The fourth-floor space on East 126th Street does not look anything like a museum. Flourescent-lighted and largely bare, the room appears to be an office but for a weathered grand piano that sits in the middle of the floor and a few faded photographs that adorn the walls.
But the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, one of the city’s lesser-known cultural lights, has never really been about its artifacts.
It has always been about the music: the improvisational genius of Charlie Parker, the percussive piano of Thelonious Monk, the elegant stylings of Duke Ellington.
The music draws some 7,500 people to the building each year for free programming like Jazz for Curious Listeners, which explores the history of jazz or Harlem Speaks, an interview series with musicians, artists, writers and community leaders.
And these days visitors also come for Jonathan Batiste, a gangly pianist from New Orleans who at 25 has become one of the museum’s biggest draws. He was recently named its associate artistic director and is part of a team charged with transforming the institution from a side street diversion into a Main Street attraction.
In about three years the team, which includes Loren Schoenberg, the museum’s artistic director, and Christian McBride, a bassist, is scheduled to open a new 10,000-square-foot home for the museum in the former Mart 125 across from the Apollo Theater on 125th Street.
The building will be shared by retail stores and by ImageNation Soul Cinema, which runs an independent film festival. The New York City Economic Development Corporation, which selected the museum for the site two years ago, is working with the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone to secure a development partner for the remaining space in the building. The city has contributed $10.5 million toward the $19 million project, bringing the total raised so far to $13.5 million. Of 47,000 square feet in the building, 17,000 will be devoted to cultural space.
“Hopefully it will make the programming they provide much more accessible to people,” Kate D. Levin, the New York City cultural affairs commissioner, said. “It will also telegraph the importance of this art form and the many ways it has impacted our culture.”
Though young and small (it was founded in 1997, has a full-time staff of just seven and an annual operating budget of $1.3 million) the museum has several advantages. It is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, which means it can borrow from the Smithsonian’s collection of musical artifacts (for an annual fee of $2,500). It had a prominent founder: Leonard Garment, a former jazz musician who served as counsel to President Richard M. Nixon. It possesses some landmark recordings, like the prestigious Savory Collection of discs transcribed from Depression-era radio broadcasts, featuring some of the biggest names in jazz.
And its board members include the horn player Wynton Marsalis and the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
Still, hurdles remain. Fund-raising remains tough for arts institutions. And jazz has powerful pop culture forces to overcome. Many people consider it the music of a bygone era; jazz doesn’t get much airtime on the radio and is barely a presence at the Grammys. That’s why Mr. Batiste said he carves out time for the museum in his crowded performing schedule — to educate people about the music he loves.
“People have grown up without hearing jazz music, except when they’re in an elevator,” he said in an interview. “A lot of the time you just have one shot. It’s not something they’re seeking out. When delivered to them, it has to be palatable.
“The music will speak for itself once you break those stereotypes. You can’t get what you can get out of jazz from any other kind of music. You have to open up to the music. The music doesn’t come to you, you have to come to it.”
Mr. Schoenberg, a jazz scholar, said Mr. Batiste’s commitment and outsize talent made him stand out as a student in Mr. Schoenberg’s jazz history class at the Juilliard School several years ago. “He didn’t, just like a robot, play it back,” Mr. Schoenberg said. “He interpreted it.”
Having started working with the museum in 2008, Mr. Batiste helped create the program Jazz Is: Now! in which his Stay Human Band plays and he deconstructs jazz, walking people through the theory and history of the music, often with the help of guests, who have included the fiddle player Mark O’Connor and the bassist Ben Williams. “The next thing we knew, we had over 100 people a night,” Mr. Schoenberg said.
Mr. Batiste grew up in New Orleans in a family of musicians, though he can’t even remember precisely how he’s related to some of them, like Alvin Batiste, the jazz clarinetist, and Milton Batiste, of brass band fame. “You kind of just soak it up,” he said. “You see what each person has to offer.”
In the same way, he wants to educate people about the music at the museum, to show them that it isn’t just about glorifying the greats of the past but can also involve reinventing sounds for today, making jazz relevant.
So in his classes he invites audience members to come up with arrangements on the spot or to play an instrument or to write one word on a piece of paper that describes a performance “to get an understanding of how music can represent different things to different people,” he said. One time a 6-year-old with no musical experience came up with his own take on Monk’s “Green Chimneys.”
Mr. Marsalis said of Mr. Batiste, “I love his philosophical direction, his playing, his creativity and his love for kids.” The institution wants to counter the notion that jazz is somehow intimidating, inaccessible. In the new museum live music will be playing all the time, its officials say, as if to say just listening is all that really matters.
“There’s a snobbish mentality in the jazz scene where people think if they don’t know a pile of history or who played on what record they can’t have an opinion about the music,” Mr. Batiste said.
“It’s about cracking the code,” he added. “And we’re going to crack it.”