Del Mar couple claims ‘donor abuse’ in dispute with SDSU over rare music collection

Bram Dijkstra and his collection of rare albums
Bram Dijkstra is shown with part of his 50,000-strong album collection of jazz, blues, gospel, soul and reggae albums.
(Courtesy of Sandy Dijkstra )

Bram and Sandra Dijkstra say the school has reneged on an agreement to house The John Coltrane Memorial Black Music Archive


A plan to make San Diego State University the home of a prized collection of music recordings has fallen apart due to a dispute in which the archive’s owners and campus executives are accusing each other of deceit and disrespect.

Del Mar philanthropists Bram and Sandra Dijkstra said SDSU reneged on a signed 2020 agreement to accept The John Coltrane Memorial Black Music Archive after they refused the school’s request — a year after the agreement was signed — for $500,000 to further support the project.

The archive, valued at $1 million, contains nearly 50,000 rare jazz, blues, gospel, reggae, soul, and rhythm-and-blues albums that were primarily recorded by Black artists.

John Szwed, Columbia University’s director of the Center for Jazz Studies emeritus and Yale University’s John M. Musser professor of African American studies, anthropology and film studies emeritus, said the archive represents “one of the major music collections in America, not just in size, but in informed, scholarly curation, and one that singles out the brilliant creation of an art initiated and developed primarily by Black Americans.”

SDSU says that one year after it agreed to accept the collection, “new, high-cost requests were presented” by the Dijkstras.

“Such an occurrence is uncommon, and most nonprofit organizations, including universities, do not accept gifts that incur significant costs,” the school said in a statement released by the office of SDSU President Adela de la Torre.

The financial dispute includes, but is not limited to, how the costs would be handled for the cataloging and staffing of the collection, and for a listening room in SDSU’s Love Library.

“SDSU knew, when they acquired the gift, that it was their responsibility to make the sound recordings available to those interested, in a safe, secure, archival environment,” Sandra Dijkstra told the Union-Tribune. “We never presented any ‘unexpected costs’.”

A rare jewel

Saxophonist John Coltrane
Saxophonist John Coltrane shown in this undated photo. Coltrane died July 17, 1967, at 40.

The John Coltrane Memorial Black Music Archive, named after one of the most influential saxophonists in jazz history, was put together over a period of more than 60 years by Bram Dijkstra, an emeritus professor of literature at UC San Diego.

It includes all of the 200 or so albums Coltrane made, along with every album released on the storied Blue Note Records label between the mid 1950s and the late 1960s — an assortment so complete that not even the New York-based Blue Note label possesses physical copies of them all.

The collection also includes rare, self-produced albums by such jazz innovators as Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Milford Graves. And it includes an array of early reggae recordings issued by Jamaican labels whose releases were all but impossible to find outside of Jamaica.

SDSU actively sought the collection and agreed in June 2020 to house it in its library. That thrilled Patrick McCarthy, who was then the school’s interim library dean.

“This will get attention around the globe and bring people from all over San Diego to use the material,” McCarthy told the Union-Tribune at the time. “The music in Bram’s collection tells about a people, their lives, hopes, dreams and a huge cultural phenomenon that has had an enormous impact on American culture and beyond.”

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But McCarthy’s replacement, Library Dean Scott Walter, determined it would be more expensive than initially anticipated to manage the collection properly, according to the Dijkstras and emails from Walter to the couple. That led SDSU to try to renegotiate — and ultimately back out of — the agreement.

This caused a rift with the Dijkstras, who are in their early 80s.

“Basically,” Bram Dijkstra said, “we’ve been very much perplexed at everything going on. What Sandy has said is that, in a sense, we’re suffering from ‘donor abuse.’”

Sandra Dijkstra, a prominent literary agent, told SDSU administrators in an email last year that if the problem did not get worked out, “The headline will be, ‘Black music just doesn’t matter to SDSU.’”

Sandra Dijkstra noted that none of the three top SDSU administrators the Dijkstras have butted heads with over the collection are Black, citing de la Torre, SDSU Vice President for University Relations and Development Adrienne Vargas, and Walter, the new library dean. The Dijkstras are not Black, either.

The Dijkstras have the support of Adisa Alkebulan, chair of SDSU’s Department of Africana Studies. A failure to correct the situation would, Alkebulan said, “demonstrate that the university places no value on African American culture and by extension the African American community. The African American community of SDSU (are) offended and outraged by this affront from the university.”

Alkebulan wrote a resolution on the matter that was endorsed by seven other professors and which will be presented on Tuesday, March 1 to SDSU’s University Senate.

The resolution says, in part: “The decision to do away with this world-class resource and all its possibilities for furthering diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and scholarly pursuits was made in secret by administrators and (fundraising executives), without any faculty consultation, casting the darkest shadow upon SDSU’s claim to ‘equity and inclusion in everything we do.’”

De la Torre, who has worked on many initiatives to support the Black community, declined to discuss the controversy with the Union-Tribune. SDSU sent the Union-Tribune an email that said, in part, “As this was written as a bequest, the university had not yet received any part of the collection. Also, it is important to note that many of the recordings are available digitally through the library.

“SDSU will continue to identify new investments for its holdings and special collections that speak to the histories, cultures, languages and contributions of diverse communities.”

