A Museum of Music
Tom Manuel Brings Jazz to a New Generation of Music Lovers
When you consider the origins of jazz, New Orleans, Harlem or Chicago might come to mind, yet Long Island was home to some jazz greats who made history right here.
On Long Island, the curator of that important era in music history is Tom Manuel of Stony Brook.
Manuel was a music lover at a young age. He was a teenage trumpeter, but unlike most 16-year-olds who would hang out with their friends, Manuel could be found in the company of octogenarians, some who played with legends like Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James.
“They became really good friends of mine,” Manuel says. “And they would give me their photos, music and records. I got a reputation as the guy you give stuff to.”
Manuel’s collection of jazz memorabilia grew to more than 10,000 pieces, including original sheet music, personal letters, archival photos, master recordings and vintage LPs.
His collection incorporates material from the stars and the sidemen of jazz, who despite their sometimes-nomadic life on the road, kept a home on Long Island.
For years, Manuel kept the growing collection in his home, which was jam-packed with memorabilia. The situation changed dramatically in 2014, after Newsday published a story about Manuel’s unusual collection, which caught the attention of Gloria Rocchio, the president of the Ward Melville Heritage Organization. Rocchio reached out to Manuel and offered space for the collection on a 49-year lease with rent at $1 per year.
The building, which was once home to the Suffolk Museum, was renovated with more than $450,000 raised through donations.
“It was in rough condition, but it came out beautiful. It really had a transformation,” Manuel says, proudly.
The Jazz Loft opened to the public a year later, in May 2016.
Manuel, now founder and executive director of The Jazz Loft, is a musician, teacher and jazz historian, whose mission is to educate the public about jazz and preserve this unique American musical art form by exhibiting his extraordinary, one-of-a-kind collection.
“I didn’t buy any of this,” he says, sweeping his hand around the room.
“When the lights are dim and the candles are lit and the music is playing, it’s like you went back in time.”
“Everything that’s here is original. No copies. Nothing is staged. Everything was from the people we are celebrating. That makes it really special.”
Jazz artists who performed with Dorsey, Ellington, Armstrong, and Basie, and with every notable ensemble and personality in between, now have a home in The Jazz Loft.
The excitement Manuel has for the collection is contagious:
“Wally Kane was a great sax player and the sound of Snuffleupagus in ‘Sesame Street,’” Manuel says. Pointing to the instrument, he continues, “This is the original saxophone. When we do family shows, we bring it out and play the bass sax.”
“Lloyd Trotman was a bass player on over 2,000 recordings, including ‘Stand By Me’ and other hits by The Drifters and Duke Ellington,” he adds. “He played classics like ‘Take the A Train’ with Ellington’s orchestra.”
“Arthur Prysock was a singer in the ’40s and ’50s from Searingtown,” Manuel says. “He was up there with Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstein, and sang with Count Basie at the Apollo and the Cotton Club. He also sang the jingle ‘Let It Be Lowenbrau,’ which was on the radio as a single.”
Off the main viewing area is a gallery of photographs by Bernard Seeman, one of the most sought-after jazz photographers of the 20th century. Thanks to the Seeman family estate, Manuel has more than 2,000 photos in the collection that he personally matted and framed, including photographs of Benny Goodman, Sammy Davis Jr., et al.
Outside the gallery is a turnstile from the original Roseland Ballroom.
“If you go to other museums, they might fill the room with accessories or furniture, but this stuff is real,” Manuel says.
All the cases and displays are in their original forms, dating back to 1941.
Housed in those displays is a treasure trove of memorabilia.
“Louis Jordan’s archives are here. He was one of the inventors of early rock and roll.”
Known as “The King of the Jukebox,” most of Jordan’s collection is from the end of his career when he was performing in Las Vegas.
A large accordion on display was donated by Lester Lanin, a well-known society band leader.
“He played for every presidential inauguration since FDR, and for all British royalty, including Princess Diana’s wedding,” Manuel says.
On display are letters written on official stationery from U.S. presidents, including Bill Clinton, thanking Lanin for playing at the Presidential Inaugural Ball.
In another display case sits Dave Brubeck’s tour book. From the looks of it, he was a very busy guy.
“He was old-school, didn’t use a computer,” Manuel explains. “Frank Modica was an agent and manager for Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Harry James for over 40 years.”
Another room in the museum celebrates Teddy Charles, a vibraphone player.
“Charles produced two albums for Miles Davis and recorded with John Coltrane and wrote for him,” Manuel says. “He was an innovative guy from the ’50s and ’60s.”
A brightly colored flight case stands in a corner that belonged to Milt Hinton, regarded as the dean of jazz bass players.
Along with the bass case, Manuel procured Hinton’s entire basement studio, which has been recreated at The Jazz Loft.
“Milt Hinton is the most-recorded bass player in the history of jazz,” Manuel says. “He took that bass case with him when he traveled around the world. All of this collection is from his basement. Everything is original. The books, his record collections, all of the stuff he used.”
Upstairs, Manuel takes the jazz experience to another, absolutely breathtaking level.
The stage was constructed from the wood dance floor of the Roseland Ballroom, and the bandstand, made by Manuel and his father, is the centerpiece of Club Q, named after Vincent Quattrocci, an American artist from Greenport, who died in 2011.
The room is transformed on their Big Band nights every Friday and Saturday. Bistro tables that can seat up to 84 music lovers are scattered on the dance floor. When the venue sells out, they pull the tables and add concert-row seating, holding 120 comfortably.
“I’ve played in many places, but when you’re up there at night, it’s pretty stunning. I’m really proud of it,” he says. “When the lights are dim and the candles are lit and the music is playing, it’s like you went back in time.”
Outside, there is a beautiful courtyard that Manuel would like to renovate.
“I envision having bistro tables,” he says. The extra seating would accent the focal point of the courtyard–a cement fountain that was moved from Count Basie’s home in Queens to The Jazz Loft.
For Manuel, The Jazz Loft has been a huge success, but he’d like to do more.
“This is my dream venture. Right now everything is managed with volunteers,” Manuel continues. “I’d love to hire staff and have an educational calendar with performances to get the word out further.”
The Jazz Loft hosts performances to the public. On Friday and Saturday evenings they produce a variety of programming, plus jam sessions every Wednesday night, Big Bands on Thursday evenings, family concerts, lecture series, a pre-college jazz music program and a music therapy program for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
“I’d love to be open more. Currently we’re open three days a week on Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” he says.
What about Sundays?
“I don’t work on Sunday, I’m old-school,” he replies.
In the ’50s through the ’70s, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and other jazz greats served as cultural diplomats touring the world on behalf of the U.S. State Department, bringing jazz music, a new and remarkable American art form, to millions of people.
Manuel has picked up their tempo and torch by connecting jazz, with its energy and passion, to a new generation of music lovers.
The Jazz Loft
275 Christian Avenue, Stony Brook, NY 11790, 631-751-1895
For a full event calendar, go to www.TheJazzLoft.org