The Real Thing

Music professor co-curates Smithsonian exhibit on the history of Harlem's Apollo Theater.
August 29, 2010

A museum exhibit may not be the real thing, but with all sorts of genuine artifacts on display and plaques that explain their historical context and fit them into a story, it's certainly the next best thing. From April 23 to August 29, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture will present "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment." The show is co-curated by Penn ethnomusicologist Guthrie Ramsey, Jr., and Tuliza Fleming, a curator at the Smithsonian.

Ramsey is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Endowed Term Professor of Music, and author of Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop. His forthcoming book, Earl "Bud" Powell and the Modern Jazz Challenge, is a study of the legendary pianist. Ramsey is himself an accomplished pianist who writes and arranges music for his band, Dr. Guy's MusiQologY, which performs in Philadelphia and around the world.

"What a nation sings and what a nation laughs at and dances to are indicators of what it values, and of what social developments are important at any given historical moment." – Guthrie Ramsey, Jr.

"We wanted to explore the history of the Apollo," Ramsey says of the Smithsonian exhibit, "to get behind the legend and tell the story of its beginnings and its development into a major force in American culture." The exhibit marks the Apollo's 75th anniversary, tracing the theater's rise from a segregated burlesque house to the pinnacle of African-American entertainment and American popular culture. "I knew about the role of Amateur Night at the Apollo," he observes, "but I didn't know that this venerable institution began life as a burlesque theater."

Through its rise, the Apollo has launched and nurtured the careers of some of the nation's most revered artists and entertainers, and it's been a key venue for introducing innovative musical genres — jazz, blues, gospel, swing, R&B, soul, hip – hop — to the American mainstream. "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" unfolds the story of the Apollo's development with displays that feature costumes, posters, playbills, musical scores, photographs, instruments and recorded music. Exhibit panels explain how the artifacts fit into a larger narrative about the theater, and an introductory film, along with videos of memorable performances, bring the Apollo's story to life.

Artifacts on display include James Brown's cape and jumpsuit, Michael Jackson's fedora, dresses worn by the Supremes, Sammy Davis' tap shoes, the jacket worn by LL Cool J, Miles Davis' trumpet, BB King's guitar and much more. Some of the featured items were held in private collections, Ramsey notes. "The success of our exhibition was dependent on people understanding both the importance of what they held but also the importance it held for the story we wanted to tell. It took lots of persistence and considerable luck to secure objects sometimes."

Ramsey credits co-curator Tuliza Fleming with widening the focus of his thinking about the Apollo. "I admit to a prejudice as a music historian," he says. "I think that music is always the straw turning the drink. Tuliza insisted that comedy and dance are as important as music in telling this story because all of these performance modes worked together to create this aura of the Apollo Theater."

"What a nation sings and what a nation laughs at and dances to are indicators of what it values," he explains, "and of what social developments are important at any given historical moment. These factors are thought to be ancillary to history. But no: they tell us about the struggles, fulfillments, joys, pains and victories of the various constituencies that comprise our larger society. It all happened at the Apollo, and the lessons — like the music — go on and on."