Discovering Zena Latto

Gino Francesconi, Director of the Archives and Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall, recently published a wonderful blog post detailing the story of how the Archives learned of a Carnegie Hall concert that they had no record of called simply JAZZ: female. It had taken place on November 29, 1957, at the same time as the historically famous Thanksgiving benefit for the Morningside Community Center featuring some of the biggest names in jazz. One of the performers from this “forgotten” event, Zena Latto, had reached out to Carnegie Hall through Alexis Warrington, a graduate student at Florida State University, and Suzanne Lyda, director of social services at River Garden Hebrew Home where Zena lived. Zena, then 89 years old, shared a tattered flyer from her personal collection that documented the 1957 event. The Carnegie Hall Archives sent the flyer to the Northeast Document Conservation Center, and it is now beautifully conserved and held at Carnegie Hall.

Women in Jazz and Telling Zena Latto’s Story
Gino Francesconi and Rob Hudson, Associate Archivist at Carnegie Hall and a friend of the Linked Jazz Project, reached out to Linked Jazz Director Cristina Pattuelli about Zena because of our project’s ongoing work to reveal relationships in the jazz community. We were excited to connect with Zena given our particular focus on helping increase the visibility of women in jazz  and lesser-known musicians who are often left out of the jazz narrative. We organized Women in Jazz Wikipedia Edit-a-thons in 2014 and 2015, and have released a gender view as part of our Network Visualization tool from Karen Hwang’s work on enriching our network with gender information from linked open data sources including DBpedia, MusicBrainz, and VIAF. We have also been working to add new archival transcript data for women in jazz to our LOD-driven searchable network as part of the Women of Jazz: From the Archives to the Web of Jazz Data project, generously supported by the 2016 Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation-JEN Research Fellowship at the Smithsonian.

Zena Latto

Zena Latto in her sister Claire Richmond’s home in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Clair Richmond.

We connected with Zena and interviewed her via Skype in March 2015. The interview was conducted by Karen Hwang, who played an integral role in coordinating the connection, along with Cristina Pattuelli. Zena shared memories of growing up in the Bronx, of being inspired and mentored by Benny Goodman and hanging out on 52nd Street in the New York jazz scene, touring with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm into the 1950s and the racism the band faced as an interracial group, and of how she came to play at Carnegie Hall. The interview transcript is published on the Internet Archive; we also created a Wikipedia page for Zena.

“Everybody thought I was crazy. They were afraid I was going to become one of the girls that hang out with the guys, you know. I hung out with the guys, but nothing like that. No, everything was music. And one day I went to Benny [Goodman], and I said, “I want to take clarinet lessons.” 

-Excerpt from Zena Latto Interview, March 2015

We were very sorry to hear of Zena’s recent passing at the age of 90. Linked Jazz is honored to have had the opportunity to talk with Zena and to share some of her stories. Our team is now working to inventory and digitize a small collection of records containing Zena’s memorabilia, writings, and photographs, and is excited to continue to honor Zena’s life and career by adding additional items to the Internet Archive collection and exploring her network of influences through our ongoing work using linked open data technologies.

Many thanks to our friends at the Carnegie Hall Archives, and to Suzanne Lyda and Zena’s community who enabled our connection to Zena.