Tom Manuel's basement music room is reminiscent of Aladdin's cave, if you substitute the diamonds, rubies, pearls and magic lamp for trumpets, trombones, sheet music and other jazz memorabilia from the 1930s, '40s and '50s.
All these items and more -- autographed pictures, vintage LPs and diaries that once belonged to jazz musicians who played alongside greats like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong -- are bursting from the seams in an underground room in St. James. A narrow path winds through the maze of cabinets, stacked boxes, bookcases and bureaus, all packed to their brims with a massive collection chronicling a colorful era slowly fading into obscurity.
Manuel, 35, has become the caretaker of a collection whose appeal lies in its scope and origins: Most of the memorabilia was entrusted to him as a result of friendships he cultivated over the past two decades with musicians who are now deceased.
"They were my dear friends," said Manuel, who plays trumpet and is a teaching assistant in the music department at Stony Brook University, where he is also pursuing a doctorate in jazz studies. "I learned from them, but most have since died and I really miss them."
The collection consists of thousands of jazz-related objects and personal histories that detail the careers of instrumentalists, composers and arrangers, many of whom, despite the nomadic life of a band musician, kept a permanent home on Long Island.
Manuel and others want to make sure the collection stays here and can be seen and appreciated by the masses, in a more public domain.
"Tom Manuel's fascinating collection of musical and historical treasures shouldn't languish in a basement," said Perry Goldstein, chairman of Stony Brook University's department of music. "We hope to bring it to Stony Brook, where it can be brought to life by jazz performers and scholars."
Manuel spoke to others about housing his collection before settling on Stony Brook, preferring its reputation of focusing on contemporary music rather than classical. He said he inquired with other institutions on and off the Island but found that most either had less active music departments, already had large archives on-site or would have just kept it in storage.
Ray Anderson, director of jazz studies at Stony Brook, is more than impressed by the collection.
"In terms of sheer volume and the fact that most of it was handed directly to Tom by his musician friends is amazing," he said.
The collection provides a rare peek at the tools of the trade of a host of jazzmen who once rode high in the heyday of the jazz era. Jazz could be heard in nightclubs like Sonny's in Seaford, Cosmos in Farmingdale, the Patchogue Hotel and in a string of other hotels, restaurants and pavilions on the shore of Lake Ronkonkoma. Many local watering holes held jazz nights.
Manuel refers to the jazzmen as "sidemen to the stars because they'd performed with everyone from the Dorseys and Ellington to Armstrong and Basie, and with every notable ensemble and personality in between, in every theater and club from the Paramount and Apollo in New York to the Sands in Vegas, and even the one-time hot spot Patchogue Hotel on Long Island."
Boxes are marked with each musician's name. There's one for bassist Lloyd Trotman, who played jazz classics like "Take the A Train" with Ellington's orchestra. Other boxes are similarly filled with personal effects like diaries, letters and original sheet music, some personalized with pencil-scribbled margin notes alerting the instrumentalist about chords, solos and tempos.
A 1919 Cheney Talking Machine stands ready to drop its needle arm onto "The Dixie Jass One Step," a circa 1917 platter widely recognized as the first jazz record and considered to be the spark that ignited the jazz craze.
Gurus-of-cool Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and dozens more entertainers watch from behind the archival glass of framed photographs that lean against the wall or stand on every level surface. Hundreds more authentically autographed photos that were gifts to the sidemen are filed in cabinets.
"All this is just part of the collection," said Manuel, who is divorced and has two children. "There's more in the garage and in just about every room in the house. The place seems cluttered, but I have everything cataloged and I keep tabs on the temperature and humidity throughout."
He stores paper items out of the light in opaque archival paper boxes and folders. Photographs are kept away from sunlight and are housed in frames purchased at yard sales and paired with archival UV-resistant glass and mattes of archival paper.
The basement is a uniform year-round temperature of about 60-65 degrees, and Manuel uses dehumidifiers to keep the air dry. He vacuums and dusts about once a month.
"I'm not a museum, but I do the best I can to keep everything in good condition," Manuel said.
Love for music began early
Manuel began collecting at an early age.
"It started at a garage sale my high school music teacher found," he said, recalling that he was about 16 at the time. "He knew I'd organized a Big Band and told me about a music library I could buy for $500. So my grandpa spotted me the money and off we went to clear out 20 file cabinets loaded with band manuscripts spanning 1920-1960 once used by a Dixie group called The Original Georgia Five. They were Long Island locals who were pros on Broadway in the 1920s and even cut five studio recordings. From then on I was a collector, historian, preserver and most importantly a re-creator, as I actually used the music and still do."
Well before his teen years, as a fourth-grader learning to play the trumpet, Manuel had set his sights on a future in music. A decade later he recalled that that future was driven by his fascination with the "great American era of jazz."
Through Sachem School District's two high schools and Boston University College of Fine Arts, where he earned a master's degree in music followed by an eight-year stint as a music teacher at Islip High School, Manuel organized Big Bands and lectured on jazz, both of which still occupy part of his time.
The eclectic career led to the collecting spree Manuel has followed as he continues to network on gigs and socially with performers of all ages and at all levels of expertise. "But I'd always preferred to hang with older, sage jazz legends like drummer Percy Brice, who backed up Sarah Vaughan and Harry Belafonte, or Al Gallodoro, who played clarinet in 'Rhapsody in Blue' with Paul Whiteman's orchestra," Manuel said. "I was especially fond of Chuck Genduso, a trumpet player with celebrated band leaders like Harry James, Eddy Duchin and many top Big Bands, even the house band at the Westbury Music Fair."
Among the collection's gems is a handful of personally signed letters on official stationery from world figures and U.S. presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, thanking band leader Lester Lanin for gigs at inaugural balls.
"Lanin was also a favorite of the British royal family and played for many events across the pond," Manuel said. "I especially cherish those from the Queen and Prince Edward, but they're all bits of history."
The letters have a charmingly intimate tone. In 1986, Prince Edward wrote: "Dear Lester, . . . This is the honest truth, Lester. The Queen enjoyed your music so much . . . last year that Her Majesty was wondering if there was any chance of your making the journey once more to our shores." It was signed "Yours sincerely, Edward."
Plans to share the collection
Searingtown resident Jean Prysock, 87, widow of vocalist Arthur Prysock, said she hopes Manuel's quest is successful.
"Arthur sang for years with Count Basie at the Apollo and Cotton Club in the 1940s; he left our basement full of sheet music and photos," she said. "Tom is like my adopted son, and he's welcome to anything he wants; I'm sure he'll put it to good use."
Manuel acquired much of his collection this way, noting that he became known as the guy to give these treasures to when his friends or their families wanted to pass the torch.
"They knew that their prized possessions would be kept alive in my hands," he said.
That's how Al Genduso felt when he gave Manuel some of the horns and music of his father, Chuck, of Valley Stream, after he died in 2010.
"My dad and Tom were very close," said Genduso, 59, who lives in Ronkonkoma. "They shared this passion for the melodies and techniques. I was happy to give Tom some of his horns and music because I know Dad would have wanted him to have them."
And now Manuel wants those and other items in his collection to have the limelight fitting of their legacy.
"I know my old friends would want their music to be out there for everyone to experience their energy, passion and joy as I do," he said.
After a lecture on the influence of Big Band music during World War II, Tom Manuel and a five-man jazz ensemble, Firehouse Five, will perform swing music using period instruments. A sampling of items from his collection will also be on display.
Where: The Long Island Museum, 1200 Rte. 25A, Stony Brook
When: June 8 at 2 p.m.
Admission: Free with museum admission; $9 adults; $7 seniors; $4 students; free 5 and under.