New Tucson Musicians Museum opening at 17th Street Music Store

September 6, 2011

By Teya Vitu


Everybody knows Tucson has quite a robust music scene.

Just about any night, clubs and other venues somewhere in town offer up the top talent that has called Tucson home for decades.

The Tucson Musicians Museum has 120 portraits of longtime Tucson musicians. Photo by Susan French.

Once a year, the Celebration of Music & Culture spotlights the best of the best across all traditional genres of music in the form of concert performances by the newest inductees into the Tucson Musicians Museum.

The Celebration of Music & Culture on Sept. 11 inducted nine longtime Tucson musicians into the museum:  Carl Cherry, Toni Clark-Fathers, Bryan Dean, William Don Carlos, Mike Kuhn, Richard Leek, Tim O’Connor, Jose Yebra and David Plank.

Admittedly, it’s hard to get your arms around the local music scene because there hasn’t been one place where you could find all the local music legends.

A Tucson Musicians Museum has been mentioned a couple times in this story. What museum? So far, the museum has been the annual Celebration concert, this year being staged for the fifth time.

But a real museum is finally taking shape, in the fifth year of the Tucson Musicians Museum’s initial five-year plan.

The museum is integrated into the 17th Street Music Store, which has an entry way into the 17th Street Market. The museum will have a grand opening some time in October.

The museum will start with the walls filled with large black-and-white portraits by photographer George Howard of the 120 inductees into the museum. Names such as Lalo Guerrero, R. Carlos Nakai, members of the Ronstadt family, the Lefkowitz brothers, Laszlo Veres, Rainer Ptacek and 100-some others worth equal mention.

Induction criteria includes being part of the Tucson music scene for at least 25 years (special exception for the late Ptacek for his “huge contribution”) and living here for the long haul. The museum sticks with the traditional genres, meaning “no punk, no rap, no DJs.”

In time, the museum will display a growing collection of mementos from inductees, mostly instrument. The first displayed memento will be the hat from guitarist and vocalist Dean Armstrong, who played for some 60 years with the Arizona Dance Hands at Little Abner’s Steakhouse.

“We have such a wealth of music talent but there is no continuity,” French said. “We are a hub of all the genres.”

The Celebration reflects that vividly with inductee performances touching on bagpipes, rock, jazz, folk, country, classical, gospel, blues, mariachi and rhythm & blues.

The museum idea got launched in 2006-07 during a chat French and Howard were having.

“Hey,” Howard said at one point, “I’ve got these great photographs. What do you think we could do with them?”

“What if we started a museum?” French offered.

French drafted a three-faceted mission statement revolving around celebration, perpetuation andpreservation.

The celebration component got off the ground right away with the first Celebration of Music & Culture concert in 2007 at the Rialto Theatre. The show then moved to the Fox Theatre and the Scottish Rite Temple before landing last year and this year at the JW Marriott Starr Pass.

The perpetuation part involves matching children in mentorship with inductees. So far, about 24 kids have been matched with four musicians.

“That’s part of this year, too, growing the mentorship program,” French said. The physical museum has taken longer but was always in the vision.

“That was an eventuality. It was in our five-year plan,” French said.

The museum ended up at the 17th Street Music Store because Tom Kusian is himself a musician, a guitarist and vocalist. Kusian is one of the owners of Tucson Food Service, which owns the entire industrial block, where the 17th Street Market and 17th Street Music Store fill only a small portion.

“I’ve known Tom for years,” French said. “He said, ‘Why don’t you bring it here?’”