeanie Bryson about her father's Silver Flair. Lorraine Gillespie died in 2005. The couple's original marriage certificate sold at auction for 50 bucks.
"My personal vote would be for it to stay," says Dizzy Gillespie's daughter.
"My father was one of the most egalitarian people who ever walked the planet. He saw no colour. He saw no race. He would have said, 'Whatever I have contributed, let it be an AMERICAN thing.' "
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.