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Musicology professor awarded National Endowment for the Humanities grant

Christi Jay Wells is conducting archival research on jazz at the Smithsonian Institution in DC

Christi Jay Wells, associate professor of musicology in Arizona State Univeristy's School of Music, Dance and Theatre and the 2021–23 Center for the Study of Race and Democracy Race, Arts and Democracy Fellow, was recently awarded a $6,000 research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipends program.

Christi Jay Wells

"Professor Wells' NEH research grant confirms the depth, breadth and promise of their scholarship and critical inquiry,” said Lois Brown, ASU Foundation Professor of English and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. “As one of the (the center's) Race, Arts and Democracy Fellows, Professor Wells has inspired audiences to consider the untold stories of the arts, and of music in particular. Their recent book and ongoing work confirm the importance of thinking intentionally about how society and institutions shape and calibrate our understanding of the public and private nature of music, especially jazz."

Wells is conducting two months of archival research at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., as the foundation for a book-length institutional history of the Smithsonian’s jazz patronage and programming within the broader context of the Washington, D.C., jazz scene.

“Musicologists are increasingly discussing the private and public institutions that have shaped the United States’ arts patronage structure since the 1960s, yet jazz has not been the central point of focus,” Wells said. “My goal is to understand the Smithsonian’s role in jazz patronage as an institution with not only a national and international reach, but also an important place in the local arts economy and cultural ecosystem of Washington, D.C., and its environs.”

Wells said the Smithsonian has invested substantial attention and resources in the promotion of jazz music and in the documentation and preservation of that music’s history for more than half a century.

They said jazz has been a strong focus at the Smithsonian across agencies and museums, including Smithsonian Folkways, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Portrait Gallery and the Anacostia Community Museum. In 1973, the Smithsonian released “The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz,” which was the first major anthology of jazz recordings. As the only compilation of its kind at the time, Wells explained, it became the de facto companion anthology for a whole generation of jazz history textbooks, and defined and shaped jazz history curricula.

In addition, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History houses the largest collection of archival materials of Duke Ellington, documenting his life and career. The museum also maintains and operates a major jazz repertory orchestra, and founded Jazz Appreciation Month, which is now celebrated internationally.

The Smithsonian Institution Archives houses material of crucial importance to Wells’ project. They will spend most of their time conducting research at the archives and the National Museum of American History Behring Center. The Smithsonian’s archives have only recently reopened from COVID-19-related closures, though Wells’ digital research began in summer 2020 working with archival materials provided to them by the Smithsonian, including almost 300 hours of radio broadcasts and orchestra rehearsals.

By focusing on the Smithsonian and its relationship with jazz music, Wells said they hope their work contributes to important conversations in the interdisciplinary field of jazz studies, with implications in music history, public policy and urban studies.

Their study covers two areas of jazz's relationship with institutions: jazz, the federal government and foreign policy; and jazz's relationship with higher education institutions.

“This book’s emphasis on institutional jazz patronage expands themes from my first book, ‘Between Beats: The Jazz Tradition and Black Vernacular Dance’ (2021),” Wells said. “‘Between Beats’ is about the relationship between jazz music and jazz dance, their intertwined histories and how narratives are formed and maintained in jazz. This second book will offer a major case study from an institutional history and cultural policy perspective that explores how these narratives both shape and are shaped by institutional structures.”

Their second book is currently conceived as a chronological study with one chapter devoted to each particularly important decade in the Smithsonian’s history, with jazz music from the 1960s through the 2010s.

Wells said their goal is to author a book about how the Smithsonian, as a large-scale institution with national and international reach, functions as part of a local arts economy and a steward of art forms from minoritized and marginalized cultures, specifically Black American culture. They hope their research will offer both positive models and cautionary tales for other large institutions, including ASU.

“I think that our School of Music, Dance and Theatre and Arizona State University as a whole are increasingly doing more to be inclusive of different kinds of music, especially forms of music from cultures that have been left out of the curriculum or out of the institution’s spaces in the past,” Wells said. “There is a duty to make sure that we are not acting as colonizers and that we are engaging with local communities in just, equitable and responsible ways.”

lamacdon@asu.edu