At 30, What Does Jazz at Lincoln Center Mean?
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLOSEPT. 13, 2017
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s gala in November. The organization’s 30th anniversary season debuts this week. Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times
When the curtain rises on Thursday on the opener of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 30th season, its flagship orchestra will debut arrangements of Jelly Roll Morton’s compositions, some of which are a century old. That’s no surprise: The organization has never wavered from its commitment to jazz’s thickest roots.
But recently, Jazz at Lincoln Center has embraced plenty of contemporary tactics. In the last five years, its education operation has blossomed, and now reaches thousands of schools nationwide. Its multimedia offerings — including hundreds of educational videos and streams of most concerts — have been accessed millions of times.
It has been busily pioneering new angles of engagement and outreach, even as it holds the line against broader artistic changes sweeping the jazz world. At a time when canon-busting is nearly the national consensus, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s founding artistic director, Wynton Marsalis, maintains that jazz is a classical music with a fixed roster of heroes, and a nonnegotiable rhythmic foundation.
“There’s always going to be new things that people do,” Mr. Marsalis said in a recent interview. “Inasmuch as these forms have jazz at their root, we’ll try to bring them to Lincoln Center.
“We are a music that is constantly asked to abandon its own identity to become another thing. Why? What’s wrong with our identity?” he added. “We’re not going to do that at Jazz at Lincoln Center as long as I’m here.” (In 2015 the organization took over the URL jazz.org, echoing Mr. Marsalis’s decades-old argument that his definition — and now, his programmatic choices — divides “what jazz is — and isn’t.”)
Almost all of the artists set to perform this coming year on Jazz at Lincoln Center’s two major stages — the Rose Theater and the Appel Room — are over 50. Most will be playing a kind of jazz that’s in close contact with traditional bop, swing or New Orleanian jazz, and many concerts are focused on the repertoire of 20th-century figures like Morton, Thelonious Monk and Benny Goodman.
There will be one performance from Henry Threadgill, the avant-garde composer and Pulitzer Prize winner, but the point of the season is to establish a record, not to gaze at artistic horizons. (Mr. Marsalis does not personally book the acts at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the on-site venue that hosts smaller shows in abundance throughout the year; there is a bit more stylistic and generational breadth at that venue.)
Jazz at Lincoln Center typically sells out more than 90 percent of its seats for these major shows, so there is clearly a New York audience still interested in standard-issue jazz. Still, other performing arts centers have expanded their approach more willingly. In Washington, under the direction of the pianist Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center now books classic jazz heroes like Ron Carter alongside the rapper Q-Tip and the electric trio Harriet Tubman, whose improvised music sounds more like bluesy doom metal than bebop. In San Francisco, the SFJazz Center takes a similar tack.
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s decision to stay the traditionalist course has left a wide opening for other New York presenters — even as its nearly $50 million endowment gobbles up most of the city’s philanthropic jazz funding. This heterophony is, in fact, a good thing. It means diversity of artistic growth, and more points of contact for the public.
Jon Batiste, left, with Wynton Marsalis in a New York studio. Mr. Batiste studied a jazz canon Mr. Marsalis helped define. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Revive Music produces concerts that engage a double helix of jazz and hip-hop. Arts for Art, now in its third decade, presents avant-garde shows throughout the year and at the annual Vision Festival. And Winter Jazzfest, celebrating its 14th year in January, is now the city’s most renowned jazz festival; it includes artists from all over jazz’s spiritual spectrum, and has little time for conservatism.
Mr. Marsalis hit the scene in the early 1980s with a mind to clean house. For over 15 years, jazz had been fraying into attenuated alliances: free improvisers and avant-garde composers; jazz-rock fusion musicians; and, in Los Angeles more than New York, studio musicians combining soul-jazz with easy listening. He helped organize Lincoln Center’s first series of jazz concerts, Classical Jazz, in 1987, and in 1996 Jazz at Lincoln Center became its own independent organization.
It bought its own building in Columbus Circle, leading to a period of precipitous but difficult growth. Greg Scholl came on as executive director five years ago, dedicated to uniting his staff around specific priorities. “We restated the mission to be refocused on three things: education; performance; and advocacy, creating a global community,” Mr. Scholl said in a phone interview.
Most of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s concerts are now live-streamed online, and it has filmed roughly 1,000 educational videos for its YouTube channel. Mr. Scholl hopes to use live streams to establish a network of jazz-appreciation societies nationwide. What might start as gatherings to watch videos from New York could spawn a network of makeshift venues. “If we could get a thousand places to commit to hosting webcast parties once a month, we could build a network of effective jazz clubs for touring jazz talent,” he said.
In 2015 Jazz at Lincoln Center started a label, Blue Engine Records, to release concert recordings from its archive; on Friday it will publish “Handful of Keys,” an orchestral recording focused on innovations in jazz piano style from across the 20th century.
Henry Threadgill, the avant-garde composer and Pulitzer Prize winner, will perform during Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 30th season. Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times
Its education work has an even more widespread impact. The Essentially Ellington program, which provides jazz curriculums to high schools, now reaches almost 5,000 schools nationwide, more than double its total a few years ago. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s orchestra often visits some of those schools when touring the country.
The Let Freedom Swing program brings professional performers directly into public and charter schools across the country. Nine in 10 are in-need, Title 1 institutions. And in the New York area, Jazz at Lincoln Center has a thriving Middle School Jazz Academy, and a new High School Jazz Academy and a Summer Jazz Academy that were added in the past few years. All are tuition-free.
Many of the musicians who come through its programs as youngsters treat Marsalisite traditionalism as a launchpad, rather than an ideal. And that’s the big difference between the factious jazz world that Mr. Marsalis came up against in the 1980s and today’s new culture of fusion: The young experimenters of 2017 learned jazz in an educational establishment heavily influenced by the canon Mr. Marsalis helped define.
Consider Jon Batiste, 30, the New Orleans-born pianist: He graduated from Juilliard’s jazz program — which was set up by Mr. Marsalis and is still loosely affiliated with Jazz at Lincoln Center — where he honed his chops as a bop instrumentalist. As he studied, though, he was leading a group, Stay Human, that bounced around in a potpourri of rock and funk; today it’s the house band on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
“With our younger students, we tell them: Hey, when you come up and you play these arrangements and you do these things — then they can do what they want” with those skills, Mr. Marsalis said. “We encourage them to be socially conscious and to speak with their voice, and then to do their thing.”