Hey kids! Today, you get two stories for the price of one. And since the price is zero dollars, they’re priceless! Please continue….
I’m not a Music Museum Curator, but I’ve worked with Music Museum Curators. — At Seattle, Washington’s Experience Music Project. In the 2000’s, I was employed as a lowly Visitor’s Services Representative (VSR) — a guide, instructor, ticket-taker, coat check boy. And sometimes, I provided technical assistance to visitors who used our Compaq Digital Lab.
Our VSR mission was to help our guests have a great time – as simple as that. I led hundreds of tour groups comprised of students, and the first thing I learned was this: if they had a great time, they would learn. Sneaky!
I was where?? Oh! – I wasn’t a Curator, and I didn’t get paid like a Curator. But I remember the time I bailed one out. And I tried to bail-out another one. He wouldn’t let me. His ego got in the way. I mean, how could a 55 year old, veteran musician know more than a college-educated Music Museum Curator? After all, what does a musician know about music, or music history?
Well, I knew the difference between “Hamp” — vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, and the legendary “Satchmo” — trumpeter Louis Armstrong. But that story comes later. First this:
Dylan Goes Electric!
When you visit a museum, and you’re in an exhibit space, have you ever thought about which direction you should travel while viewing the exhibit? Sometimes, it matters….
The 1965 Newport Folk Festival was the site of something horrible! — If you were an extremely narrow-minded trad folk music fan. On July 25, the Newport crowd of music lovers was divided into two factions: those who wanted to stay in their “good old days” comfort zone, and those who were ready to hop aboard the electric train, to see how far folk music could go. For, Bob Dylan had picked his Newport ’65 show to premier his electric band. Yes! Dylan, who’d become a star by singing and playing his Martin acoustic, had changed! And he presented his electric sound to both applause and boos on that fateful day. Fateful in a sense; because folk music had already been amplified by other performers. But this was Dylan’s turn.
Looking back, “Dylan Goes Electric” was a watershed moment in music. To this day, when I perform folk-rock concerts all over Puget Sound, people are electrified when I do the folk-rock songs of Bob Dylan. And! Ironically enough, I am performing them acoustically. But going electric seemed to change the way he wrote the songs; not just the sound of the songs.
Near 2001, EMP presented a photography exhibit composed exclusively of photos of Bob Dylan. The point of the exhibition was to illustrate Dylan’s transformation into an electric music artist. The photos, by fantastic photographers whose names I was unable to nail down for this story, were arranged on the walls, so that, as you walked around the room, you first saw Dylan working as an acoustic performer, with his Martin guitar and his signature harmonica and holder, which he wore around his neck. But as you walked around the room, you arrived at the point where Dylan Goes Electric. Well-written text which accompanied the photos allowed you to read all about the Newport crowd’s mixed reaction to this big turn of events. It made for a very compelling exhibit. It wasn’t just a group of photos – it was a group of photos which told a very important story.
As an employee, I was among those afforded a preview of the exhibition. We heard the usual story from the Curator, about how difficult but rewarding it was to put the exhibit together. The ups and downs, highs and lows, struggles, snafus. – If you think a museum exhibit is something you just throw together, while having a ball doing so, you are mistaken. Every “i” must be dotted; every “t” must be crossed. — The Curator finished his presentation, and then he led us around the room, where we enjoyed seeing, via the beautiful photos, Dylan Going Electric. I found it very interesting and illuminating to see Dylan’s transformation laid out so expertly using the best photographs possible. I hoped for the chance to work in that particular gallery as soon as possible.
As it turned out, when the exhibit opened to the public, I was scheduled to work it. My job was simply to walk around, say “Hi”, answer questions, ensure that crowd size did not exceed the fire department’s limits. – An easy job. Basically, help keep the party flowing. I anticipated no problems. However, I soon noticed something very funny happening. I was always on the lookout for something funny happening at EMP. Because it always did. In this case, I noticed that a lot of people entering the gallery were taking a wrong turn! Therefore, they did not see the exhibit as the Curator intended it to be seen. This bothered me a lot.
So, the very next time I saw the Curator, I approached him and said, “We need a little sign, either above the door, or in the room. It can have a few words on it, or it can just be an arrow. But we need to indicate to the visitors, that they need to take a left as soon as they enter the room”. The curator said something like, “No way, puny museum guide. We’re not going to clutter up the exhibit, water-down the exhibit, or detract from the appeal of the exhibit, and put up some kind-a sign, just because you think we should.” So I said, “OK. You’re the Curator. It’s fine with me if you want to have people watch DYLAN GO ACOUSTIC”. — And that’s what they did.
I Know Thelonious Monk When I See Him!
On a spring day in 2004, a day in May, actually, I was assigned to the Compaq Digital Lab assistant position. Folks would come in and view our digital collection on computers. If anyone needed help, they would find me sitting on a tall stool behind a little podium, just waiting to be of service. I had, in fact, worked in the lab on the preceding day. Near the end of that day, when there were no visitors present, a Curator was working in the lab, putting labels underneath fantastic photos of 25 classic jazz musicians. The architects of jazz were being featured in the architectural wonder that was EMP. Attendance in the Compaq Digital Lab had been rather low. Not a lot of people wanted to look at our artifacts on computer screens, as opposed to seeing them in reality, in our galleries. (Although I did host Weird Al Yankovich in the lab one day, and he had a bang-up time! As did I.) Anyhoo: it was decided to mount a photography exhibit in the lab, as the walls were just crying out for something like that. So, 25 of the best portraits to be found were soon hung on the walls. I watched that happen; then I watched as Ms. D, one of our EMP Curators, labeled the photos, until it was time for me to end my shift and go home. The labels were the finishing touch on the exhibit, which would open the next day.
