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Chronicles: Swingin’ In the Stacks

In the 1960s, Eleanor Ellis had recently graduated from Newcomb College when she went to work for Richard Allen at Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive at the university’s library. “A lot of times people take the present for granted, they only think the past is important,” says Ellis. “But Dick Allen knew it wasn’t going to go on forever.”

Housed today in Joseph Merrick Jones Hall, Tulane University’s original library, the Hogan Jazz Archive began in 1958 when its namesake, William Ransom Hogan, was a professor in Tulane’s history department. He was named administrator of a grant from the Ford Foundation setting up the project.

Richard “Dick” Allen was a Tulane graduate student, and he and the new archive’s director, William Russell, a jazz scholar and violinist who had come to New Orleans from Chicago, began doing oral histories, scheduling and recording interviews with jazz musicians, some of whom had been playing the music for half a century or longer.

Today there are over 2,000 reels of tape of those interviews, not only with the musicians but also with their families and with jazz fans. In addition there are sound recordings, films, photographs, books, souvenirs, sheet music, band arrangements, records of the musicians union (American Federation of Musicians Local 174-496), personal papers and most everything else you could imagine related to New Orleans music. One noted user of Jazz Archive material was documentary maker Ken Burns.

As Ellis could attest, in the 1960s the archive was also taking note of what was happening on the streets, in clubs and in dance halls. Part of the work in those early days was transcribing the interviews, keeping notes on the local music scene and cataloguing the growing collection of recordings and memorabilia. Trombonist Paul Crawford and Betty Rankin, wife of Professor Hugh Rankin, also worked there in those days. But the most fun was outside the library building.

“Dick Allen would send me out. I would go to the funeral or parade, and I would take notes: the name of the band, the musicians, their instruments, the occasion and what songs and any other things that stood out. That was really a great part of the job!” Ellis remembers.

Ellis, originally from Amite, is a working musician, a blues guitarist and singer in the Washington, D.C., area. (You can learn more by visiting her website, EleanorEllis.com.)

Music was then, and is now, of paramount importance in the archive. “In that one small room were all of these amazing tapes, and records,” says Ellis. “I remember if you wanted to hear a record you took it out and put it on a turntable and played it. I remember listening to Dr. John’s (Mac Rebbenack’s) first LP.”

Then, and now, the musicians themselves mattered most. “Probably the best thing I took away from that job was knowing the musicians,” Ellis says. “It was an opportunity to be around real people who played real music.”

Bruce Raeburn, current director of the archives (and head of Special Collections for Tulane’s Howard-Tilton Memorial Library) notes that the work of the archive has changed somewhat since the early years. Although they still welcome donations (including recorded interviews) and keep up with the current music scene, “We split our time between processing materials and assisting the researchers who come to the archive,” Raeburn says.

Work includes making the archive’s material readily available on the Internet (jazz.tulane.edu). Transcriptions of those interviews are being scanned and digitized so that scholars will be able to search for terms and topics in the future.

Scholars regularly use the archive. Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, by Thomas David Brothers of Duke University, used extensive material. Students from Tulane and other area universities make use of the archive – and some work as interns learning archival methodology. Jazz tourists come from all over the world and journalists need information. “A big chunk of my day goes to e-mail reference requests,” Raeburn says.

Felipe Smith, a member of Tulane University’s English faculty, also uses the archive for research into New Orleans’s performance culture among blacks. He appreciates listening to the oral histories. “It comes across better than just having information on a page,” Smith says. “If you can actually hear the voices, you get the local flavor of the language.”

Raeburn notes that musicians are regular archive visitors. “They could be looking for repertoire – a hard-to-find song. We might have the sheet music or a recording.” If a nephew takes over his uncle’s band, he might want old photographs or arrangements from the past. A Japanese trombone player wanted help interpreting lyrics on a Bunk Johnson recording. “The singer was probably Creole, with French as his first language. We actually made some progress,” Raeburn says.

Raeburn is a musician, but also a jazz scholar and author of New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History. He described the theme of his book as “How everybody but the New Orleans jazz musicians themselves defined what New Orleans jazz was.”

“We have not been particularly effective in branding our music,” Raeburn says. “We can improve, and take control of how people see our culture.” At the Hogan Jazz Archive, Raeburn and his staff and patrons are taking a big step in the right direction.

Chronicles: Swingin’ In the Stacks

Digging Jazz
“Bruce Raeburn and his staff were constantly the source of good information,” says Lolis Eric Elie, who “wrote a lot about jazz” as a Times-Picayune columnist. Nowadays he make use of the Hogan Jazz Archive in his scriptwriting for the hit television series “Treme,” above. “On the show we’re dealing with some of the issues of jazz preservation, and we have called them for that. Their oral histories in particular are excellent. There is information you get there not readily available elsewhere,” he points out. Tune in for the new “Treme” season this fall to see the results.

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