Employee Q&A: Music Curator Keith Pawlak

Employee Q&A: Music Curator Keith Pawlak

By Alexis BlueUniversity Communications
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Music curator Keith Pawlak holds a handwritten version of "White Christmas."
Music curator Keith Pawlak holds a handwritten version of "White Christmas."

Keith Pawlak

Music Curator/Adjunct Music Instructor, School of Music

Number of years at the UA

Favorite part of working at the UA
"I just love the flexibility that I have to do a lot of types of research projects that I really have a passion for."


Not many people know it's there, but inside the University of Arizona's Slonaker House is a collection of music and music memorabilia that includes everything from the original theme song from "The Dating Game" to a trombone once owned by famous swing bandleader Tommy Dorsey.

Handwritten sheets of music, black and white photographs of Frank Sinatra and other famous faces, even an Oscar statue given to musician Nelson Riddle in the 1970s, are just a few of the thousands of pieces in the UA's extensive jazz and popular music archive.

Managed by music curator Keith Pawlak, the archive is dedicated primarily to preserving the music of mid-20th century Hollywood and popular Capitol Records artists of that era.  

When he isn't sorting through the works and belongings of big-name artists of the past, Pawlak teaches jazz history in the School of Music and leads the UA's Archive Ensemble, a musical group that helps keep archived music alive by performing it throughout the year. 

Pawlak recently sat down to talk with Lo Que Pasa about his work to preserve old Hollywood's musical memories.

What's in the archive?
The bulk of what we have is from the 1940s to the 1960s. ... What is most important are the handwritten manuscripts. We have original scores written by some of the greatest composers and arrangers who were working in mid-20th century Hollywood. So not only do we have the collections of Nelson Riddle but other artists who worked at Capitol (Records) like Paul Weston and Jo Stafford, Les Baxter ... jazz artists like Paul Horn, Robert Drasnin, just a big range of materials. ... What we've been doing for the past 10 years is trying to get this music out there and try to see it performed and see it really live so it's not just holed up in a box. ... There's also awards, photographs, letters, business documents, all sorts of ephemera.

How did the archive get its start?
We got the Artie Shaw collection in 1991; Artie Shaw was one of the biggest bandleaders of the swing era. ... We ended up getting both of those collections (Shaw and Nelson Riddle) over a span of seven or eight years. Then I stepped in as a student worker, began processing the Riddle collection and just got really excited about the music that was contained within those collections and thought that it would be great to focus on those artists who worked towards developing this music of mid-20th century Hollywood, mid-20th century America. ... So I started going after potential donors and making trips out to Hollywood and we started receiving really big collections from a lot of big-name composers.

Why the interest in that era?
In American music there was this jazz culture, this American tradition that sprouted up around 1900 and continued to develop over the decades and that led into, really, what became the American musical identity. ... This American music tradition began to set itself apart from the European (music) tradition and we started to create the sound that was ours alone and that continued to build and really peak towards the 1950s and 1960s.

Who uses the archive?
Primarily orchestras and then researchers. ... There are a lot of orchestras across the country and around the world who are playing this music and a lot of people in Hollywood who are using it, (like) Seth MacFarlane, (creator of the animated series) "Family Guy."

Where do you get materials?
I take tons of trips to LA. I go out there at least three times a year, just talk to people. I get to know them and they get to see what type of work I do. ... The first collection I received was the Tommy Shepard collection. ... (When his widow passed away) I literally saved this collection that was feet away from the trash pile. There were about 10,000 photographs taken of the end of the studio area – pictures of Frank Sinatra, unpublished photographs of him in the studio, pictures of Judy Garland, things like that.

Have you met any of the artists or are they usually deceased when you get the collections?
I always joke around that I don't make any friends or acquaintances out there (in LA) unless they're over 75. But I do sometimes get the chance to go out and hang out at the motion picture studios and I've gotten to know (Seth) MacFarlane. He's invited me over to a couple of his parties. He's been a big supporter of the archive. ... He gave the archive a nice donation. He also appreciates this legacy and he tries to throw a lot of this stuff (music) in his shows.

Why is it so important to preserve these materials?
It's an era that I think is quickly fading away from memory, and the treasures that were created during this time period, many of them have disappeared, and I think we owe it to ourselves as a culture to try to save it.

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