A Conversation with NMAAM Curator Dr. Steven Lewis

Interview by Simon Glickman

The word “curate” gets tossed around a lot in the playlist era, but Dr. Steven Lewis is the real deal—Curator of the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville. The new institution, which had its long-awaited ribbon-cutting ceremony on 1/15 after several pandemic-related delays (and is currently operating under strict protocols), recently received a $1m donation from Amazon. We asked Dr Lewis to walk us through NMAAM’s ingeniously organized exhibitions, and also to direct us to the gift shop.

Congratulations on the Amazon gift. What will this mean for the institution?
I can't speak to the specific ways the money will be used as that’s outside the purview of the curatorial area. That said, Amazon’s support will allow us to continue doing the work we've been doing here in the community and telling the stories we've been telling. It goes a long way towards fulfilling our mission, which is preserving the legacy of African-American music and educating the world.

Where do you feel the museum is in terms of your curatorial objectives and what you hope to accomplish?
At the moment, we are very proud to have built a collection of over 1,500 artifacts that run the gamut from reproductions of 18th-century musical instruments from colonial America to pop-culture ephemera from the late 20th-century to items associated with notable musicians like Keb’ Mo’. The collection is very eclectic and represents the broad sweep of the story we tell in the museum.

The way we’d like to grow, now that we’ve reached our opening and a large audience is aware of what we’ve been doing, is to find new opportunities to bring things into the collection that may have been out of reach before—and to partner with people who may not have been aware of our work before.

What have you gleaned from the public’s response thus far?
We’ve been really gratified and honored to be embraced by the Nashville community. That’s been one of the big takeaways from the lead-up to our ribbon-cutting and the weeks that have followed: how much support we continue to have from the community and the leadership here in the city.

At the same time, visitors have told us that a lot of the things we talk about in our exhibitions are new to them. That has shown me how important it is that we’re finally getting to tell this story that hasn't been told before, presenting a more complete and comprehensive narrative of the history of African-American and American music from its beginnings to the present.

Our Black History Month special issue addresses, among other subjects, the intersection of jazz and social activism. In preparing it, I've been struck by how certain aspects of music are separated from their traditions. Because the more you delve into the music and its engagement with society, the more you begin to apprehend that it's part of a continuum. I agree, and I think that’s true of jazz in particular, which for several decades now has been an important part of university music curriculums and celebrated as “America's classical music.” As good as that has been for the music and many of the musicians, at times the cultural context of the music has not been discussed and recognized as it should be. When we talk about jazz here, we talk about the broader context of African-American history and culture in a way that grounds the music in the context from which it emerged. That’s more important now than ever.

This music was often very politically engaged. Is that represented in the museum?
It is indeed. Examples in our exhibition include Max Roach’s recording We Insist!: The Freedom Now Suite, which features an image of the Greensboro sit-in on the cover and was all about the Black experience and the Civil Rights Movement. We also talk about Charles Mingus compositions such as “Fables of Faubus,” which was a commentary on Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas who tried to prevent integration. We talk about the struggles of Black musicians in the decades prior to those works, who were among the first to integrate white groups like Benny Goodman’s Orchestra, dealing with the injustices of Jim Crow segregation as working musicians on the road. They were pioneers in the integration of the music industry as well as in performing groups. We spend quite a bit of time in our jazz exhibition talking about the connection between jazz musicians’ work and the struggle for civil rights in the 20th century.

Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of how the museum is organized?
The museum is organized into six permanent galleries and one temporary gallery that features traveling exhibitions. The six permanent galleries make up our permanent exhibition, which we call Rivers of Rhythm: African Americans and the Making of American Music. In that exhibition we've divided the space into one central gallery area, which branches off into five galleries loosely organized around musical traditions or genres.

The first one, Wade in the Water, covers African-American religious music from 1619 to the present. The second, Crossroads, covers the history of the blues from the years immediately following the Civil War to the present. The third, A Love Supreme, covers the history of jazz from the late 19th century to the present. Next we have One Nation Under a Groove, which covers the history of R&B from World War II to the present. Finally, there’s The Message, which explores the history of hip-hop from the ’70s to the present.

