Shine Theory: A Serendipitous Contribution to the Smithsonian

blogFrom the moment they heard of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Ginger Smock’s nieces and nephews knew her personal affects were destined to be there. In her time, Ginger Smock (1920-1995) was heralded as a dazzlingly talented jazz violinist with classical training and a long career of gigging and band-leading from cruise ships to casinos, yet today she is virtually unknown among 20th century jazz musicians.

Ginger’s family dutifully preserved remembrances of their aunt’s life: her violin, music stand, album collection, personal recordings and letters. They sought out scholar Laura Risk, an accomplished fiddle player and student of violin technique, and plead with her to extend Ginger’s legacy through inclusion at the Smithsonian. Feebly, Laura promised to do what she could, knowing that making connections with the NMAAHC curatorial staff was a long shot.

In October 2014, I attended the New York Public Library Schomburg Conference on the State of Black Research Collections. I was star-struck by the attendees who represented nearly every notable archive and library of African American interest. One of the most highly anticipated presentations was by the newly appointed librarian, Shauna Collier, of the National Museum of African American History. She described the logistics of gleaning books and materials from the existing Smithsonian libraries to build the NMAAHC collection and outlined the priorities and concerns for the future of the library. Excitement over the museum, though ground was barely broken, was palpable.

Shortly after, I was sitting in Pittsburgh, PA with my compatriots, members of the newly minted Historical Ethnomusicology Section of the Society for Ethnomusicology. I introduced myself and my project du jour, organization and annotation of the collected works of composer Halim El-Dabh. After the meeting, Laura approached me saying she was working on a project similar to mine with a family in Los Angeles. She wanted to make good on the hopes of Ginger Smock’s family, but she had no idea where to start.

I was stunned.

Serendipity.

Hadn’t I just met one of the chief officers of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and didn’t I have her email address in the conference brochure? Why, yes. Yes, I did.

In one message, Ms. Collier connected me to Dwandalyn Reece, NMAAHC Curator of Music and Performing Arts, and the rest is history. The Ginger Smock collection now resides, safe and sound, for all the world to explore at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Here’s the point. When we do our best to promote one another, like Laura did for Ginger’s family and as I did for Laura, we can accomplish amazing stuff. Shauna Collier, Dwan Reece and Rex Ellis (Assoc. Director of Curatorial Affairs) at the NMAAHC don’t need to know me, but I’m so pleased with the part I played in making Ginger Smock SHINE!

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