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Take a Tour of the Grammy Musuem 

Take a Tour of the Grammy Museum

On Sept. 21, Fender Music Education director Bob Morris and Little Kids Rock founder David Wish will host a 90-minute program at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. The Power of Music Education: Giving Children the Musical Advantage is the latest monthly event of an ongoing collaboration between Fender and the Grammy Museum to promote music education.

For those not familiar with the Grammy Museum, Fender News would like to offer the following piece, written by Steve Hochman, former author of the behind-the-scenes column Pop Eye for the Los Angeles Times and regular contributor to Rolling Stone, Spin, Entertainment Weekly and many other major — and minor — publications. Hochman currently writes the global music column “Around the World” for AOL’s Spinner.com and is heard as pop music critic for radio newsmagazine The California Report, produced by San Francisco public station KQED-FM and aired throughout the state.

Funny thing about the Grammy Museum, opened December 2008 as part of the L.A. Live complex in downtown Los Angeles, adjacent to Staples Center––there are only three actual Grammy statues in the museum. 

There are album of the year awards given to the Beatles for Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), to Bonnie Raitt for Nick of Time (1989) and to T-Bone Burnett for the O Brother! Where Art Thou? soundtrack set he produced (2001). And those are tucked away in a corner on the middle of three floors of exhibits, inside a small wall display case along with two models of earlier versions of the gramophone statuette.

There are two messages here. 1) People who get Grammys don’t part with them readily. And 2) This museum is not really about things. It’s about music.

And there is no shortage of music here. The instant you enter a short lead-up hallway, music surrounds you. The passage is flanked with wall-length video screens flashing clips from a vast range of Grammy telecast performances and the air filled with sound – overlapping strains of Bob Dylan, Green Day, Yo Yo Ma, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and so on that envelope you. But it’s a mere overture for the experience ahead.

The aural mix continues as you pass a partition into the museum proper, a blend of eras and genres that melts into a wash of notes. But it is here, at the very first exhibit, that you have a chance to sort it all out. This is the “Crossroads Table,” a long counter with video screens on its waist-level top and headphones hung along the side. Grab a set and look at the screen, on which names of different styles and genres float by – 164 in all! Touch one of the names and photos and graphics discussing the style appear, accompanied by a musical example. Psychedelic rock? Here’s Jimi Hendrix. Jazz fusion? Some Miles Davis. And alongside the chosen genre are “connections,” other styles or sub-styles that overlap in this continuity of music. You can skip from one to another, go deeper into any one area, jump over to something totally unrelated, whatever you want to do. You could spend hours just here alone, and find a constant stream of both favorites and delightful surprises.

If/when you manage to tear yourself away from “Crossroads,” the full experience of the museum starts to unfold, and your ears and eyes might land on any of a dozen or so items nearby. Maybe a small partitioned area with some items about jazz’s early history. Maybe “Epicenters,” another interactive feature at the far wall on which you can take a tour in time and geography through the history of recording around the U.S. – coast to coast and era (Thomas Edison’s first cylinder sound preservations) to era (the present). Or maybe just to the right of this, the related rotating panels spotlighting one particular region’s music history, currently on Seattle. The visual highlight of this: a black Fender Stratocaster that belonged to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain . . . smashed into pieces on stage at the climax of a 1992 concert. The pieces are best as possible placed back in position, like a ragged jigsaw puzzle.

And that might be a good metaphor for the museum’s core. As the stroll continues, the entirety of what goes into a Grammy-worthy recording is broken down – more neatly, of course — into pieces and reassembled into the ultimate examples of music’s process and power.

That is the true mission of the Grammy Museum, and of course of the Grammy Awards themselves — the most public part of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. And here it is, from the technical and creative processes to the powerful cultural impact of key songs and artists to the ineffable whatever-they-are that allow a performance to shine among the brightest in the constellation. The Grammy Museum strives to inform and educate the public, but in ways in which also inspire music fans along their own path.

The most involving part of this, literally, is a series of booths where visitors can not just learn about, but participate themselves in the stages of making a recording, at least on rudimentary levels. There’s a tracking session with rock producer Mike Clink guiding the user via video – you pick which musicians’ parts get used and how on a version of the Who’s “Who Are You,” with Slash and Wendy & Lisa’s Wendy Melvoin among the players. There’s a mixing session in which you tweak the sounds. There are booths for rapping, beat-creation and, yes, singing – if you dare.

On a more passive level, there are films running throughout the museum with Grammy show highlights, interviews with record-makers on various related topics and listening posts with such features as “Songwriters on Songwriting” (Brian Wilson, Willie Nelson, Diane Warren and others talking about their craft) and some fascinating “Listening In” excerpts from archival and non-music Grammy winners. The latter reveals a few intriguing, perhaps accidental, juxtapositions: An ivory billed woodpecker call recorded in Louisiana in 1935 is found just above a 1938 session of Jelly Roll Morton discussing and demonstrating the early evolutions of New Orleans jazz. There’s Bob Newhart’s “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue” routine right next to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

And there are, in fact, things. Some rather impressive things. One case includes trumpets owned by Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, Sammy Kahn’s typewriter and a left-handed Fender bass of Jimi Hendrix – though strung right-handed, as he sometimes played bass upside down. Elsewhere there are Grammy garb, from one of Johnny Cash’s somber “Man in Black” suits to the gravity-defying Jennifer Lopez garment that came to be known simply as “The Dress.”

There is also an in-depth “Culture Shock” exhibit about music’s roll in social protest and change, including a chronology from “Yankee Doodle” through the Gulf Coast devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and four video screens showing three-minute videos by Jim Brown, who made the 2007 full-length film on the life of Pete Seeger. The still-strumming folk singer is the subject of one of the shorts, the art and impact of Hendrix’s still-startling  “Star Spangled Banner” explosion from Woodstock. And there’s a case nearby with Seeger’s banjo and guitars played by Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Bob Dylan and Odetta.

The Grammy Museum is also home to a few random odds and ends, such as a relic of the band that would become the Beatles – a Quarrymen business card from the first public performance together by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, or the Elvis Presley family Bible.

Having a Bible as part of the collection might be more fitting than you think. After all, the Grammy Museum is wholly about showing reverence for the creation of music.

The Grammy Museum is located at 800 Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90015. For further information online, visit www.grammymuseum.org.

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