Free Article
Originally published in American Lutherie #56, 1998
Photograph of the Washington Memorial
all photos by John Calkin

I guess I heard
about Scott Chinery’s collection of blue guitars at the same time as everyone else. The photo of a necklace of sky-colored archtops lounging on the grass appeared in magazines well outside the field of music. And my reaction was probably the same as everyone else’s Ä where does this guy get his money? I was glad Chinery had dumped so much bread into the lutherie community, but otherwise I didn’t see the point. So when the staid Smithsonian Institution decided to house the collection for awhile, I was amused and confounded. What was going on here?

I knew two things for sure. First, as a connoisseur of vintage instruments and a collector of wide renown, Scott Chinery was a man to be reckoned with. In the early '90s he made a short video (available from Stew-Mac) which skimmed off some of the creamier bits of his collection for the home viewer, and let’s just say that any one piece would make any musician’s day turn golden. If the above question about his money seems rude, you should know that Chinery is very up-front about the subject on video and freely talks about what he paid for certain pieces and what sort of tempting offers he has refused for his vintage groovies. My friend and guitar teacher, Mitch Block, played a party at Chinery’s New Jersey home and came back stupefied by the shear quantity of fine (not to mention important) guitars he saw there.

Secondly, anyone who’d watched the proliferation of ads for archtop builders in the guitar magazines realized that the instrument was on the rise. Many guitar carvers prefer to think of it as a rebirth, claiming that the archtop has evolved from a mere chord chopper into an instrument of enough sensitivity as to be useful for any kind of music. What the heck, I was certainly willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But why was the Blue Collection such a big deal? I couldn’t imagine.

Then Chinery and the Smithsonian decided to throw a shindig to celebrate archtops in general and the blue guitars in particular. Eighteen of the twenty-two builders were going to attend a public exhibition. Prominent musicians were to play. An exclusive party was scheduled. A concert at Wolftrap was part of the deal. Tim Olsen was invited but had to pass. Tim handed the invitation down to me because (I guessed) I was the GAL representative living closest to Washington DC. Even through the e-mail I could tell that he didn’t hold out much hope that I would accept.

Let me digress. It’s really the digressions that are important here. I was born something of a curmudgeon. I like to know what’s cool, but I want no part of it. Hippie philosophy was a natural for me. The masses were sheep, mainstream interests were insipid and worthless, yada-yada-yada. I dislike crowds and cities. But every once in a while a man has to step outside of his routine or the routine becomes nothing more than a comfortable jail cell. Plus, I knew that my wife, Jan, was open-minded enough to enjoy an insider's look at almost anything. I decided to go. I had a mental picture of two bumpkins off to visit the Big City, and that suited me just fine.

Strangely, this brings us to fashion. Fashion may be fun for the rich, but it’s a scam that keeps the rest of us buying new clothes before the old ones are worn out. These days all of my fashion sense comes from JC Penny commercials, and since all my pants were frayed and splotched with superglue, I cruised down to Penny’s for some new duds. I imagined that the racks of slacks were blue-burst guitars, there seemed to be a mental connection of some sort. I pretended I knew what I was doing as I toured the sale racks, bought a pair of Hagars (dark blue, of course), and I was ready for adventure.

We parked at the Metro station in Vienna and boldly ventured where neither of us had gone before. The train depot was jammed with college kids on their way to the Concert to Free Tibet at RFK Stadium. They seemed to float on a carpet of heady expectation, and Jan and I picked up the mood. I couldn’t figure out how to work the computerized ticket machine, though. Bumpkins, indeed. The stationer finally took mercy on us and punched out a pair of day passes. Unfortunately, his hands flew so fast that I didn’t learn the trick. Lesson one was down the tubes. We rode the Orange Line next to Route 66 until the train dove underground. The car was packed with music fans, but I’ve liked college kids ever since I was one, and the ride was fun. We got off the subway at the Smithsonian exit, and fortunately we asked for directions immediately. Rubes beware Ä the same street map that’s freely distributed by the Metro folks costs a buck or more from a street vendor out in the sunshine.

