John Edward Hasse

Making The Archives Sing: Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra

Besides exhibitions, another way that a music curator can teach is by producing historically informed performances, “living exhibitions.” After we acquired the vast Duke Ellington Collection in 1988, I wanted to bring alive Ellington’s music—to make the archives sing. I dreamt that the Smithsonian could have its own jazz orchestra, whose first mission would be to bring alive the old, fading manuscripts of Ellington and breathe new life into them, to make the manuscripts “sing.” A big band was the dream, because it is the ultimate expressive medium for jazz composers such as Ellington. And within jazz, a big band provides by far the widest range of dynamics, sonorities, and tone colors.

I developed a rationale, came up with a name for the band, and began talking up the idea. In November 1990, my dream came true: we secured a Congressional appropriation to create the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, a seventeen-member big band, and I oversaw it for almost a decade. Ken Kimery, now the Executive Producer, has produced more than 300 concerts.

It was with great anticipation that the SJMO played its first concert—on May 17, 1991, at the Museum’s Carmichael Auditorium. Two eminent musicians—David Baker and Gunther Schuller—shared conducting duties, each leading the band through three short sets. The New York Times sent its jazz critic, Peter Watrous, to attend the first concert. “The result was more than culturally important, it was fairly spectacular musically as well,” he wrote. “The music, after being embalmed on recordings, suddenly came alive.”

The SJMO has brought back to life a wide variety of music, ranging from Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman to Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mary Lou Williams, and has explored such themes as Latin jazz, jazz dance, jazz and spirituality, and African American and Jewish American connections in jazz. In setting a high standard of excellence, the SJMO has inspired the creation of other jazz orchestras across the United States.

The Orchestra has performed hundreds of concerts: an annual series of concerts in Washington, DC; at festivals such as the White House Jazz Festival and the Monterey Jazz Festival; and across Canada, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Highlights included performing directly in front of the Great Pyramids and Sphinx outside of Cairo, Egypt. Under the headline “Reaching Sublime Heights,” Al-Ahram, Egypt’s leading daily, wrote: “The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra’s recent Egyptian concerts made a delicious musical cocktail, imaginatively conceived, brilliantly performed, and very exciting.” Click here for more information.

Program booklet for the 1994 season, when DAVID BAKER and Gunther Schuller shared duties as Musical Directors. In 1995, Baker assumed sole conducting duties, a post he held until 2013, when Charlie Young became Musical Director.

Big Band Treasures Live was the orchestra’s first CD, followed by two others.

Musical director David Baker at the 2008 launch of Jazz Appreciation Month. Smithsonian photo by Hugh Talman

Roger Kennedy, Director of the National Museum of American History, David Baker, Gunther Schuller, and Hasse, 1991.
Photo by Michael Wilderman

On Duke Ellington’s 100th birthday, David Baker conducts the orchestra and the Morgan State University Choir performing Ellington’s Sacred Concerts in a stunning evening at Washington National Cathedral.

Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra concert at Washington National Cathedral.

Under the baton of David Baker, in 2008, the orchestra performed before the Sphinx and Great Pyramids of Giza, near Cairo, Egypt. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.

It was my privilege to introduce the band at this indelible concert. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.

Trumpeter Clark Terry performs as guest artist with the Orchestra.
Smithsonian photo

Bassist James B. King, Jr., drummer and executive producer Ken Kimery, and trumpeter Tom Williams in concert.
Smithsonian photo

The noted saxophonist and educator Charlie Young became Musical Director in 2013.
Smithsonian photo by Hugh Talman