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Auctioning Jazz Memorabilia

February is Black History Month in the United States, a chance to honor the lives and achievements of Africans-Americans. Near the top of the list of those achievements is music...which is an incredibly important part of black history. Although jazz music is loved and performed by people of every national background, in America, the groundbreaker, leader and innovator in every step forward of Jazz has been made by Black Americans. Today, VOA program Point of View looks at some of that history.

"Jazz provides an important part of the sound track to American history in the 20th and now in the 21st century. I think it's very important in the history of this country and to the history of African -Americans. Most of the great jazz innovators have been black, …from King Oliver to Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie, J.J.Johnson and Herby Hancock and so many others. It's a vital part of American and African-American history."

John Edward Hasse is the curator of America Music at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. "A country, which has produced many kinds of music, jazz stands at the top of the list. It has gone all around the world to every corner of the planet. It has stood and still stands for freedom," he says. "Freedom from oppression, freedom from racism, freedom from totalitarian government. It also stands for individuality, self-expression, and freedom of expression. Jazz stands for creativity, creative collaboration, self-discipline, and listening closely and learning from one another .It is a powerful, powerful music."

From Ragtime and Blues to Big Band and Bebop, jazz recordings are integral parts of the Black American heritage. But also important are manuscripts and other memorabilia left by those who created the music. This month, the most significant auction in the history of jazz will be held at Guernsey's Auction House in New York.

Arlan Ettinger is the owner of Guernsey's Auction House. "As long ago as a decade, we had given thought to producing an event of a type that has never been held. An auctioning focusing on the legendary figures from the world of Jazz. This is an auction that indeed focuses in the roughly 20 or so greatest names of Jazz," he says. "Charles Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Jerry Mulligan, Benny Goodman, Thelonious Monk, and the list goes on. Indeed one of the lots in the auction are Voice of America original recorded tapes from the archives of Louis Armstrong where he was interviewed many many years ago. So I think there is a nice full circle going here."

Throughout the history of jazz, memorabilia from the musicians has 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. But, when jazz artifacts are auctioned off rather than preserved for the public, are there trade-offs?

Again John Edward Hasse. "One of the things about any auction is that the person who owns the items to be auctioned has no control over where they go. If on the other hand the person decides to deposit this things at a museum, or archives or library, they know exactly where it is going to go. Some of the proceeds will go to family foundations that are named for musicians. Keeping a collection together is a cardinal principal of archives because it maintains the integrity of the body of materials," he says. "The ones that go into private hands are not going to be available to the public. They probably are going to disappear from public view and public availability. Scholars may not know where they are for generations. The loss of knowledge of such historically significant documents could be dramatic."

However, Arlan Ettinger has a different point of view. "To be told about how Coltrane and Thelonious Monk and Philly Joe Jones and others gathered around that piano in there teen years to compose music, (…. I'm sure none of them knew they would be the greats of the 20th century…). To follow Coltrane's career …(I'm only isolating him as an example.) through many written pages of his music into his acknowledged masterpiece A Love Supreme and to have the original handwritten note and music for that remarkable body of work… we have it in this auction. It is a thrill and a half for us. We shall share it with everybody."

Note: Point of View is a weekly VOA radio segement that features leaders and experts debating different sides of an issue or topic. Click on the audio link above to listen to the full program.