Musical Instrument Museum celebrates music of Arizona

Posted on by az100

Posted: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 10:00 am

Raquel Velasco, Special to Tribune

Arizona turned 100 last week and while you may have sang “Happy Birthday,” the music most appropriate for Arizona’s centennial is at a global musical museum in north Phoenix.

“I Am AZ Music,” a new exhibit at the Musical Instrument Museum, gives plenty of attention to well-known Arizonans such as Alice Cooper, Linda Ronstadt and Jordin Sparks. But it also celebrates under-the-radar acts that helped push musical boundaries inside and outside our state’s lines.

From fiddles to guitars, the exhibit examines Arizona’s history through a musical lens, telling the story of numerous musicians, musical instrument makers, recording studios and musical traditions significant to Arizona’s past and future.

“I Am AZ Music” consists of more than 30 exhibits, each including artifacts, photographs and audiovisual content designed to bring its subjects to life.

“As a newcomer to Arizona, I have been extremely impressed by the sheer amount of musical ingenuity that has come out of the state,” says MIM curator Cullen Strawn, a key player in the exhibit, which will run 11 months.

Strawn says team research on Arizona’s musical past led to interesting exhibit ideas.

“With the help of lenders across the state and beyond, a number of these ideas became realities in time for the exhibition,” he says.

The exhibit gives visitors the opportunity to examine different genres and cultures of music, such as cowboy music, mariachi music, rock, jazz, pop and the music of some Arizona-based Native American groups.

There are also up-close looks at instruments such as country star Buck Owens’ red-white-and-blue guitar and a double-neck model strummed by guitarist Duane Eddy on “American Bandstand.”

The show personalizes things further with garments, such as the gold dress that Glendale’s Jordin Sparks wore the night she won “American Idol,” and two stage outfits donned by Alice Cooper during the filming of “Dark Shadows,” a movie expected to be released this year.

Longtime Arizona music historian John P. Dixon says, “There are so many styles of music that have an Arizona influence. You will see these things, and you will also get to hear audio.”

The MIM exhibit uses visitors’ headsets to play music that automatically changes as they stroll through the decades. Audio and video clips familiarize guests with the unique sounds of each musical culture, allowing them to “share a common experience,” Strawn says.

Historic photos and a timeline add more perspective.

“We wanted guests to experience a rich mix of audiovisual content, exquisitely built musical instruments, photographs, and other artifacts that will entertain but also educate,” says Strawn.

Part of “I Am AZ Music” is an exhibit on Canyon Records. The label was founded more than 60 years ago by Phoenix media pioneers Ray and Mary Boley, who specialized in producing and distributing Native American music.

Musical instrument manufacturers that make Arizona their home are also featured, including Navajo-Ute flute maker Aaron White, Yaqui drum and rattle maker Alex Maldonado, White Mountain Banjo Works, Phoenix Guitar Company, classical guitar maker Brian Dunn, Apache fiddle maker Anthony Belvado, and the famous Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. The Valley was put on the nation’s map of fine instrument makers in 1975, when the luthiery, or guitar making and repair, school opened.

Co-founder and current director William Eaton has become internationally known for the one-of-a-kind instruments he created at the school.

“I envision some sound I am looking for, and an instrument is created,” Eaton says. “I do that simply out of passion of a performer.”

Eaton recently built an 18-foot-long, 18-string instrument from a dead tree on the school’s property.

More than 1,700 students from every continent except Antarctica have graduated from the school, says Eaton.

Strawn says he can’t wait to see what Arizona musicians will create beyond what “I Am AZ Music” already has on display.

“If the coming 100 years are anything like what we have seen so far, music fans have a lot to look forward to,” he says.

Entry to the “I Am AZ Music” exhibit is included with regular admission to the Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix. For hours, admission fees and information, call (480) 478-6000 or visit

• Raquel, a senior studying journalism at Arizona State University, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact her at (480) 898-6514 or

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