This Week on “Jazz Club Friday,” Music Recorded at Jazz At Lincoln Center

The Crown Jewel of Jazz at Lincoln Center is the Frederick P Rose Theater that can seat 1,233 people. Photo: jazz.org.

Fridays on All Night Jazz, since seeing live jazz is difficult to do right now, Mike Cornette brings the live jazz to you on “Jazz Club Friday” on the Jazz Trip@Ten. This week, Mike featured music recorded at Jazz at Lincoln Center a massive world-class facility, designed specifically for jazz music, that challenges the traditional concepts of how to perform and present jazz. WUSF’s Steve Splane has more:

 

New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center program started modestly in the 1980’s as a one-off series of summer concerts, but it has evolved into one of the world’s largest music organizations dedicated to the teaching, preserving and performing of the great American art form of jazz music.

In 1987, The Lincoln Center, home of the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet, wanted to find ways to fill the seats of its sprawling complex that were often empty during the summer as its performers took weeks-long concert tours around the world.

The Board of Directors rallied around the idea of a jazz concert series. They thought it would be a win- win: sell some tickets and draw a younger audience who might become future patrons of the classical arts.

Enter Wynton Marsalis. The then 25-year-old trumpeter had already graduated from Julliard and toured the world with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. He had also trained as a classical musician, making him the perfect person to introduce the Lincoln Center board to the world of jazz.

Marsalis curated the original series of “Classical Jazz” summer concerts that ran for four summers anchored by a house big band that was named the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, inspired by the jazz big bands of the 1940’s and 50’s.

Building a big band from scratch would be a challenge, Marsalis would later recall, because modern jazz musicians, himself included, had very little experience playing the epic scores created by Duke Ellington, Count Basie and others.

“We wanted to form a big band,” Marsalis told the Chicago Tribune in 2017, “but we hadn’t played that kind of music…it was very difficult to learn how to do that.”

But the concerts were a success. After four summers, the board was sold. In 1991 they created a standalone division they called “Jazz at Lincoln Center” to be run by Marsalis.

 

Wynton Marsalis leads his band through the crowd at the Jazz at Lincoln Center. Photo: jazz.org.

The new organization hit the ground running. Within a year, Marsalis had renamed his band The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) which, like the New York Philharmonic, would have fulltime musicians who auditioned for the chance to hold a “chair.”

JLCO would soon be performing around the country, recording and releasing CD’s. They also secured a radio series on National Public Radio.

Only the best of the best musicians would get a coveted invitation to join the orchestra which became the gold standard for the performance of the classic jazz repertoire.

The list of musicians who were either in the orchestra or performed and recorded as guest soloists over the years, is impressive. Christian McBride, Joe Henderson, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, Geri Allen, Freddie Hubbard, Maria Schneider and this week’s Focus Artist of the Week on All Night Jazz, pianist Eric Reed.

By 1995, JLCO was touring the world. But the best was yet to come.

Buoyed by the success of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis and the board wanted to find a permanent facility to house the jazz program that was already taxing the limited space at the Lincoln Center.

In many ways this was as radical idea for jazz music, which evolved over the years as a genre that was mostly played in smokey bars and loud supper clubs. But Jazz at Lincoln Center was going to build from scratch a large dedicated state of the art facility with a classical music-style concert hall, specifically designed for the acoustics and ergonomics of jazz music.

The Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center is shaped like a greek amphitheater with dramatic views of Columbus Circle. Photo: jazz.org.

The solution was found just three blocks south of the Lincoln Center at the soon to be built Time Warner Center, located at Columbus Circle, at the southwest corner of Central Park. The developers were looking to create cultural space to compliment the massive complex that would also house retail, office and residential units.

The plan was ambitious in the extreme. A fundraising drive was launched that would raise $131 million.

They hired renowned architect Rafael Vinoly who designed a 100,000 square foot facility that opened in 2004. The center houses three performance spaces: Dizzy’s Club the smallest of the three, the Appel Room, shaped like a Greek amphitheater, it has a 83 foot tall wall of glass that looks out over Columbus Circle and the crown jewel, the Frederick P Rose Theater that can seat 1,233 people and features a “ retractable concert shell ceiling and a sophisticated acoustical curtain and banner system to help tailor the sound quality of the hall for individual performances.”

Over the years the JLCO program has expanded its educational programs exponentially, especially in areas aimed at attracting young jazz musicians. These include the celebrated “Jazz for Young People” concert series. The annual “Essentially Ellington” high school jazz band competition attracts student musicians from all over America including from schools in the Tampa Bay area.

The Tarpon Springs High School Jazz Ensemble was a finalist in 2019 and was invited to come to New York to perform in Rose Hall.

The Tarpon Springs High School Jazz Ensemble performing at the Essentially Ellington Festival at Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York in 2019. Photo: Facebook/Tarpon Springs Jazz Ensemble.

 

Jazz at Lincoln Center also maintains a large library of original scores, arrangements and artifacts from the likes of Ellington, Basie, and Louis Armstrong.

In 2014, JLCO teamed up with National Public Radio and WBGO radio to launch “Jazz Night in America” (which still airs on Saturday nights at 8 p.m. on WUSF).

JLCO streams high quality performances worldwide via webcasts and has a popular You Tube channel with over 100,000 subscribers.

In 2015 JLCO created their own record label, Blue Engine Records. To date they have released some two dozen recordings.

Jazz at Lincoln Center created their own label, Blue Engine Records, in 2015.

 

The orchestra’s emphasis on traditional jazz music from mid-20th century has attracted some criticism over the years. But Marsalis believes JLCO is uniquely qualified to preserve and perform the art form. And many would argue that teaching classic jazz to student musicians gives them a more solid foundation to go out into the world and explore modern jazz, if they choose.

“We are a music that is constantly asked to abandon its own identity to become another thing, Why? What’s wrong with our identity?” Marsalis told the New York Times in 2017. “There’s always going to be new things that people do. Inasmuch as these forms have jazz at their root, we’ll try to bring them to Lincoln Center.”

It’s hard to deny the success of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, which now has an annual budget north of $50 million.  It is a triumph that simultaneously adheres to historic traditions while challenging the very concept of how jazz music should be performed and presented.

“As we started to go, we had a dream, a vision,” Marsalis told the Chicago Sun Times. “We could get this

We could get that. We could get a hall, we could get an orchestra. Some things were very successful, others were not.”