Walter, who has led the talks with the Dijkstras after the 2020 agreement was signed, did not respond to a request for comment.

The lengthy chain of emails between the Dijkstras and SDSU was provided to the Union-Tribune by the Dijkstras and sources at the university, and was supplemented with new interviews.

Twists and shouts

Sandra and Bram Dijkstra
Sandra and Bram Dijkstra at their Del Mar home.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The still unwinding saga of how The John Coltrane Black Music Archive was donated to — and then rejected by — SDSU contains enough twists to qualify as a vivid work of fiction.

In 2018, SDSU acquired Bram Dijkstra’s collection of rare pulp fiction magazines. Rob Ray, who was then SDSU’s special collections and university archives director, chanced upon the record collection by accident when he came to the Dijkstras’ Del Mar home to collect the pulp fiction magazines.

Ray, who has since retired from SDSU, was taken aback.

“First of all,” he told the Union-Tribune in 2020, “I was simply staggered by the Dijkstras’ art collection. And then, seeing Bram’s recorded sound collection, I couldn’t fathom how — in a single lifetime — something like this could be collected!”

Ray subsequently learned the Dijkstras were looking for a good home for Bram Dijkstra’s labor-of-love record collection, after discussions with USC had led to a dead end. Ray approached Rutgers University, UCLA and other schools with noted jazz libraries before realizing SDSU itself might be the ideal home for the Dijkstras’ collection.

After courting the couple, he won them over with his vision for how the collection could be showcased and heard by SDSU students, faculty and the public.

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McCarthy, who served as SDSU’s interim library dean between Roy’s retirement and Walter’s arrival, was ecstatic at the acquisition.

“It’s amazing,” McCarthy told the Union-Tribune in 2020. “We are a public university, we’re not swimming in money and there is no way we could ever afford to buy a collection like this. So this is really extraordinary, because we’re reliant on donations to acquire collections.”

The Dijkstras were similarly excited, until last year.

Relations with SDSU soured, the couple said, after the university sought to modify the agreement and indicated the Dijkstras would need to contribute $500,000 to ensure the record collection was accepted by SDSU.

Moreover, the Dijkstras contend, when top SDSU officials visited the couple at their multilevel Del Mar home last year, the officials had more than just Bram Dijkstra’s record collection in mind.

“They casually asked if we would donate our house to pay for the gift we were giving them,” Sandra Dijkstra said. “I said: ‘Absolutely not.’ They knew we didn’t have children and wanted to get everything they could.

“They kept accusing us of breaking the agreement, (but) it was they who were breaking the agreements,” she said. “The second or third way they tried to save face and rescind it was to say we had to die before they would accept the gift, which I don’t think any donor has ever been told before.”

“That was really (the last straw),” Bram Dijkstra said. “Clearly, the implication was: ‘After your death, we’ll get a hold of this (collection) and sell it.’ I had a sense there were several people (in the SDSU administration) that didn’t even know who John Coltrane was. So, in that sense it was a real shock to me to see how alien Black music is to a lot of people.”

Asked to respond, SDSU issued a statement:

“SDSU’s development team works with donors to explore how they can help advance the educational mission of the university through philanthropy. These conversations frequently include discussions about the types of assets donors may consider gifting, including cash, retirement account distributions, highly appreciated stock, or real estate. Most donors appreciate knowing ways they can support the university. The development team approaches these conversations with respect and the results are self-evident.”

‘Tone and manner’

The school’s efforts to have the Dijkstras contribute beyond the million-dollar collection itself was denounced by Ray, the now-retired SDSU special collections division head.

“To claim ‘unexpected costs’ after the agreement (was signed) is the smokescreen Walter and (SDSU’s Vice President for University Relations and Development Adrienne) Vargas have always used,” Ray told the Union-Tribune. “What was required or necessary in the $500,000 to manage the collection was never detailed — because it was B.S.”

In an email to Alkebulan last September, SDSU’s Vargas expressed her own frustration.

Vargas wrote: “If the Dijkstras continue to want to make the gift as a bequest, we are happy to honor it. What has changed since the original agreement was signed is the tone and manner in which the Dijkstras have communicated with Library leadership and me.

“There are more than 6,000 donors who support this great institution, nearly all of whom approach their relationship with the university with respect; the Dijkstras do not.”

In response, Sandra Dijkstra said: “At one point, Adela de la Torre or Adrienne Vargas said: ‘We won’t do this (deal) because you’ve been insulting and disparaging of members of the administration.’”

Dijkstra — who has represented such authors as Amy Tan, Nobel Prize-winner Mo Yan and Chitra Divakaruni — said she wrote back: “I never have been (insulting). But if I have — in my field as a literary agent I do contracts day in and out — insulting people is not a cause for breaching a contract.”

The Dijkstras said they are now in discussions with two other California universities about The John Coltrane Memorial Black Music Archive. Yet, in spite of how heated their dispute with SDSU has been, the couple have not closed the door on the school becoming the collection’s permanent home.

“A lot would depend on the promises made that could be kept,” Sandra Dijkstra said. “They’d have to spell out: ‘This is what we will do,’ and provide a timeline, and we’d have to know they can do that. If they can, we’re definitely open to that.”