When I heard the news on NPR this morning that Paul Allen had died, my mind immediately went to Sister Ignatius. I had long heard rumors that Allen, co-founder of Microsoft with Bill Gates and billionaire businessman and philanthropist, purchased Sister Ignatius’s record collection and so I inquired and confirmed this fact in December 2015 with the director of curatorial affairs for the Experience Music Project, the museum that Allen founded in Seattle. Today the museum is called the Museum of Pop Culture and one year after it opened in 2000 it housed an exhibit called, “Island Revolution: Jamaican Rhythm From Ska To Reggae, 1956-1981.” It was then, for this exhibit and for their permanent vaults, that the museum purchased a number of artifacts from Alpha Boys’ School, including instruments (one of Don Drummond’s trombones), the iconic Alpha sign (which was loaned out to the Jamaica! Jamaica! exhibit in Paris in 2017), and Sister Ignatius’s own turntable.
But it is Sister Ignatius’s record collection that is in Allen’s private collection. These are the records that Iggy used to instruct the boys, shaping their musical education by illustrating the sounds of all genres of music. Here is an excerpt from my chapter on Sister Ignatius in Alpha Boys’ School: Cradle of Jamaican Music that illustrates how important this record collection was to her boys:
“It was because of her passion for all kinds of music that the band program prospered. It is quite a sight to imagine ‘Bones’ in her full habit, spinning records at a DJs turntables, music pumping from the huge speakers for the boys who danced to the hits, but that’s exactly what Sister Ignatius did on many occasions at Alpha Boys School. Sparrow Martin recalls his days as a student when they all listened to her tunes. ‘So she would come on Saturdays and she would have a whole lot of record, you name it, classical, jazz record, pop record, all kind, Latin, American, European music, Cuban music, and mento music, and she would say, “Okay today we are going to listen to classical music,” and she would take out Beethoven, Bach, and she says, especially to the band boys, “Listen to your classical music.” Then she’d say, “Okay, I’m going to play jazz for you today,” and she’d play jazz music. Then she’d play Cuban music. Now we don’t speak Spanish but she would take Spanish music from Cuba and she’d say, “Listen to the drums, listen to the bass, listen to how they play saxophone.” She would sit down with you so you have the interest,’ says Martin … Tony Greene remembers her spinning records for the boys and said she had a fine ear for popular music. ‘She know everything that was going on outside on the street. She could tell you what song was number one what song was number two, anywhere in the world. She used to amaze us! We’d say, “How she know that? How she interested in that?”‘
So what will happen to Sister Ignatius’s record collection? One would assume that it will become part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Pop Culture, but this is likely a matter for the lawyers and estates. I do know that I asked the curator of the museum to donate the Alpha Sign back to Alpha Institute or to the Jamaica Museum Museum since it is part of Jamaica’s cultural and historical heritage and is not even on display in Seattle and sitting in the vaults. I was told that it is available for loan, if the institutions in Jamaica wanted to borrow it. Though I know that Sister Ignatius had the best intentions of her boys at heart, selling these items to acquire essential funds for the school that have deeply benefited the education and care and well being of these children who now will go on to lead productive and healthy lives, thanks to this sale; I still cannot help but feel that it is somehow wrong for a wealthy American businessman to essentially exploit and harvest the fruits of the rich cultural heritage of Jamaica. If the items were on display (and I know that a large percentage of museums have their valuable collections in vaults and not on display), that might be different since the public would be able to view, enjoy, learn from, and be inspired by these artifacts. But when they are in storage, and worse yet, in a private collection, that just feels like the spoils of wealth. I don’t doubt for a second that Paul Allen deeply loved and cherished these records and that he was a worthy vanguard but this seems different than just a record collection–these are historical artifacts.
What are your thoughts?
Here is some more information on Paul Allen:
According to Business Insider, May 21, 2015, Paul Allen’s $200 million superyacht named “Octopus” has plenty of amenities, including a glass bottom swimming pool, basketball court, movie theater, two submarines, and two helicopter landing pads. Also notable though is that “Mick Jagger has used the recording studio onboard. A longtime fan of rock and roll — he built an entire museum dedicated to Jimi Hendrix memorabilia — Allen reportedly lent Octopus’ recording studio to Mick Jagger when he was recording an album with SuperHeavy in 2011. Usher, Dave Stewart, U2, and Johnny Cash have all reportedly performed onboard Octopus.”
According to Reuters, April 30, 2013, the following is a shortlist of Allen’s involvement in various sectors of business and philanthropy:
Microsoft – Co-founders Allen and Bill Gates started off with a 64/36 partnership. Allen’s share was worth about $30 billion at the company’s zenith in 1999-2000. He now has only a small stake.
Asymetrix/Starwave/Metricom – his first projects after leaving Microsoft in 1983 never lived up to expectations.
Interval Research – Allen set up his own idea lab in 1992, but it was too unfocused to bring its ideas to life. He shut it down in 2000.
America Online – Allen dumped his 24.9 percent stake in 1994 for a $75 million profit. Those shares would have been worth more than $40 billion at the height of the tech stock bubble.
Charter Communications – Allen calculates he lost $8 billion on cable firms Charter and RCN in an unsuccessful attempt to buy into the internet delivery business.
Wireless Spectrum – Allen’s advisers say he has made a “very large profit” investing in wireless and telecom tower infrastructure.
Vulcan Energy Corp – a unit of Vulcan Capital, invested $200 million in Plains All American Pipeline several years ago, and says it has generated $2.25 billion in returns.
DreamWorks SKG – Allen invested about $700 million in the movie studio in the 1990s, eventually doubling his money.
Seattle’s South Lake Union (SLU) – Allen has made a massive profit from renovating this dilapidated commercial area, boosted by the growth of Amazon.com
Portland Trail Blazers – The basketball franchise Allen bought for $65 million in 1988 is now value at $457 million.
Seattle Seahawks – Allen bought his hometown football team for $194 million in 1997. It is now valued at more than $1 billion.
Seattle Sounders – Allen is part of the ownership group of Major League Soccer’s best supported team.
EMP Museum – Pop/rock music museum in Seattle inspired by Jimi Hendrix and housed in swirling Frank Gehry-designed structure costing $250 million.
Allen Institute for Brain Science – inspired by watching his late mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, Allen has invested $500 million in this research institute.
The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation – Run together with his sister Jody, the main arm of Allen’s philanthropic activities focuses on the Pacific Northwest.
Universities – Allen has given millions of dollars to the University of Washington and his alma mater Washington State University, chiefly for libraries, medical and science research.
Allen puts his total giving at more than $1.5 billion.
SpaceShipOne – An Allen-funded team won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004 by sending the first privately built manned rocket into space.
Stratolaunch Systems – Allen set up this new company to ferry people and cargo into space. First flight of the launch aircraft is slated for 2016.