In praising a jazz performance, musicians often use the phrase "telling a story," or playing a solo that has a narrative or vocal quality. The Jazz Oral History Project Collection of the Institute of Jazz Studies is where 120 leading jazz artists literally "told their stories," not in music but in words. Over the past two decades, this collection has been used by countless media productions both in the US and abroad—from Ken Burns's Jazz to National Public Radio's Jazz Profiles, Public Radio International's Riverwalk Jazz, BBC radio and television, and Japanese television. It is the most comprehensive and widely consulted body of jazz oral histories extant.
The Jazz Oral History Project (JOHP) was initiated in 1972 by the Jazz Advisory Panel of the Music Program of the National Endowment for the Arts. Musicians 60 years and older (as well as several younger artists in poor health) were interviewed in depth about their lives and careers. The taped interviews range in length from five to thirty-five hours and are accompanied by typed transcripts. The Institute of Jazz Studies assumed administration and archiving of the JOHP in 1979 and conducted further interviews, as well as editing transcripts of prior interviews.
Participants included not only such luminaries as Roy Eldridge, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, and Charles Mingus, but also many significant if lesser-known figures, whose stories exist only here. Beyond their obvious value in tracing the history of jazz, the interviews offer insights into many other aspects of 20th-century American life, race relations and the struggle for civil rights, the vagaries of the music business, the Great Depression, Prohibition and other aspects of social history, as well as life "on the road."
Some subjects were quite advanced in age at the time of their interviews and represent a direct link to the music's often obscure origins. Of special interest are such pioneers as Arthur Briggs, who went to Europe with Will Marion Cook in l9l9 and remained active there for seven decades; Sam Wooding, whose band made history in Europe from l924 to l934; Reb Spikes (90 when interviewed), a close associate of Jelly Roll Morton and among the first to bring jazz to California in the first decade of the 20th century; and veteran New Orleans bassist Ed Garland, also a nonagenarian when interviewed.
By the late 1990s, the condition of the original reel-to-reel and cassette tapes and even of some of the service copies had deteriorated to the point where it was no longer possible to offer access to large parts of the collection. With NEH funding, a project to digitize all the interviews for both preservation and access was completed in 2006.
Of the 120 seminal pre-Swing and Swing Era artists interviewed between 1972 and 1983, only two survive as of 2007. Through the collection, however, they all continue to tell their stories.
Collection Profile: Edward Berger
Overview: Ronald L. Becker
Illustrations: Tad Hershorn/Institute of Jazz Studies