In partnership with the Voice of America, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History is celebrating the first annual Jazz Appreciation Month during April with exhibits, live concerts and film presentations. The museum houses artifacts manuscripts and archives from the greatest jazz musicians in the world, and is dedicated to presenting jazz as a living American art form.
The Smithsonian's Jazz Appreciation Month coincides with the April birthdays of legendary performers such as Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Branford Marsalis has joined with the Museum of American History to help promote the event, and assist with educational outreach.
Branford hopes the program will inspire intellectual curiosity among younger children, as well as an appreciation for the rich history of jazz for all ages. He said, "When you have children that grow up in a mindset where they do everything their parents have ever done, that the school does not provide them with the intellectual challenge that makes them try to see the world differently, then you grow up with another generation of myopic and rigid-thinking people who really don't have any tolerance for anything outside of the little box that they live in. And that is the whole point of introducing a program like this and making sure that it becomes a part of the educational component, to introduce them to something that is outside of their sphere of influence."
Branford Marsalis has helped bring jazz to the masses, as the band leader for the Tonight Show late-night television-talk program, and for his work in the studio and on stage with British rock star, Sting.
Branford admits that, as a jazz musician, playing with Sting was a mixed blessing. "There are a couple of people who actually started becoming big jazz fans from hearing me play with Sting, and I think that's a really great thing. But," he said, "I vividly remember the year after I played with Sting's band, I had much larger crowds at my concerts and people would sometimes stand in a line for 25 minutes just to walk up and tell me, 'Hey Man, loved you with Sting.' They didn't really have any innate curiosity about what we were trying to do. That's the reality of doing something like that. But I didn't regret doing it, because I didn't grow up listening to jazz, I grew up listening to pop music. Sting is a really great musician and he's a really creative songwriter, so it was a pleasure to be in that moment."
Branford Marsalis has a mission to spread the love of jazz beyond the borders of the U.S., much like a certain renowned VOA broadcaster. "Hopefully," he said, "we can have the educational component branch out and we can actually bring the music to the international community as well, much in the way that Willis Conover did for all those years - all those great years, early-World War II, and post-World War II and during the Cold War when Willis was the voice of freedom for a bunch of people. Long may his ideals reign."
Organizers of the Smithsonian's Jazz Appreciation Month hope that similar programs will be initiated around the country by schools, local museums, libraries, musicians, concert halls and radio stations. Here in the Nation's Capitol, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra will be presenting a series of concerts during April, focusing on the greatest composers and musicians from every era of jazz.