If there’s a town-gown wall that still exists between Philadelphia and Penn, Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. has broken through it.
A former elementary and high school music teacher on the West Side of Chicago, Ramsey is also the author of the acclaimed 2003 book, “Race Music: Black Cultures From Be-Bop to Hip Hop,” which was named the outstanding book of the year by the International Association for the Study of Popular Music.
Now, Ramsey can also consider himself a museum exhibition curator. He has helped to launch “Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment,” a comprehensive collection of historic photographs, costumes, musical scores, instruments, playbills and other ephemera related to the celebrated New York City entertainment theater. The exhibition opened late last month at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and will run through Aug. 29.
As a historian, Ramsey is the first to admit that material culture excites him less than the works that artists leave behind. “I’m not the type of person who would get excited to see a pair of shoes that a famous person wore.
"That’s not my instinct,” he says. “But to be involved in a show like this, it expanded my thinking to understand that the average viewer of this exhibition will be quite excited to see a boom box that was on stage during one of the early rap performances at the Apollo, or to see a jacket that LL Cool J wore up close.”
The Current sat down with Ramsey to chat about his experience as curator, his band, Dr. Guy’s MusiQology, how he made the switch from teaching young kids in public schools to college students at Penn and why Philly is such a great place to study and make music.
Q. What is the central theme of the Smithsonian show?
A. The theme of the show is actually the subtitle of the show, which is how the Apollo Theater shaped American entertainment. One of the things that the National Museum of African American History and Culture wanted to do was to show how integral the Apollo Theater had been not only to African-American history and culture in the 20th century and the 21st century, but to the broader American society. We often don’t think about spaces where we are experiencing entertainment as being intimately linked to who we are as a society, but in fact you have all of this social energy circulating in the things that people sing about, the instrumental music is telling you what people value in the culture. What people laugh about—what the comedians comment on or the mode in which they comment—tells you a lot about what a society is, as well as how they’re dancing, and what they’re dancing and what they’re dancing to. All of these things together provide a window into a society’s worldview.
Q. Did you know what you were looking for when you went in, or did the exhibit present itself to you through the objects?
A. The Apollo Theater had already begun to catalog everything that they owned. They knew that was the first step. It’s a theater and it’s not an archive, so a theater of course is primarily concerned with the day-to-day challenges of putting on shows.
So, what did I find? There were lots and lots of posters and playbills of past events. There was a neon sign, I believe, and photographs. It was a mish-mash of lots of different material culture from the years that the theater was in operation. What I had to do was to initially couple what I knew were existing items, with what I could learn about the history of the theater and to ask if a show with these objects could tell the history of the theater in American society. From there, we moved into phase two, when Tuliza Fleming, a curator at the Museum, was brought on. That’s when things started to take off.
A real exciting moment happened after James Brown passed, because there was an auction of a lot of his items and I was given a catalog of objects and just went shopping for what I thought could go in [the show]. There were bright red jumpsuits, his hair rollers, a letter securing the services of his hairdresser who traveled with him, an electronic organ that was encased in red patent leather. It was pretty incredible. [The Museum] purchased some of the [items] I recommended and then some, and some of those items are in the show.
Q. As a musician and a historian, I imagine you were already pretty familiar with the Apollo. Did you learn anything new putting together this show?
A. I think what it helped me to do is to expand my thinking beyond music history because like many people, I associated the Apollo Theater primarily with music, but Tuliza really pushed to have comedy and dance be just as important as music in the telling of this story, and that was a really smart move because all of those performance modes—musical, comedy and dance—worked together to create this aura of the Apollo Theater.
Q. What do you hope audiences take away from this show?
A. You want the American public to really embrace all aspects of itself and not just think of this theater as a space where African Americans could become famous and where their stars could rise. It is also a barometer for who we are as a nation. A lot of the things that we are experiencing in the contemporary times have historical grounding. In order for break dancing to be centrally important to hip hop culture, you have to understand tap dancing. This theater is an important American treasure that tells us about the full society. But also, that history is very important to understanding what contemporary artists are doing.
Q. As a musician and a music fan, what did the Apollo mean to you?
A. Being a native of Chicago, the Regal Theater was really important to us. Like many people of my generation who did not live in New York City, we learned about the Apollo through the TV show primarily. As a person who grew up listening to The Temptations and Supremes ... I saw The Temptations first at five years old at the Regal Theater, so I understood how exciting it could be to actually see these big stars in an intimate live musical setting.
