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“Speaking of Jazz”

Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra

The place just screams “potential.” As media accounts have already underlined, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new home, is the first-ever concert space designed specifically for jazz. You almost have to pinch yourself while ambling around the spacious lobby, the “arcades” (not simply hallways), the interactive Ertegun Hall of Fame and, of course, the three venues themselves. Opening night was an affair for the jazzerati, the music press and the moneybags. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Congressman Charles Rangel were on hand. PBS broadcasted live, with Ed Bradley as emcee. NY-1, our indispensable local TV news network, ran an hour-long special about Rose Hall during the leadup to the big day. (It was the height of cornball journalism, but far preferable to silence.) The question on everyone’s mind–will “The House of Swing” focus much-needed attention on jazz?–seemed to be answered in the affirmative, at least for a hot minute.

Inaugural festivities began in the Rose Theater, the largest space, with warm wood surfaces and seats that run 360 degrees around the stage. As Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO) struck up “Call to Prayer,” one thing was immediately apparent: you could hear the rhythm section, clear as daylight. The curse of big halls–tinny drums, muddy piano, nonexistent bass–had been lifted. Reginald Veal, filling in for bassist Carlos Henriquez (who became a father an hour before showtime), sounded portentous double-stops into John Coltrane’s “Resolution,” which was tame, but oh well. Then began the parade of guests, not to mention techs, who scrambled through the endless stage switches as best they could. Tony Bennett sang a grandiloquent “Lost in the Stars.” Clarinetist Dr. Michael White and tubaist Bob Stewart walked on for a spirited but sloppy “Dippermouth Blues.” Joe Lovano brought back modernism with a penetrating take of “Body and Soul,” leaving the LCJO to close the first set with Basie and Mingus–respectively, “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and “Better Get Hit in Your Soul.”

Set two began with a drum battle: Roy Haynes and his teenage grandson Marcus Gilmore on the Benny Goodman showstopper “Sing Sing Sing.” Haynes was true to thrilling form, but it was even more eye-opening to hear Gilmore, Vijay Iyer’s current drummer of choice, put the moves on a piece as old as this. And then another parade: first, violinist Mark O’Connor on Monk’s “Bright Mississippi”; then the regal Abbey Lincoln, with her pianist Marc Cary, blowing everyone’s hair back with an original ballad, “Down Here Below”; then Cyro Baptista shaking his percussion, and his entire being, on a bright original piece.

The next segment featured individual LCJO members with their musician parents and/or siblings. Reedist Ted Nash appeared with his trombone-playing father, Dick Nash; LCJO trombonist Vincent Gardner waxed poetic with his father and brother, both trumpeters; tenor saxist Walter Blanding Jr. tackled “Milestones” with his mother, Audrey Shakir, an extraordinary scat vocalist. Everyone knew where this was headed: The set closed with Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, Jason and Ellis Marsalis playing two choruses apiece on the Ellis-penned “Crescent City Stroll.” Wynton predicted that his father would play better than all of them, and he was right: The pianist’s economical touch, his unfailing rhythmic and melodic placement, testified to a rare musical wisdom. Even his comping was deeper than the horn solos.

Hopping across the hall to the Allen Room, one beheld an acoustic and architectural marvel. You may have seen pictures: the amphitheater seating, the 50-foot wall of glass, the commanding eastward view. Not only is the space visually stunning; it raises audience engagement to a new level. Simply put, the room is a joy to inhabit. Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, with guest Paquito D’Rivera, powered through a few numbers, ending with Tito Puente’s “Para Los Rumberos.” The aural balance, capped by a firm and clear bass response, was remarkable. I have yet to immerse myself in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (“Don’t order a Pepsi,” joked a friend), but I already sense that the Allen Room will be my favorite Rose Hall destination.

OK, then. We have built it. Will they come? There seems at least a decent chance that tourists will throw dollars toward JALC rather than The Lion King, if prompted by smart advertising. The larger question, of course, is whether JALC will strike a workable balance between the safe and the bold, giving visitors a three-dimensional picture of jazz in its modern state. The opening concert was billed as “One Family of Jazz,” and Wynton Marsalis told Ben Ratliff of theNew York Times that the new space is about the music, not about him. It simply must be so, or the golden opportunity that is Rose Hall will be squandered.

Originally Published