Where would you guess you’d find a guitar collection in the Smithsonian? The Museum of Fine Arts, maybe? How about in a crafts exhibit? Nope, it’s in the National Museum of American History, third floor. Go figure. There are only sixteen luthiers there instead of the scheduled eighteen, but that’s OK. The rooms are dark, crowded, and noisy, but that’s fine, too. The permanent exhibition hall houses old Italian fiddles and fine French harpsichords, but they seem neglected and unimportant compared to the sweaty exuberance surrounding the blue guitars. Encased in glass is the blue-burst D’Aquisto that inspired the collection. Its soft edges, nuevo soundholes, lack of trim, and slotted headstock give it a look of airy lightness, as if it was levitating in the spotlights. I shot a few pictures, met a few friends, and hunted down a pair of guest passes which (wonder of wonders) entitled us to a free lunch in the Presidential Suite. Damn!

Tom Ribbecke joined us for lunch. Linda Manzer came to sit with Tom. Steve Grimes took a seat. I was never going to find a more esteemed company to answer my question.
“What is the significance of the blue guitars?”

They stared at each other for a minute as if asking “Who is this guy?”, shrugged, and mutely went back to their sandwiches. Was it possible that the blue collection had no obvious significance? “Being part of the collection has brought me a lot more orders,” offered Manzer. The others nodded in agreement. It must have been obvious that I was hoping for something more.

“In one big gush of money he has captured the state of the archtop art,” said Ribbecke. “He told us it had to be 18" across the lower bout, the fingerboard had to be of certain dimensions, and it had to be blue. Other than that, we were given free reign. Each guitar is our own statement of what the archtop ought to be.”

“OK, but why should the Smithsonian give a damn?”

No one had any idea.

Jan and I ventured back upstairs. Let me mention that Jan has a balance problem that makes her approach escalators with a good deal of trepidation. She gets on and off with hesitation and a sudden lunge. It’s fun to watch, but she doesn’t enjoy it. We couldn’t find the stairs, and we’d been up and down the building three times before we realized it had elevators. Bumpkinitus strikes again.

The exhibition hall was thronged with tourists and guitar junkies. Ken Vose was selling copies of his book about the collection, Blue Guitar, and folks were traveling in rambling circles trying to collect autographs from all the luthiers. Whenever a table was vacated I stepped in and asked my question. I was getting tired of hearing myself ask it.

“The significance of the blue guitars? It got me to the Smithsonian. Where could we go from here. The Met, maybe?” said John Zeidler.

At the Buscarino display I actually had another question.

“What’s the connection between the jazz guitar and Italian surnames?”

“There seems to be one, doesn’t there? Lots of Italian builders, and lots of Italian guitarists.”

None of us offered the obvious comment about a jazz Mafia.

Scott Chinery was everywhere, always in the middle of a flock of enthusiasts. I managed to introduce myself and take a picture, but conversation was impossible. Then the wheel of autograph hounds turned again, and we were swept away with it. At one point Jan began yanking at my waist.

“Jesus, John, you still have a price tag stuck on your pants.”

Damn! I was sure I’d picked them all off.

“I guess that makes me the official Minnie Pearl of the show.”

A party at the National Museaum of American History on the t hird floor
Hippie's nightmare: a fashionable party

The swirl of people and the din of conversation was exhausting. I suggested that we retreat to the first floor to hear some live music in the Carmichael Auditorium. To Jan’s relief we finally discovered the elevators. The auditorium felt like a sanctuary. The air was cool and there was only one source of noise. Ron Affif was leading a trio through some tunes I didn’t recognize. I’m not a fan of jazz, but after a few minutes it was apparent that jazz was a mysterious language that the musicians knew very well. The music didn’t move me, but the dialog between the guitar and bass was wonderful. The drummer tossed in appropriate punctuation.

