Jay Scott Odell (b. 1935) was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Adalberta Lavoie Odell and Jay Geddes Odell. The family moved frequently throughout his childhood, resulting in Odell having lived at fourteen different addresses and attending seven different schools by the time he graduated high school in 1953. When the family settled in Mamaroneck, New York, in 1950, Odell met poet Peter Kane Dufault, and musician and poet Burt Porter, two figures who would go on to strongly influence his personal and professional development. It was on the advice of Dufault, for example, that Odell apprenticed with harpsichord-maker William Dowd after college.
Odell attended Middlebury College where he met his future wife, Dorothy "Dottie" Hiebert. After graduating in 1957, Hiebert moved to France and Odell took a position on the boat of Dutch writer Jan DeHartog before joining Hiebert to travel Europe. By 1959, they had returned to the United States (Boston, Massachusetts) and married. It was at this point in their lives that they became active in the peace movement and the early Folk Revival. Odell's relationship with Burt Porter continued, and he developed contacts with other musicians including Peter and Polly Gott, Tom "Tom Banjo" Azarian, Mike Seeger, and Tracy Schwartz. The Odells also became involved with the Bread and Puppet Theater group, founded by Peter and Elka Schumann, which established its primary location in Glover, Vermont, near Porter's property.
Odell is particularly notable for his work in musical instrument conservation at the Smithsonian Institution and his involvement in the development of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. In 1963, following his harpsichord apprenticeship with William Dowd, Odell was hired by the Smithsonian as a musical instrument conservator. Under Cynthia Hoover and C. Malcolm Watkins, he established a restoration workshop for musical instruments at the National Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History. Over the course of his career, Odell served not only as a conservator but also as head of a technical laboratory and, eventually, as the first director of conservation in the history of the Institution.
Odell was a key figure in the shifting philosophy of the musical instrument department regarding its collections and acquisition practices. With Hoover, Odell helped establish and facilitate a concert series with the mission of "[taking] the instruments out of their cases and [letting] them sing" – a major innovation in museum programming. Odell's commitment to bringing music history and traditions to life manifested in the expansion of the Smithsonian concert series, his relationship with Ralph Rinzler, and his early involvement with the Festival of American Folklife, now the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Although his professional training was in working with historical keyboard instruments, Odell's lifelong interest in traditional and regional music had a significant impact on his career. Between 1964 and 1977, when Odell was head of the laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution's Division of Musical Instruments, he undertook a series of collecting trips throughout the Eastern United States to expand the Division's collection of traditional American instruments.
In 1964, Odell and Porter attended the Annual Galax Old Time Fiddlers Convention. Following this initial trip, Hoover and Watkins supported Odell's efforts to, in addition to acquiring objects for the collection, research and record the cultural contexts of those instruments. Over the course of these trips, Odell built personal relationships with many of the musicians and craftspeople with whom he worked, including the Melton-Russell family, Tommy Jarrell, and Fred Cockerham.
Odell retired in 1993, but continued contract work at the Smithsonian. Working for the National Museum of American History, he assisted with the care and description of the Museum's banjo collection, as well as the acquisition of the Grimes and Jeffries dulcimer collection. He has also maintained associations with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. In 1998, Odell co-produced a record through Smithsonian Folkways with folklorist Cecelia Conway titled "Black Banjo Songsters," which focused on the African American banjo tradition and featured many of the artists with whom Odell had built relationships.