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Jazz at Lincoln Center: The House that Jazz Built

Jazz at Lincoln Center
Jazz at Lincoln Center
Jazz at Lincoln Center's Allen Room

It’s rare to go to a press conference that’s about jazz. Yet the one that took place in May 2004 for the then unfinished Jazz at Lincoln Center space on Columbus Circle in New York City was remarkable in ways other than the fact that it even existed. The room was filled with television cameras, and there were hundreds of people there, most of whom had probably never set foot in a jazz club.

Various Lincoln Center heavies spoke, then JALC Creative Director Wynton Marsalis weighed in, charming the audience by talking about the people involved and the organizational dreams for the space. He then played a few tunes with a quartet, which the cameras also caught, and then everyone went on tours of the new facility.

Marsalis has been the public face of the organization since its founding in 1991, but a $131-million, 100,000-square-foot space on the fifth and sixth floors of the swanky new 2.8 million square foot AOL Time Warner World Headquarters would take on that role. JALC was also positioning itself as the official global clubhouse of jazz.

Amid a daunting series of obstacles, JALC reached its opening night, October 18, 2004. Now, after about 800 performances, classes and events in the building and around the world, JALC can look back at its first year in its new home with pride-and more than a few growing pains.

“It’s like when you move into a new house, and you’re from the Mississippi Delta and you move into a mansion in the North,” says Wynton Marsalis in his typical mix of down-home imagery and high ideals. “All the many things that could have gone wrong-the way the staff, the type of pride they took in it and what they have done to make it successful far exceeded my personal expectations and those we had as an organization.”

The road has been a long one, with many players and twists and turns. Pundit and loose cannon Stanley Crouch can play nice when he wants something, and did so when he discussed the idea of JALC with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1998. Giuliani credits the conversation as being a deciding factor to open to city’s coffers, though others were involved in the pitching process, including Lincoln Center’s President Nat Leventhal, former Chairman Beverly Sills and JALC Chairman Derek E. Gordon.

Money had to be raised-and continually raised, as costs went up: There was a fire in the building in 2003 during construction, and the floor plan became bigger and increasingly complex over the course of the project as the 508-seat Allen Room (with its dramatic 50-foot wall of glass overlooking the city) and 150-seat Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola were added to what was originally supposed to be a single, 1,233-capacity performing-arts theater called Frederick P. Rose Hall.

The upshot is that these new performance rooms, the first designed specifically for the acoustic needs of jazz, has given the organization an even larger forum for advancing the JALC mission, which is posted on “Jazz at Lincoln Center advances a unique vision for the continued development of the art of jazz by producing a year-round schedule of performance, education, and broadcast events for audiences of all ages.”

Of course the words “unique vision” are what much of the scuffling is based on. Writer Tom Moon did a scathing article in GQ’s March issue titled “Why Jazz Blows.” The thrust of the piece was that Wynton Marsalis, his swing-only music agenda and the institutionalization of jazz through JALC and the new Rose Hall were at the heart of problem.

Moon echoed the thoughts of many of JALC’s critics in his piece. Some bristle at what they perceive is Marsalis and Co.’s unbridled ambition, while others are simply annoyed that someone with such a well defined and sometimes controversial set of values applied to the music is routinely listed as the spokesperson of jazz.

“I think that it’s great that somebody does what they do,” says pianist Matthew Shipp, a vocal critic of the organization as well as of Wynton Marsalis and critic and JALC board member Stanley Crouch. “But it shouldn’t be done with the rhetoric that they’ve had. I don’t care what anyone says, the problem is that the money was thrown toward that agenda.”

But JALC Artistic Administrator Todd Barkan says, “I think it’s a natural thing that the perceived top dog gets a little flack or hyperintense scrutiny-a lot of which doesn’t do anyone any good. It’s regrettable, but we have to just keep on stepping. It’s not fair, but a lot of things in life are not fair.”

