Curator of American Music to Begin Herb Alpert Residency

Lesley O'Connell
March 28, 2017

John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution, is the 2017 Professional Education Division Herb Alpert Scholar-in-Residence (April 3-6, 2017). Hasse will offer presentations and clinics, visit classes, and narrate a concert celebrating the 100th anniversaries of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie. Featured events include:

In advance of his visit, Hasse took the time to talk about his musical background, his roles as an educator and curator, and plans for his Berklee residency. The following is an edited and condensed version of that interview. 

You've also been called America's unofficial jazz ambassador-at-large. How did you come to earn that title and how do you approach that responsibility? 

I would never claim that title! What is true is that the U.S. State Department has sent me to 15 countries in Africa, Europe, and South America to lecture about American music, and sometimes to perform. In other countries, I have found, the average person relishes cultural diplomacy more than any other kind. I love doing my tiny part to bridge cultural differences, enhance understanding, and inform people about the glories of American music. These face-to-face experiences, some of which have sparked enduring friendships, have been among the most thrilling of my professional career.

To what or to whom do you owe your love for music? Can you talk about your own musical journey? 

My parents both played a mean . . . radio! As youngsters, they had studied violin and bass, and encouraged all six of their children to study piano. We didn’t have a lot of money, but there was always enough for piano lessons. During high school, I was studying classical piano and playing in both a jazz trio and a rock/blues band. During college, I had the good fortune to study in New York City with two top-tier jazz pianists, Jaki Byard and Sir Roland Hanna. In graduate school at Indiana University, while pursuing a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, I took just about every jazz course possible from David Baker. 

It was during grad school that I undertook field work documenting black gospel music as well as the history of ragtime, and spent many hours working at Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music, a noted repository of recorded sound. I got interested in the rich history of music around me, and ended up publishing two record anthologies, Indiana Ragtime and The Classic Hoagy Carmichael.

In 1984, a new curatorship opened up at the Smithsonian—focusing on 20th century American vernacular music, and I ended up being hired. It’s been the dream job of a lifetime, rewarding in countless ways. To collect, preserve, exhibit, research, write, publish, lecture about, and advocate for musics that I am passionate about. Sometimes I pinch myself that I’ve been able to do this for 32 years. I’m deeply grateful.

How do you approach your role as an educator?

My second biggest influence is my parents, both of whom were college educators and treasured learning. My biggest influence is David Baker, my Indiana University professor, then mentor and friend. His passion for his subject was contagious, his energy boundless, his generosity of spirit legendary. While David wore many hats—composer, conductor, transcriptionist, author, and advocate—he placed ultimate value on teaching. The approach I brought to my college textbook Discover Jazz incorporated close listening, cultural context, and an inclusive scope—the first such textbook with a chapters on Latin jazz and on jazz worldwide.

I get as least as much kick out of teaching, informally or not, adults outside a classroom setting as I do students in a classroom. It is all deeply rewarding. When you teach someone something, you never know where that influence will end—it could go beyond your student’s student’s student’s students, into the unforeseeable far future. 

Can you speak to the state of American music today. What are some of your recent observations? 

I perceive a series of positives and negatives. On the one hand, there has never been such a vast array of mostly American music easily available to the public—for example, 35 million different songs on iTunes. On the other hand, with the decline of radio, especially general-format stations, and the rise of single tracks instead of entire albums, it takes real effort to seek out new, different kinds of music, to open one’s ears to something one’s peers are not listening to. 

On the one hand, the public can access an enormous amount of music for free—YouTube, Spotify, and other streaming services. On the other, musicians are remunerated so little for these plays that they do almost nothing to sustain a career making music. It’s becoming economically harder for the typical American creator of music to succeed.

Twentieth-century America saw golden eras in concert music, musical theater, popular song, country music, rock and roll, soul music—when innovators pushed the boundaries and created exciting new music that has stood the test of time. Today, on the one hand, there are countless American composers, songwriters, and performers creating new work. On the other, I wonder how many of these pieces will be around in a hundred years? 

On the one hand, American scientists are finding more and more ways that music—especially making music—benefits both the developing and the mature brain. Yet as school boards have cut back on general music classes, fewer Americans are getting formal music training. 

And on the one hand, classical music and jazz are facing increasing challenges as their audiences age. On the other, there is tremendous opportunity for creative minds to develop strategies to better expose young people to these musics and to reverse the shrinkage of these audiences. 

At a place like Berklee, which draws from so many styles and genres of music, what are some of the lessons you hope to impart to students during your residency?

Since 2000, I have been giving a presentation on “Leadership Lessons from the Jazz Masters,” based on the inspiration from the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis. To summarize the leadership and life lessons I have learned from these masters, and especially from my mentor David Baker:

  • Keep music central to your life
  • Never stop practicing
  • Listen closely not only to the music, but to the people around you
  • Focus on the big picture
  • Be inclusive and generous-spirited
  • Proclaim your passion
  • Devotedly pass your knowledge on to the next generations
  • Readily offer encouragement
  • Never stop being creative, never retire
  • Give thanks for each and every day

You’ve been serving as the Smithsonian’s curator of American music for more than 30 years. What have been the most rewarding aspects of your job?

To work as a public servant on behalf of our country’s musical heritage is, for me, a dream job and the privilege of a lifetime. I am grateful beyond words.  Because the Smithsonian amounts to the world’s largest classroom, and because we build collections for the longest of hauls—we say “We’re in the forever business”—my biggest thrill is helping to make a difference in the way our country preserves, understands, and values the development of its music. 

What accomplishments have been most rewarding?

Leading the Smithsonian’s efforts to acquire the vast Duke Ellington Collection—including 100,000 pages of unpublished music he and Billy Strayhorn composed for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Creating national Jazz Appreciation Month, now celebrated in all 50 states and more than 40 countries. And founding the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra—our resident big band—now in its 26th year of performances and tours.

You wrote the biography Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington and you led the Smithsonian’s efforts to acquire Ellington’s enormous archive. Can you talk about your relationship to Ellington’s music and why it has inspired you to devote so much energy to him as a subject?

I’ve come to value Ellington as America’s greatest all-around musician—composer, bandleader-conductor, orchestrator-arranger, accompanist, and soloist. His music is a brilliant, kaleidoscopic representation of life in 20th-century America. With a 50-year career, his legacy—more than 1,500 compositions, 10,000 recordings, 10 million miles of travel to 65 countries—is enormous. Beyond the music he made, he inspires me with his tireless creativity, his quest for innovation, his encouragement of individuality, and his determination to bring out the best in each of his musicians.