Jazz, avant-garde and photography in twentieth-century Italy. Witnessing, preserving and cataloging the "art of improvisation": the Polillo archive

Degree Course in Science

Public institutions and digital media

Final essay
in Visual Arts and Technologies

Jazz, avant-garde and photography in twentieth-century Italy. Witnessing, preserving and cataloging “the art of improvisation”: the Polillo archive”

Speaker Prof. Anna Villari

Candidate Mariaelena Di Giovanni


The Photographic Archive of Jazz in Rome (Designed and created by the Saint Louis College of Music https://www.slmc.it/archivio_jazz/archivio-del-jazz-a-roma) serves as a precious resource for researchers and scholars, inspiring and validating research ideas and offering visual material that can help investigate the history of jazz and provide important evidence for historians. This space, which can also be consulted online, aims to capture not only the cultural and social heritage of Italian jazz, but also the international scene and its impact on this genre. A division into two sections is highlighted: the first concerns the '50s and '60s and the second concerns the evolution of jazz in Italy from '68 to the first decade of the 2000s, so we are talking about a historical span that covers over 60 years of music. The first school in Italy to take an interest in Jazz was the Saint Louis College of Music in Rome. Paolo Marra, music critic and curator of the Jazz Archive in Rome, describes it as an active archive, containing unpublished plays and films as well as a large press section where it is possible to investigate to rediscover the materials. It is an archive based on voluntary contributions offered by important musicians, critics and journalists of Italian jazz. All these people contributed bibliographic or iconographic material. Unpublished audio and video recordings of some jam sessions65 that took place in historic venues in Rome, Music Inn and Big Mama among all, are available in the online archive. This is not just an archiving project, it is also a research that attempts to determine our progress in Italian jazz, which is a type of jazz different from others because it is based on our habits and has a very distinct idiom. The objective, therefore, is to understand why Italian jazz has arrived at its current form and to broaden the understanding of the evolution of its communicative drive, which occurred hand in hand with the changes that have occurred in the media, in culture and in politics within the contemporary social structure.


What was the initial objective you set yourself when you began building the Archive?

«The objective was, and is, to tell the story of Italian jazz from the 1950s to the present day, through a cognitive and informative medium accessible to every type of user, from the enthusiast to the neophyte up to involving students and researchers. It must be kept in mind that every art form is made up of a complex set of parts related to each other, which, in turn, are intertwined with the contingent situations of social, political and cultural order in which they evolve and establish themselves. . The purpose of the Jazz archive in Rome, of which I am the curator and responsible, is precisely to build, as far as possible, an architrave on which all these parts rest to give rise to a single narrative and in-depth path of one of the most important and influential artistic forms of the 20th century, such as Jazz. However, it was necessary to prepare a further phase of research and historical-documentary recovery, moving from the macro to the micro, and therefore the analysis of how and why jazz, as a specifically African-American expression, took root over time in the humus of Italian culture and traditions, giving life to a peculiar language differentiated from the original, expressed over the decades by excellent instrumentalists, both men and women".

What are the fundamental cataloging criteria and methodologies for managing a historical archive?

«First of all it is essential to create main thematic sections, which in this specific case I decided to divide chronologically by decades, and in a second phase thematic subsections, such as photographic archive or rather Jazz and cinema and so on. At the basis of this methodology lies the need to facilitate the cataloging of the material and give the archive users the opportunity to immediately have a partial overview of the contents to be explored later, following a personal elective choice. This aspect is essential as a consequence, as mentioned before, of the objective of placing the archive as a dissemination tool accessible to a large and varied target of users, more or less regular. Certainly, in the preliminary phase the further need often arises to divide the subsections according to chronological or, in turn, thematic criteria: for example the photographic section can be divided by author, musician, year, recording work, in order to create a parallel archive to draw on during project implementation".

How important do you think research is in enhancing the Archive?

«Research is essential to create an archival reality, whether digital or physical. But, even more important, this research is timely, accurate and exhaustive. For this to happen, a detailed collection of information must be established as a first phase through scheduled interviews with specific interlocutors; these must be recorded and subsequently transcribed. In the case of the Jazz Archive I have collected hours and hours of interviews with important personalities of Italian jazz, such as music critics, journalists, musicians, producers, but also professionals or ordinary people who have attended concerts, events, reviews or had direct contact with musicians or composers. This information material, combined for example with the consultation of newspaper extracts or specialized magazines made available by these same interlocutors or consulted on web channels, allowed me to place an information sheet alongside each cataloged material".

In the photographic section of the Archive, what do you think is the communicative power of photography in the story of a common memory such as that of Italian jazz?

«The communicative power of a photographic image is difficult to replace. We could say that it immortalizes the pregnant moment of a gesture, of a look, of an emotion, of an event that occurred in a given place or of the interaction of a collective as happens in musical performance. Compared to other musical genres, jazz, moreover, is made up of unrepeatable moments because it is conveyed by improvisation, which feeds in real time on the psychological and emotional state of the instrumentalist but also on what happens around him from time to time, in terms of personal life and social context. It is therefore clear that in the construction and definition of an archive photography represents the only means of restoring the substance of an ultimately ephemeral memory and at the same time creating a narrative thread that is as coherent as possible. It is no coincidence that photographers such as William Eugene Smith, Bob Willoughby, Jim Marshall, Roberto Polillo, Roberto Masotti, and others have dedicated projects of fundamental artistic, cultural and popular importance to the jazz universe".

A reflection on the need for digitalisation and the problem of technological obsolescence.

«The preservation of the historical material collected and cataloged cannot ignore adequate digitization. This is why all the material present in the Jazz Archive has been subjected to careful digitization and, in several cases, restoration by trained technicians. Certainly an archive requires constant updating regarding digital and electronic media and tools used for data storage, taking into account the increasingly rapid and massive evolution of the technologies available to us. But instead of making it a problem, the constant evolution of new technologies can become an opportunity to increase the possibilities of preserving and enhancing the immense historical heritage we have at our disposal. As regards the aspect of technological obsolescence, we can make a further reflection: the technological evolution from the post-war period to the 1990s was characterized by very long times in the creation, creation and updating of electronic or mechanical supports and instruments. This has allowed a very advanced development of these technologies which has stood the test of time, often giving rise to their unexpected reuse even following the advent of new technologies; let's think, for example, of audio support in vinyl or magnetic tape or, broadening the discussion, of photographic film and the corresponding machines for reading, developing, printing and so on. Bearing this aspect and the rapid technological evolution in mind, for the survival of data and historical material it is, paradoxically, more effective and long-lasting to rely on the conservation and preservation of media and tools considered "obsolete".

As curator of the Jazz Archive in Rome, what do you hope for the future?

«As curator and manager of the Jazz Archive in Rome I hope for greater support for archival projects, in terms of attention, promotion and invested funds, from institutions, especially public ones. Attention to the historical memory of every art form, such as Italian jazz, is the basis on which to build democratic culture in our country, creating, at the same time, job opportunities for the new generations."