If you’re looking for a place to go on a day off from work, consider a visit to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Inaugurated six years ago under the affiliations program of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum currently is celebrating this year’s opening of its Visitors Center and a loan of personal effects of the late jazz pianist Art Tatum.
“Our new Visitors Center is a place for people to come to hang out while enjoying a wide selection of jazz recordings, DVDs and books,” says Loren Schoenberg, the museum’s executive director.
Open to the public Monday to Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., the center was added despite the museum’s planned move into the historic Victoria Theater a few blocks away on 125th Street. “It’s not just for jazz fans, but for anyone with a healthy curiosity about what makes jazz tick. The redevelopment of the Victoria Theater is in the works, but we wanted to have a place to host folks while the plans for that develop,” Schoenberg says.
Once the most elegant movie theater and vaudeville house in Harlem, located just a few doors from the legendary Apollo Theater, the Victoria has long languished on 125th Street. Its developers now plan to transform it into a cultural center, with two live theaters for Harlem-based performing arts companies, a 10,150-square-foot space for the Jazz Museum in Harlem, a 90-room hotel, 91 condominium apartments, office space for the Apollo Theater and an underground parking garage. The developers, Danforth Development Partners L.L.C., a New York City firm, pledged to preserve and restore the Victoria’s Ionic columns, terra- cotta rosettes and other historic elements.
Despite its name, the museum is too small to exhibit artifacts. However, it maintains an exciting calendar of events year-round that includes “Harlem Speaks,” a free biweekly series honoring the jazz beacons of Harlem and beyond; “Jazz for Curious Readers,” a free course discussing authors on jazz and their works; “Jazz for Curious Listeners,” free jazz course led by Schoenberg and guest instructors; and the concert series “Harlem in the Himalayas,” a collaboration between the museum and the Rubin Museum of Art.
With a view toward building the next generation of jazz aficionados, the museum partnered with The Children’s Aid Society to create “Harmony in Harlem for Young Musicians,” a youth jazz band for students in grades 7 to 12 at schools in New York City’s five boroughs. In June, the family of Art Tatum donated to the museum Tatum’s prized grand piano along with a loan of personal effects, including touring trunks filled with his clothes and a piano bench containing personal papers and sheet music.