Ralph Ellison’s Record Collection

Ralph_EllisonTodd Weeks in Allegro:

“Art thou troubled? Music will not only calm, it will ennoble thee.”
– Ralph Ellison

Of Richard Wagner, Ralph Ellison once wrote that the composer’s symphonies were works, “which, by fulfilling themselves as works of art, by being satisfied to deal with life in terms of their own sources of power, were able to give me a broader sense of life and possibility.”

Like many artists of his generation Ellison utilized a multidisciplinary approach and drew on music, photography and the fine arts as sources of inspiration and cultural pride.

He saw music as a key to individual expression and the universality of experience and, in his own work, he pointed out the influence and impact of everything from Beethoven to Bessie Smith.

By examining the achievements of many jazz and blues musicians in the context of the Western canon, he broadened the listening audience for these performers, and contributed to their stature as artists of real and lasting significance.

In the summer of 2006, I was given exclusive access to Ellison’s Riverside Drive apartment with the express purpose of finding a home for his record collection. (I’m happy to say it now resides in the National Jazz Museum in Harlem).

Ellison was a known audiophile. Based on its contents, his collection appears to have been amassed between the earliest 1930’s and the late 1980’s.

That day, I found many of the expected items, including the music that Ellison wrote about so passionately – that of Charlie Christian, Mahalia Jackson and cante flamenco, among others.

But there were also many revelations: a truly varied range of 17th to 20th century classical, pop items, spoken word, and much more.

All in all, there are about 500 individual pieces in the collection, 125 of which are 78 r.p.m. records.