Jan suggested that we step outside to warm up. The transition from the body-temperature exhibition to the AC of the auditorium had been too much. But dozens of people blockaded the exits. We pushed our way out to find that the weather had changed. The sultry summer afternoon had caved in to a fierce thunderstorm that slashed across Washington, left 41,000 Virginians without power, and nonfatally electrocuted a dozen spectators out at RFK stadium, forcing the cancellation of the evening performances to free Tibet. I love ferocious weather. We huddled under the eaves of the museum while the lightning flashed and the wind ripped at the street vendors hiding in their trucks.

Then I had a vision. Well, maybe a sudden realization was more like it, but it was powerful. I suddenly knew that culture has a hidden language just like jazz, and that I wasn’t a student of that language, I was one of the words. No wonder I didn’t understand what was going on around me.

A generation ago I was able to read more widely, see all the movies, listen to a wide variety of music. I thought of myself as a student of American culture even though I belonged to the counter-culture. But I suspect that goofy youthfulness prevented me from drawing any accurate conclusions. As I became cramped for time my focus narrowed until I totally lost track of nearly everything but lutherie, and it was pretty obvious that my life was going to stay that way. I was willing to bet that it was the same for all the archtop builders upstairs. Ironically, it made me think about fashion again. Fashion was the fickle tip-top of the American cultural iceberg, and the real culture-making machinery was hidden deep from our sight. It was the job of the folks at the Smithsonian to see things clearly and sort them out. Without their help I wasn’t going to get any answers, and I was running out of the energy to keep trying.

The exhibition closed at 4:00, and the party didn’t start until 7:00. Jan and I decided to hang out. At 5:30 the security guards ran out the last of the tourists but our guest passes were still respected. We were left alone in the great museum. I couldn’t decide whether to tool down the halls on an 1830s French hobbyhorse or try out the Harley ElectroGlide. Before I could set off any alarms Jan suggested that we return upstairs to watch the birth of a celebration. The caterers were set up in an elevator the size of a U-haul truck. Chairs and tables were being assembled in the exhibition hall. A pair of musicians tuned their guitars on the low stage. We took shelter in a room dedicated to the history of the player piano, just to be out of the way. The rooms next door were given to the history of ceramics, so we wandered around in there. When nature called we couldn’t find the third-floor rest rooms, but on the way to the elevator we did find the stairwell. The door was open.

“Feel like some exercise?” I asked Jan.

But the second-floor door was locked. I had a horrible premonition as I raced back up the stairs. Yup, the third-floor door had locked behind us. I could climb over the iron gate down to the first floor, but I knew that door, too, would be locked. We had a good laugh, then we called for help on the security phone. The guard had been a lot of fun down in the lobby, but we were straining his sense of humor. He was suspicious, as if perhaps our intention was to steal a valuable piece of the stairwell.

“Stay put, we’ll come get you.”

After twenty minutes I called him again. His mood was downright ugly.

A young boy gets free merchandise from the Scott Chinery Collection, Blue Guitar exhibition
“Kid, when I was your age we made guitars with chisles! And we had to rub them on special rocks to sharpen them!”

“Exactly where are you?” he demanded.

Soon a voice called down from the floor above. An angry voice. I explained that the door had been left open, and after he decided to believe us, we knew that heads were going to roll in the morning.

A party was born while we were incarcerated, and the sun had come out for a last shot of glory before setting. Through the big window the Washington Monument stood like a confident promise that the American Tomorrow was going to be all right. We drank white wine while the smoked salmon was put out. Luthiers and other pretty people arrived. It was easy to tell the luthiers from the other guests. They were the ones in rumpled jackets and shirts with hanger puckers in the shoulders. No fashion sense, just lives dedicated to doing a difficult thing well. Folks I liked.

I tried not to ask any silly questions for the rest of the night. We discovered that not only had Scott Chinery paid for the party, he had picked up all the travel expenses for the guitarmakers and their companions. He seems to be as generous an ally as lutherie is going to find. Shortly after they served the tiny pastries and teeny cups of coffee we rode the train back to reality.

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