Marsalis has toned down some of his neotraditionalist rhetoric over the years, but love it or hate it, his philosophy has pushed JALC and its bands where they are today. As with classical-music presenters, JALC’s programming often looks back to spotlight great figures in jazz history, some forgotten and some well known. According to Marsalis, this is the kind of the thing that the JALC constituency loves. “I learned a lot our first season about what our audience likes-they like swingin’,” he says. “There is a certain school that says go away from the swing rhythm to certain types of grooves or stuff that’s not swinging. Where our audiences is at is that they wanna swing.”

The first season did offer plenty of the trumpeter’s brand of swing. The Marsalis-helmed Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performs Thursday through Saturday when it’s not on the road, and there were tributes to Thad Jones, Coleman Hawkins and Paul Whiteman. The LCJO’s first concert in Rose Hall was Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige and Basie’s Kansas City Suite. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra with Arturo O’Farrill performed a tribute to great Latin vocalists, which is now the album Una Noche Inolvidable. New works like Ron Westray’s Chivalrous Misdemeanors were commissioned, and new arrangements were written and presented, including LCJO’s take on A Love Supreme, which is now on CD.

But there was also a progressive, even popular, bent to some of the programming. There was a “Brazil Livre” series with iconoclast composer Hermeto Pascoal. There was the “Mexico Now” double bill featuring Diego Maroto Sextet and the Antonio Sanchez Group. Making connections between jazz and its mother, the “Three Shades of Blues” series featured performances by Taj Mahal paired with Randy Weston, Corey Harris with Senegalese percussionist and kora player Abdou M’Boup and Malian griot and kora player Mamadou Diabate. Other bills featured Rickie Skaggs and Mark O’Connor and the sacred-steel gospel band the Holmes Brothers with Joey DeFrancesco. There was also a spoken-word series, “Speaking of Jazz,” and the human-rights series “Let Freedom Swing,” which set famous civil-rights speeches to music.

There was even talk of booking a few avant-garde players like Cecil Taylor and John Zorn. Regrettably, the person responsible for much of these adventurous or nonjazz bookings, Brice Rosenbloom, was let go before Rose Hall even opened. “Unfortunately,” Rosenbloom says, “there was the money thing. We couldn’t pursue everything that we originally thought we could.”

Barkan’s booking of Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola has been a bright spot, though it hasn’t been without controversy-even within the organization. Barkan, who owned and booked the Bay Area’s legendary Keystone Korner, got his start 41 years ago by bringing such acts as the Miles Davis Quintet and the Modern Jazz Quartet to Ohio. Barkan typically brings in jazz artists for a week who can fill the 2,000 seats that he needs to sell to cover costs each week. Kenny Barron did a three-week run that featured the pianist in various settings, and it was a huge success, bringing some well-deserved attention to Barron. Barkan also booked John Handy’s somewhat forgotten Monterey Quartet 40 years after their legendary appearance at the festival.

Even though Dizzy’s brought in a new and younger audience, such bookings as Cyro Baptista’s percussion and dance outfit Beat the Donkey was scrutinized by Marsalis, as was Ted Nash’s classical-influenced Odeon-and Nash is a saxophonist with the JALC Orchestra.

Marsalis wasn’t the only one questioning the bookings at Dizzy’s. Joe Lovano brought in the quartet featured on his last two albums, the lauded I’m All for You and Joyous Encounter. Mulgrew Miller sat in for the quartet’s regular pianist, Hank Jones, and there were a lot of complaints about the band, mostly directed at drummer Paul Motian’s unique approach to timekeeping.

“A lot of the regulars, including staff members, were off-put by him,” Barkan says of Motian. “They didn’t get him. ‘Why did you get this guy? He doesn’t swing.’ Now, as an old, crusty jazz promoter, I think that is an interesting comment, because he’s played with the greatest jazz musicians, going back to Paul Bley and Bill Evans.”

