The Gig: JALC Takes Over Jazz.org

What's in a domain name?

Nate Chinen image 0

Nate Chinen

What’s in a name? How about a domain name? That rhetorical question has hung in the air, at least for some among us, since it came to light that Jazz at Lincoln Center had changed its web domain from jalc.org to jazz.org. The switch was made quietly, without fanfare or uproar, in December. I noticed it during a routine sweep of the online club calendars, and made a mental note to look into the matter in the new year.

I was beaten to the punch by André Guess, a former Jazz at Lincoln Center executive, who posted an online petition in January that broadcast his disapproval of the change. “While a two-letter difference in a four-letter domain name doesn’t seem like much,” Guess wrote, “symbolically it is a big deal and in my opinion a big mistake.”

His petition, at change.org, further contended that Jazz at Lincoln Center is violating its own mission statement with the new domain name, exhibiting an autocratic arrogance that flies in the face of the open and democratic spirit of jazz. Strongly implied in the argument is an accusation of presumptuous cultural imperialism: “In making this move, the organization has intentionally or unintentionally branded and positioned itself as the very art form that it was founded to uphold and support.”

Guess, the president and C.E.O. of GuessWorks, an arts management and consulting firm, brings his complaint with an insider’s perspective, which also means that his objectivity is a matter of faith. For two years, beginning in 2000, he was the Director of Finance and Administration at Jazz at Lincoln Center; for the next four, he served as a vice president and producer, overseeing programming and concert operations. He suggested to me that his former ties to the organization conferred a credibility to his argument, outweighing any potential for a disgruntled-ex-employee narrative. He added that he still speaks regularly with Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s artistic director, and had voiced his concerns directly to no avail.

There’s something oddly touching about a fracas over putative ownership of the word “jazz,” which some prominent artists in our time-galvanized by trumpeter Nicholas Payton-have vilified as a mark of oppression. Jazz at Lincoln Center obviously comes down on a different side of the equation, rallying around “jazz” as a term of art, as a music worth defending against corruption, and as a source of global cultural cachet. Those who accuse the organization of high-handed insularity often overstate the case, but that doesn’t mean the charge can be put to rest: Within Jazz at Lincoln Center, there’s a habit of referring to the organization by the first word in its name. “I used to work at Jazz,” I’ve heard people say, and the presumption in that shorthand always rankles me, maybe in the same way that jazz.org rankles Guess.

But there’s an important distinction to be made between a domain name and a brand name. “This isn’t about owning the brand, it’s about expanding the audience for the music,” said Gabrielle Armand, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Vice President of Brand and Audience Development, when I reached her on the phone. “We are an open and porous organization, and our mission is advocating for the music at the most inclusive level.”

I’m not sure I’d agree that Jazz at Lincoln Center is so porous, or really all that inclusive. But Armand’s point about audience outreach rings true, and she made a point of saying that Jazz at Lincoln Center, as an organization, has no plans to change its actual name. She didn’t balk when I suggested that the acquisition of jazz.org-a purchase actually made back in 2007-looked like a transparent bid for improved search-engine optimization. “There are a lot of best practices out there that we are constantly looking at,” she said. “We are constantly aspiring to grow and reach more people.”

One thing Armand didn’t mention was the existence of other jazz domains on the web. Jazz.com goes to a moribund blog that was once a vital clearinghouse of jazz criticism. Jazz.net goes to a placeholder site apparently hosted by IBM. As of this typing, a Google search for “jazz” brings up a Wikipedia page, the online home for Ken Burns’ PBS series and the website jazzradio.com, followed by some news links pertaining to the NBA team based in Utah. We’ll see what happens once the new jazz.org has been in place for a while.

In any case, it doesn’t seem likely that the change will be reversed. One month after Guess’ petition went up, he was still a dozen shy of the 100 supporters he’d set as a modest goal. “There’s a level of apathy,” he said matter-of-factly. “But the other thing I’ve found is that people are afraid of [the organization]. People would tell me, off the record, ‘I’m not going to sign a petition; man, I’ve got a gig up there!'”

Jazz at Lincoln Center has long been on the hook for its stated objective of promoting jazz at large, rather than a narrow faction therein. Ultimately, none of that changes with the implementation of a new web address. “We consider ourselves part of this community,” said Armand. “And we’re in service of the community.” The organization should be judged by its ability to deliver on that promise on multiple fronts-including, now and forever, its willingness to engender debate.