Swing States

How to make a new jazz canon in six easy steps

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Sidney Bechet Playing Clarinet In Studio

If you took a jazz-history course before 2000 or so, you almost certainly listened to The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Long out of print, the Collection has finally been supplanted. Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology lands March 29 with an ineffably swinging thump. Assembled over seven years, it's a six-disc monolith with a 200-page book of liner notes — the best single introduction to America's first great musical form.

The new anthology sports a revised title, a new philosophy and a track list that shares only about a fifth of its contents with its predecessor. The old set (initially compiled by Martin Williams in 1973) focused heavily on a few big names: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk. For the new one, producer Richard James Burgess and his advisory committee tried to squeeze in as many of the major figures and movements of jazz's first 85 years as they could. Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology includes Latin jazz and fusion, Sun Ra and Mary Lou Williams, Vietnamese and South African musicians. "We had to be careful," Burgess says of the process of picking these 111 tracks. "You're putting the spotlight on one person and not on somebody else." Here's how they did it.

The Opener
Like the original Smithsonian jazz set, the new version opens with Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag." This time, though, it's not the 1916 piano roll of Joplin performing it but a 1975 recording of Dick Hyman playing it straight from the sheet music. The new box also includes two other takes on "Maple Leaf Rag": Sidney Bechet's frantic 1932 version and avant-gardists Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams' batting it around in 1976.

The No-Brainers
There were a few tracks everyone agreed on, like a pair of stunning Armstrong performances, "West End Blues" and "Weather Bird." Other shoo-ins, according to Burgess: the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's "Livery Stable Blues" (the first jazz recording), Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy" and Meade "Lux" Lewis' "Honky Tonk Train Blues."

The Short Takes
Burgess and the other compilers decided that, unlike the earlier Smithsonian box, the new set wouldn't include excerpts from longer pieces unless they were excerpted for an original release. So John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" and Miles Davis' "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," both close to 14 min. in their album incarnations, appear in the sub-3-min. versions initially released as singles.

The Compromises
A lot of horse trading went into representing as many major musicians as possible. Burgess cites one example: "We had Benny Goodman's 'Avalon' on there, but then we decided we needed to put 'Honeysuckle Rose' on because that had [electric guitarist] Charlie Christian on it. So it looked like we were going to lose [drummer] Gene Krupa. I'm a drummer, and I was horribly aggrieved by that! At the last minute, we wound up with about 3½ min. to spare on one of the CDs, and we found 'Let Me Off Uptown,' by Gene Krupa and His Orchestra. And while it may not have Krupa playing a solo, it's a really important track. It's got this repartee between [singer] Anita O'Day and [trumpeter] Roy Eldridge, which at the time would've seemed pretty edgy, you know, between a white woman and an African-American musician."

The Contemporary
Martin Williams' original 1973 Collection didn't include anything recorded after 1966; his 1987 revision featured only one later piece. Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology expands its scope to '70s artists, including Mahavishnu Orchestra, Pat Metheny and Irakere, as well as to more recent recordings by Wynton Marsalis, Masada and Medeski Martin & Wood. "We really did want to convey the idea that jazz is not a historical artifact. It's a living tradition," Burgess says.

The Wider World
Especially on its sixth disc, Jazz features a handful of international artists. The final track in the set is Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko's "Suspended Night Variation VIII," recorded in 2003. "He learned jazz from listening to Voice of America broadcasts and from cassettes filtered through the Iron Curtain," Burgess says. "It's a metaphor for how jazz as a whole has worked, and I think it speaks for what's going on in the world right now, with people rising up and saying, 'We want to rule our own lives.' I think jazz is a lot like that."

This article originally appeared in the April 4, 2011 issue of TIME.