JALC’s dedication to swing and jazz history runs deep. Each employee (from top to bottom) must take the “Jazz 101 Class” from jazz scholar, DJ and educator Phil Schaap, where workers get his overview of the jazz canon. (JALC audiences can also attend these classes.)

While Barkan says there is some crossover between regular jazz-club audiences and JALC crowds, there’s also a divide, based as much on economics and class as on musical tastes. With prices to regular shows topping out at $150, catching a gig at Rose Hall can be more expensive than a Broadway show. To their credit, the staff is taking pains to rectify it. “We’re really committed to bringing that ticket price down,” says JALC Executive Director Katherine E. Brown. “We are in a situation where our budget has grown so dramatically that it will take us a little while to catch up with that.”

In a single year, the organization went from being a small nonprofit of 40 people to a staff of 130 with another 100 part-timers. Remarkably, the organization balanced its $29-million budget in 2005, which is up from 11.2 million in 2004. This phenomenal bump includes about $12 million to $13 million in what nonprofits call unearned income, which is basically gifts from organizations, foundations, public sources (state, city and federal government), private donations and other sources. These gifts make up 42 percent of the budget, while ticket sales and touring kick in 22 percent, and hall rental is another 36 percent. Also, the spaces are rented out often-the Allen Room seems to be particularly popular. The Rose Hall is rented as well, but with a $40,000 price tag to open the doors (union staffing and other expenses), the room is used less often. According to the staff, other revenue streams are being explored, too.

These sorts of dollar figures are amounts that your average jazz dive can’t fathom. But it’s this sort of upper-crust presentation of jazz-for better or worse-that sets apart JALC from the rest of the scene. “Some of our patrons go to other clubs,” Barkan says. “But the preponderance of them don’t. There is a special group of people who have a relationship with the organization. I don’t feel that we’re in direct competition with the Jazz Standard or Sweet Rhythm. I feel that it’s healthy to create a scene that is active, one that is a little more like the golden age of this music. That sounds idealistic, but I don’t think it’s impractical. I wouldn’t want JALC to be sitting there by itself. It wouldn’t be a healthy situation.”

The biggest competition for JALC has actually turned out to be itself. According to Barkan, “It has its constituency, which it wants to continue to grow, but there are nights when the different rooms are all going at the same time, literally putting the rooms in competition with each other. But that’s small potatoes. Our goal is to create a scene within a scene. We want a lot more jazz shows happening in the house. That’s what Wynton dreams of, and my hat’s off to him for dreaming that.”

In addition to its performance spaces, Rose Hall also features the Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, the Irene Diamond Education Center, the Louis Armstrong Classroom and the John Noble Foundation Studio. A long and notable hole in the facility was the absence of a studio where resident and guest artists could make state-of-the-art recordings and broadcast performances either by radio or Internet. (Though there are currently TV broadcasts on BET Jazz and Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio with Ed Bradley.)

June 1 marked the partnership between XM Satellite Radio and Jazz at Lincoln Center. This multiyear deal is a slam-dunk for both sides: the Washington, D.C.-based XM gains entry into the New York market, where its competitor, Sirius, is based; and Lincoln Center gets the very expensive gear needed to outfit one of the largest recording studios in the city. Derek Gordon says XM “likes the association with JALC, and they like the facilities. They’ll operate it. These kinds of strategic partnerships are going to be very important”-especially as JALC continues to grow, which means even more money will need to be raised.

With a 2006 budget of $35.6 million, JALC has gone from being a global arts presenter to being the owner of one of the premier arts spaces in the world. Everyone on the staff agrees that they have never worked harder or been busier than in the time leading up to the opening and getting through the first year. It’s quite an accomplishment and legacy, but according to Marsalis, there is still plenty of content to be created for this big, shiny, new symbol of jazz.

“We didn’t go through all the trouble to build it just to do it,” he says. “We have to put art in it. We’re not a building; we’re an arts organization. So of much greater importance than the building is the art that will go in it. The ideas are the things that will endure.”