If you loved the music and cool jazz scene in Disney and Pixar's movie Soul, you'll want to make a beeline to The National Jazz Museum in Harlem, which has been transformed into the film's Half Note jazz club.
Showcasing incredible artifacts from major players in Harlem's jazz scene, including Duke Ellington’s white grand piano, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis' tenor saxophone, a player piano and a working 78rpm Victrola, "The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure" highlights the many different cultures and creators who influenced this genre.
The exhibit is a traveling exhibit, first hitting Epcot in Orlando, followed by the New Orleans Jazz Museum in New Orleans and the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri before coming to Harlem.
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It's a surreal experience to see Ellington's piano in person—it's the one he wrote many songs on at his sister's apartment and it still has the residue of his "DNA," according to National Jazz Museum in Harlem Executive Director Tracy Hyter-Suffern. Ellington's family recently gave it to the museum on permanent loan under one condition—it has to be played. (It's already been a part of a few events, including a dueling pianos event with Lafayette Harris Jr. and Sean Mason set to entertainment by tap dancers.)
The exhibit also recreates a living room with furniture, black and white photos, sheet music and a player piano and record player as if it was pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams' apartment. In the 1940s, she would have musicians over like Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk in a sort of salon of talent.
These names and more are scattered throughout the museum's ground floor as the exhibit tells the tale of how jazz began from its early roots in New Orleans' Congo Square to its growth north to NYC and west to Kansas City and Los Angeles. Pianist Dr. Billy Taylor's iconic thick-framed glasses are set next to his handwritten sheet music and a pamphlet from the Salute to Freedom concert in 1963 in Alabama featuring Black jazz artists. It's history before your eyes.
To tie it all into Soul, there are maquettes (small sculptures) of its characters Joe Gardner and Dorothea Williams and virtual experiences via the Play Disney Parks app. The floor of the museum has been changed with brick walls and street scenes. There are windows that "look out" into scenes of the movie like the owner of the barbershop cleaning up and Joe's student playing their trombone in the street.
Carmen Smith, the Senior Vice President of Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering, said it was important that before the film was made and before her team began building this experience that gathering information and arming themselves with knowledge was the first step. If you felt like Soul got NYC and its jazz scene right, this is why. "We did our homework," Smith said.
Seeing Harlem portrayed in a Disney Pixar film was "surreal," Museum Executive Director Tracy Hyter-Suffern said. "We try to tell this story so many times...and this film gives us a new way to tell the story and relate the story to a new audience."
Having such a national brand and Hollywood moment in Harlem is incredible to see in the neighborhood itself but also in a tiny museum (it's only 1,800 square feet). Because of the size, the exhibit had to be scaled down, but Smith pitched turning it into the Half Note club—a layout that no other city had. The result is an intimate and cozy space, where you can learn about jazz's history but also see musicians that you "only dreamed of ever seeing," Hyter-Suffern said.
“The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure” at The National Jazz Museum (58 West 129th Street) opens Thursday, February 10, and will be on through August 31.