“Jazz is the people’s music, and my work is geared toward making it available to everyone,” said Tracy Hyter-Suffern, executive director of the National Jazz Museum. Since its founding by U.S. presidential adviser, arts advocate, and saxophonist Leonard Garment, the museum has evolved. This is in part because of Tracy — the first Black woman to lead the institution — who “speaks directly to the jazz in Harlem experience and broadcasts that message to the world.”
Not only does Tracy have a thirty-year track record in social justice but she also “worships at the altar of creativity.” Music was a constant in her household, as her mother had “an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz.” Thus, musical appreciation was integral to her cultural and personal identity. “As Duke Ellington said, there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. I grew up with the best music as part and parcel of my existence.” Tracy is reminded of this philosophy through a permanent exhibit at the museum titled “Beyond Category” — an homage to Ellington’s insistence that jazz cannot be described or categorized, as it transcends labels and is simply “good music” that may be enjoyed by anyone.
Through community outreach initiatives, the museum strives to bring live and recorded jazz performances to children, New Yorkers across all five boroughs, and global audiences. It stages concerts inside the museum, on stoops, in gardens, on sidewalks, and online. It endeavors to tell “the fullest, most inclusive possible story that we can about jazz” by delving into its fascinating intersections with the Black experience, Afro-Latinx culture, the queer community, Islam, gospel, hip-hop, and the blues. There are countless lenses through which to view the genre’s development, dismantling the misconception that jazz is exclusive to certain types of people. As Tracy expressed, there is a prevailing notion that one must be “a special kind of smart to truly ‘understand’ jazz.” The museum dispels this myth, illustrating how listeners of all walks of life can enhance their appreciation of jazz.