Q. Do you come from a musical family?
A. I do come from a musical family. My father played a little piano. Music was always appreciated in the house. Music was especially appreciated throughout both sides of my extended family. I just understood it as something that people cared about and something that people paid attention to. My older sister was a musical fanatic, meaning we kept up with all of the latest stuff, from R&B, to soul, to funk, to rock ‘n’ roll, through her record collection, which was pretty extensive. I would say, for the most part, her tastes dominated the airwaves. She was the older sister, so she set the tone. And, in fact, she still sends me songs that she thinks I need to hear.
Q. You were a music teacher in Chicago and a professional musician at age 18. What made you want to go to grad school and eventually into academia?
A. I taught in a neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, which was described at the time, per capita, as one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation. But what I found in that space was a group of kids who were deeply talented and passionate about learning and performing music. Many of them sang in their church choirs. Public school teaching and inner city teaching is a challenge, but then you add in the idea that there wasn’t a lot of formal [music] training among the kids—it was all a big challenge. I met some really fabulous young students in that setting. At the same time, I was pursuing a master’s degree in music education and I had church jobs, and I was teaching private piano lessons and I was doing a whole lot musically, but I was really spread out all over the place. A mentor of mine, Samuel Floyd, who was then the director of the Center for Black Music Research ... expressed that he had seen a lot of musicians like me, particularly black musicians like me, who were jacks-of-all-trades who spread themselves all over the place, but were not deeply committed to one thing, and he thought that I would be a good candidate for graduate study. I thought about it and decided to throw my hat into the ring and matriculated at the University of Michigan in 1989.
Q. You’re still teaching. What do you like about teaching at the college level?
A. On the undergraduate level, what I like most is that undergraduates are less interested, I think, in abstract things. [They are more interested in] what they can put their hands to and turn into something real. I have a blog [ http://musiqology.com/ ]and my students contribute to it. I find the idea that they’ll be able to share their work widely with the readers of my blog kind of inspiring to them, and they get a charge out of it. They like when I talk about what’s going on with me and the music industry, in real time. As I’m putting a CD together, I share with them how I’m pulling the material together, how I’m using a studio, how the gig went, how the workshop went.
And what I love about the graduate student teaching is that you learn so much by being around people who are just as ambitious as you are, who read just as much as you do and that exchange is really the straw turning the drink for me. People are debating and pushing back at one another. I find it very exciting and very stimulating.
Q. Throughout your entire career, you’ve continued to play music, including your current project, Dr. Guy’s MusiQology. Is making music just something you feel like you have to do?
A. I think that I was put on the earth to do music. I don’t really believe I had a choice in the matter. Now what I’ve insisted on throughout my graduate study and my teaching at universities is that I somehow be connected to the doing of the music, whether it was keeping a church job on the side or having a singer that I accompanied. It was difficult sometimes, because when I trained in musicology, the fact that you were still performing is something that you kept on the low. You have to show that you’re committed to a life of scholarship and many music scholars grew up as musicians and you’re so emotionally invested in yourself as a musician—it’s who you believe you are in the world—and to have to give up on the idea that your job now is not to practice five or six hours a day but to be in the library 10 hours a day is a big, big shift. Once I got tenure, I formed MusicQology because I felt like I had the freedom to start writing music again and putting the theory together with the practice.
Q. Does Philly, with its considerable musical heritage, inspire your music?
A. Absolutely. When I left Tufts University, I was ready for a change and I tell this as a kind of serious joke: [in] that song by Martha Reeves and Vandellas, ‘Dancing in the Streets,’ she calls out all of these cities, and I said, ‘I want to work in one of those cities that she called out.’ I don’t think she mentioned Boston. Luckily, this job came up, and I was fortunate enough to land here and one of the things that I really love is that Philadelphia musicians and the musical audiences, particularly the jazz audience here, have a really clear historical sense. I started working and frequenting this jazz spot right here at 40th and Market, Natalie’s Showcase Lounge, where I met most of the musicians I associate with and who, in fact, played on my first CD. [Philadelphia is] a place where you have all this fabulous R&B coming out. You had all of the hard bop of the 50s coming out of here, you had Marian Anderson, and black classical musicians, you had the neo-soul movement, which Jill Scott is primarily associated with, you have the conscious hip hop, with The Roots being here. This is a space where the music is vibrant and it reminds me of the Chicago scene; that’s why I’ve been very comfortable here.
Originally published on May 20, 2010