As you can tell, the galleries start at progressively later periods, but they all continue through the present, the point being that all of the musical traditions in the museum are living musical traditions. So of course we talk about the most high-profile contemporary music, including hip-hop and rap, but we also talk about contemporary jazz and blues musicians, who may be less well known to the uninitiated visitor. By taking in the whole exhibition, you get a panoramic view of the history of African-American music.

How are visitors responding to seeing hip-hop presented with this historical context?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, for many visitors, hip-hop is the music they listen to most often. But many people aren't aware of the history of the music going back to, say, the Black Arts Movement, the Black Power Movement, musicians like Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets and the various cultural influences coming from African-American culture and Afro-Caribbean culture that are at the foundation of the music. Not to mention the way we have hip-hop juxtaposed with other genres that contributed to its development such as jazz and R&B.

People get it, and often I’ve heard visitors say they were “overwhelmed” by the amount of information and what they're just discovering, which is very exciting.

This is as much a history museum as it is a music or a pop-culture museum, if not more so. The focus is really on that broad historical narrative rather than a handful of famous musicians in each genre. Prominent musicians do show up in the exhibition, but it's always in that broader context of changes in African-American life and history.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and the trajectory that brought you here.
I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. My introduction to music, other than the music I heard at home, was studying the saxophone—starting when I was about eight. I was in high school ensembles and then went to Florida State University to study jazz saxophone. That's where I got my bachelor's degree.

Do you still play? Who are your sax heroes?
I do still play from time to time. My all-time favorite is Charlie Parker. I spent a lot of time in college studying Parker transcriptions and trying to imitate him as best I could. I really love Kenny Garrett, another great, more contemporary saxophonist. Branford Marsalis is great. Coltrane, of course. One of my favorite players who doesn't get talked about quite as much outside of jazz circles is Dexter Gordon, who was really incredible. I love the sound and his phrasing and his time feel.

So you did your B.A. at FSU …
Right, and while I was there, I got into music-history research and did some work on early jazz history and the history of minstrelsy and the late 19th century.

From there I went to the PhD program in Critical and Comparative Studies in Music at the University of Virginia. I studied with Scott DeVeaux, a great jazz historian whom I’d looked up to for a long time.

From 2015 to 2017, I was a research assistant to the Curator of Music and the Performing Arts at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. I was able to provide some assistance in putting together the inaugural music exhibition there. It was an incredible experience, the most intoxicating introduction to this field you could have. The scale of it was incredible. I felt honored even to have a very small part in that.

I got to contribute writing and research to a section of the music exhibition called Neighborhood Record Store. I made an interactive timeline of African-American music and wrote some of the label copy. The curator and I went to record stores around D.C. and bought classic records in different genres, which are scattered around the exhibition. That was the first time I ever walked into a museum and was able to look at something and say, “I did that.”

Wow. And what a fun research project.
It was incredible, one of the best experiences I've had in my life. At the end of the year, I learned that the position of curator was open at this museum, which was in the very early stages of construction at that point. The groundbreaking had just happened earlier in 2017. I applied for the job and got it, moved here to Nashville in January of 2018 and started working. I made the trip back to Charlottesville to defend my dissertation and graduated. So I took this job right before I finished my doctorate.

I've been here for a little over three years now. I started when the museum was still a hole in the ground and there were about 500 artifacts; I was able to help build the collection to over 1,500 artifacts. Now the museum is open to the public, which is almost surreal. I feel extremely fortunate that this early in my career I’ve had a hand in some major projects.

ATL legend (6/17a)
High times in Inglewood (6/20a)
Collect 'em all (6/20a)
Sloshing through the fun (6/20a)
Black Music Month in the ATL (6/18a)
Who's already a lock?
Three chords and some truth you may not be ready for.
The kids can tell the difference... for now.
The discovery engine is revving higher.

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