The following morning, when I was given my Digital Lab assignment, the first thing I did upon entering the lab, after powering up two dozen computers, and making sure all the wires were in place, so no one would trip over them, was to critique the jazz photography exhibit. You see, Ms. D had mentioned to me that the exhibit was not exactly the easiest one she had ever Curated. I wasn’t sure what she meant. But being the low-paid, high-skilled employee that I was, I thought I would give the exhibit a good going-over.
And sure enough, I soon noticed a major problem. Some of the photographs were mislabeled. That is to say, the names which Ms. D the Curator had placed underneath them were wrong!
If I remember correctly, she got all of the names of the female performers right, because even a casual fan or neophyte can tell Peggy Lee from Ella Fitzgerald, without too much trouble. But I found that six of the eighteen male performers’ labels were switched up.
I grabbed a sheet of paper and wrote down the correct names, in the correct order, and waited to give my list to someone, if I was able to, before we opened to the public in about an hour. I wasn’t about to see the museum embarrassed over something like this. But, I couldn’t just walk up to the photos and start moving the labels around. Only a Curator could do that.
Well, thankfully, Ms. D walked in, all sparkly and up-tempo. “Hi, Randy! How do you like the finished project?” I said, “Houston, we have a problem”, and handed her my list. I said, “I’m afraid six of the photos need to have their labels changed. She gave me one of those confused looks. I pointed toward the south wall, where Thelonious Monk’s glorious photo was mounted, and said, “That is not Lester Young. It’s Thelonious Monk”. I pointed to Lester’s portrait and said, “That is not Dizzy Gillespie, it’s Lester Young”. And so forth. Ms. D, the nicest of all EMP curators, said, “Oh, thank you Randy! You saved my job! The New Boss is doing a walk-through in a half hour with Bob and Jim!” Well, the New Boss was a man who, it was rumored, was hired to “help EMP move forward”. That type of euphemism always means: “cut staff”. Bob was second-in-command; Jim was Head Curator. Ms. D quickly corrected her labeling errors, stood back and admired her work, gave a heavy sigh, patted me on the back, and left.
Shortly thereafter, New Boss, trailed by Bob and Jim, came into the Digital Lab, where I was seated behind my little podium, looking professional. Bob and Jim immediately wished me a good morning. New Boss never looked at me, made no eye contact, and did not address me. The three examined the new exhibit, seemed to admire it (they made no changes; they made no derogatory comments), and they soon left. Bob and Jim, who knew me and my work, said goodbye; New Boss just exited.
Soon, guests began pouring into the room, having noticed the colorful banners announcing the new “EMP Jazz Masters Photography Exhibit!” Everyone enjoyed the photos; not one person approached me to say, “Hey, that’s not Benny Goodman!” Because it was Benny Goodman. It was the Pres (Lester Young). It was Thelonius Monk.
Two days later I received my reward for saving Ms. D’s behind, not to mention, EMP’s reputation. My manager informed me that I was “affected by the latest layoff”. She gave me a choice of going right home, or finishing the three hours I had left on my shift. I said, “I would love to go upstairs and finish my shift”. She said, “OK, would you mind stamping hands?” I said that would be fine. I went to the beautiful Sky Church, which was named to pay tribute to Jimi Hendrix. He once performed as Jimmy James. In the Velvet Illusions, I was Jimmie James. So this Jimmie James went and stamped hands, as people entered the museum for the last three hours of the day. I gave everyone an extra warm welcome. I said, “Just look for anyone wearing a shirt like mine; and if you need anything, they are there for you.” They probably never knew that half the people saying “Hi” to them were working their last shift. We VSR’s weren’t that way.
I was the beneficiary of one of God’s little graces during those last three hours. Months earlier, I had given a CD to my beloved coworker, Neal Kosaly-Meyer. He was involved in a project he had conceived, of putting new sounds onto the Sky Church sound system, so visitors would always have fresh, excellent music, of all genres, to accompany their Sky Church visit. I had given him a Boukman Experyans CD. The Haitian group played some of the best music around. But I had never heard any of my CD played over the automated sound system. Not one cut. — On my last day, on my last shift, during my last hour, I suddenly heard the sounds of Boukman Experyans flooding Sky Church with its glorious tones. — I’m crying a little as I write this; and that was eleven years ago. For all its flaws, I loved that place. – Neal is still there! Tell him old Randy says “Hi”. And thank him.
Weird Al was very shy when he visited Compaq Digital Lab – until I said, by the way, you’re my hero”. It looked like fireworks went off in his eyes! He pepped-up immediately, and we had a great visit, for a good half-hour.
I would be so remiss not to throw in some of Dylan Goes Electric here!
Here I am, before I regrew my hippie hair after about 20 years, doing The Times They Are A-Changin’ for the Occupy movement kids in Seattle:
I hope you like all of this extra stuff. Trust me: I curated it for your enjoyment!