Imagineers in Harlem

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Disney Imagineer Carmen Smith, left, and Tracy Hyter-Suffern, executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
Disney Imagineer Carmen Smith, left, and Tracy Hyter-Suffern, executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Photo Credit: TW Photo by Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Corporate responsibility never sounded so good. The Courtney Wright Quartet was on stage, and the eponymous young baritone sax player and band leader was demonstrating once again that jazz may have been born in New Orleans, but it grew up in Harlem and arguably maintains its primary residence there.

Disney Imagineer Carmen Smith, senior vice president, creative development at Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, made reference to community outreach and corporate responsibility in explaining to me why it developed an exhibit that opened at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem earlier this month, but it seemed clear that the project has brought her personal as well as professional satisfaction.

"Jazz is an American story. It came out of the enslaved and the free. It's ingenuity, it's innovation, it's collaboration. It's all that's beautiful," she told me at the museum as Wright's music provided a live soundtrack and proof point.

As with all things Disney, in the park or beyond the berm, the exhibit is about storytelling. It incorporates elements of the Pixar animated feature "Soul," which chronicles the exploits of a fictional music teacher, Joe Gardner, who wants to play in a jazz band. The journey takes him into another dimension to explore, among other things, the meaning of one's soul.

Creating the exhibit (versions have also been produced for museums in New Orleans and Kansas City) fulfills Disney's mission to, in Smith's words, "tell stories that give people a sense of optimism, well-being, happiness and joy."

And it fulfills a key mission of the museum. Its executive director, Tracy Hyter-Suffern, wants to help people who aren't familiar with jazz realize "you are familiar with it. You just don't know it. We're here to prove either you have influenced jazz or been influenced by it."

Courtney Wright and her baritone saxophone.
Courtney Wright and her baritone saxophone. Photo Credit: TW Photo by Arnie Weissmann

The museum houses, among its artifacts, Duke Ellington's white piano, on permanent loan from the band leader's family on the condition it be played as well as exhibited. Jazz greats come to the museum to do just that.

And one New York-based musician provided some of the connective tissue between Disney and the museum: Jon Batiste is both a creative director of the museum and composed music for the film.

Lots of companies mix corporate responsibility and product placement, but it doesn't really work well unless there's a true connection between the product and the community. In the case of "Soul" and the museum, there is.

Tour operators and hoteliers can tap into the culture of the place they visit or are rooted in, but theme parks are artifice -- they are created worlds. "The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure" opened at Epcot a year ago, and like the exhibit in Harlem, it also ties a product -- the film -- to the cultures that created and nurtured jazz.

Much is said about authenticity in the travel industry, and Disney presents a quandary of sorts: It often interprets, re-creates and presents culture, especially at Epcot. The people who put these presentations together are called Imagineers, and perhaps therein lies another connective tissue of sorts. Do culture and history plus imagination equate with authenticity?

It can come close. The museum's senior scholar, Loren Schoenberg, advised Disney on the exhibit to ensure it accurately portrayed the history of jazz and Harlem.

The attempt to reflect reality through storytelling requires, by definition, the use of imagination. Novelists succeed when fictional characters make observations that feel truer than what you're likely to hear in real-life conversations.

Coincidentally, before heading to the museum, I had just read a description of jazz as perceived by a fictional Russian count in the 1930s, the central character in the novel "A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles (Viking, 2016). He writes that jazz is "a little unruly and prone to say the first thing that popped into its head ... it seems decidedly unconcerned with where it had been or where it was going."

Within some specific compositions, that certainly could be true. But as the museum reveals, artists from Louis Armstrong to Courtney Wright have paid careful attention to those who came before them and, with utmost respect, explored beyond. The current installation at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem makes that abundantly clear. 

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