Passing on a Musical Love Letter to the Next Generation

As a teenager in the 1940s, Ben Smith became a huge fan of swing and big-band music — especially the masterful Duke Ellington, known for the classics “Mood Indigo” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” 

Smith started collecting Ellington records in 78rpm format in high school and continued during World War II when he served in the Air Force stationed in various U.S. cities before being deployed to the Philippines and Japan. “That was my band, I was crazy about them,” he said of Ellington and his Orchestra, a centerpiece of his early swing jazz collection along with Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and other greats.

Watercolor of Johnny Hodges, famed jazz saxophonist and longtime Duke Ellington collaborator, by artist & donor Ben Smith.

Now, the 95-year-old is sharing some of the music he collected and curated over the years with the world. Smith recently donated 300 of his beloved CDs, LPs and 78s to the Internet Archive, including a mix of classical, jazz, western swing, country, folk, and blues. A first set of the 78s is now online, and the remaining collection is queued for digitization.

“I thought somebody else should have access and be enjoying them,” said Smith, who lives in Austin, Texas. “I’m just thrilled. I’m the winner here.”

View Collection

When Smith was in the hospital earlier this year, he talked with his family about what would happen to his music someday. His son, Mark Smith, recently retired as director and state librarian at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, suggested the Internet Archive could digitize the items and provide a permanent home.

“My dad isn’t a big Internet guy, so I took my computer over and showed him how it would work, and how people could listen to his music,” said Mark. “He was excited and thought it sounded wonderful.” 

Mark then contacted Liz Rosenberg, donations manager at the Archive, who gave him instructions on how to ship the records and media to the Archive. He brought the CDs and records to the UPS store, where they were boxed up and sent. “It worked out great. It was easy,” said Mark.

Cubist-inspired Duke Ellington cover art illustration by Ben Smith ca. 1940, part of Smith’s donation to the Internet Archive.

Growing up, Mark says he was more into rock and folk music, but he understands how his dad’s generation loved the swing era and admired the musical genius of legends such as Ellington.  Ben met Ellington once at a show in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1947. After the concert, he approached Ellington for an autograph, but his pen didn’t work. “He was so cordial and in his mellow voice said, ‘I have a pen’ and reached into his vest pocket and took out this beautiful pen and wrote his very ornate signature,” Ben recalls. 

Born in Orange, Texas, in 1926, Ben was a staff artist at the University of Texas for 38 years. In his donation to the Archive, he included an illustration of Ellington he drew in the 1940s and a watercolor of longtime Ellington alto sax soloist Johnny Hodges. 

Artist and music collector Ben Smith, Jr.

Mark says he’s pleased to have his father’s collection featured alongside other digitized items available to the public.

“I think the Internet Archive is one of the coolest things on the whole internet – the Wayback Machine and all of the spoken word recordings, not to mention the vast Grateful Dead recordings,” said Mark Smith. “I’m very grateful to the Archive for taking in my dad’s collection, making it available and making my dad very, very happy.”

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