Wall Street Journal: Wynton Marsalis’s Enduring Opus

Posted on September 24th, 2009 in Articles | Tags: articles, wall street journal

Toddlers filled a classroom one recent Saturday morning inside Frederick P. Rose Hall. Most sat in a circle brandishing toy shakers, some wandered off in the stagger of the newly walking. Welcome to WeBop!, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s program for children 8 months to 5 years old, at which singer Patrice Turner cleverly fit the words to the children’s book “Goodnight, Moon” into John Coltrane’s “Central Park West.”

From the start, the organization has built jazz awareness from the bottom up. Yet there’d be no Jazz at Lincoln Center were it not for the ability of its artistic director, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, to win support for jazz from the top down. Just days earlier, during a memorial service for Walter Cronkite, Mr. Marsalis led a six-piece band in a procession at Avery Fisher Hall, ending in front of President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton. The knowing nod President Clinton offered Mr. Marsalis, President Obama’s slight bow and grin, hinted at how closely the trumpeter has helped shape and shift cultural policy in the corridors of power.

Both approaches have been crucial to the institution Mr. Marsalis leads, which has grown from a summer concert series in 1986 to a Lincoln Center constituent with its own three-venue complex and a $38 million annual budget.

When saxophonist Ornette Coleman, a free-jazz avatar, opens Jazz at Lincoln Center’s sixth season in its own space in the Time Warner Center on Sept. 26, some may interpret the booking as a widening of the mainstream-jazz credo long espoused by Mr. Marsalis (“Having the swing element and the blues at its center,” he’s often explained, “and heavy on improvisation”). But Mr. Marsalis presented a night of Mr. Coleman’s compositions back in 2005, and inducted the saxophonist into the center’s Hall of Fame last year. By now, Jazz at Lincoln Center, perhaps out of practicality as much as philosophy, has embraced a range of music that defies the conservative caricature-most notably with a 2007 double bill of saxophonist John Zorn and pianist Cecil Taylor, both avant-garde darlings, but also through subtler embraces of music beyond Mr. Marsalis’s canon. The so-called jazz wars of the 1990s, often focused on Mr. Marsalis’s organization, now seem largely irrelevant. Jazz at Lincoln Center-never all things to all people-now stands as something sturdy and, in historical context, thoroughly original.

“Has Jazz at Lincoln Center’s promotion of jazz succeeded in assisting music and musicians? Without a doubt, yes,” said trumpeter Dave Douglas, whose free-thinking approach has often been contrasted with Mr. Marsalis’s in the jazz press, and who has performed at Rose Theater. “Has its strict genre boundaries and corporate image succeeded in silencing creative music and musicians? Without a doubt, no. On balance, the influence is overwhelmingly positive.”

Mr. Coleman’s engagement, which may nonetheless stretch some subscribers’ comfort zones, is less aesthetic leap than show of strength. One had to wonder during Rose Hall’s well-attended six-week grand-opening festival in 2004 whether the three venues within it would continue to draw solid audiences. They have. By the 2007-08 season, the percentage of tickets sold for concerts at the 1,200-seat Rose Theater and 500-seat Allen room reached 84%, up more than 20 percentage points from two seasons earlier. (It dropped to 80% during last year’s downturn.) Subscriptions last season brought in nearly $1.5 million in revenue. Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Rose Hall’s sleek 140-seat nightclub with a dazzling view of Columbus Circle, welcomed more than 85,000 people in 2008. There have been growing pains: In 2007, the organization withdrew support of Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. But the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the flagship ensemble led by Mr. Marsalis, turns a profit touring three months of each year.

Earlier this month, Mr. Marsalis, who hates airplanes, rode in a Lincoln Navigator on his way to Banff, Alberta, to begin the orchestra’s fall tour. “I was watching the NBA all-star induction,” he told me by cellphone, “and I heard [former San Antonio Spurs star] David Robinson say, ‘You ever pray really hard for something and then you get it?’ He was talking about getting Tim Duncan, who brought them a title. That’s how I feel about Adrian Ellis.”

Mr. Ellis, who has just completed his second year as Jazz at Lincoln Center’s executive director, assumed that position at a moment of seeming instability. The organization had raised $131 million between 1998 and 2004 to construct its new home, shifting from merely presenting concerts to managing three venues. Mr. Ellis was its sixth administrative head in as many years. “Very few organizations grow that rapidly,” Mr. Ellis said, sitting in his office across the street from Rose Hall. “This trajectory was off the charts. What’s great about the current chapter is it’s not about the building. It’s now about how to use the building and everything else we’ve got in our deck of cards to forward the mission. And our mission is a really simple one: To help ensure there’s vital future for this music, primarily-not exclusively-through different forms of audience development. To that extent, we’re just a great big audience-development machine.”

Five years ago, some feared that machine would swallow a chunk of the New York jazz scene. That hasn’t been the case. “They make our business even better,” said Lorraine Gordon, whose Village Vanguard celebrates its 75th year in 2010. “It creates a positive attitude and it educates people. I think it’s an asset.”

Outside New York, the jazz-club circuit is shrinking. Increasingly, jazz is presented at arts centers and universities. Within the jazz industry, some are troubled by Mr. Marsalis’s dominance in that arena. “What if all that funding was spread across the entire spectrum of jazz,” asked Scott Southard, whose International Music Network specializes in jazz, “instead of concentrated in one spot?” Then again, some credit Mr. Marsalis with engendering such support. For Randall Kline, who heads the San Francisco-based SFJazz, “Jazz at Lincoln Center was important in establishing legitimacy. Before, there were no models for jazz in the institutional world.”

In a time of rapid change within the music industry, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s model is shifting, especially in terms of digital distribution and social-networking technology. “If you’re not neurotic about all that, you’re a fool,” said Mr. Ellis, “because it really matters, and it’s really difficult to work out how to make an intelligent bet in that field.” To that end, Jazz at Lincoln Center has signed an exclusive world-wide distribution agreement with The Orchard, a leading digital music distributor. The first release, slated for January, will be “Portrait in Seven Shades,” a suite composed by Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra member Ted Nash, featuring the orchestra with Mr. Marsalis. Archival material reaching back more than 20 years will follow.

Jazz at Lincoln Center leverages both star power (a collaboration between Mr. Marsalis and Willie Nelson, featuring Norah Jones, will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray and broadcast via HDNet and Sirius XM) and corporate partnerships (a music-appreciation curriculum tied to Disney’s forthcoming “Princess and the Frog” film will reach more than 250,000 grade-school teachers). Mr. Ellis is eyeing an online digital concert hall similar to that of the Berlin Philharmonic, and he plans to make the atrium outside the Allen Room “a hang space as well as a destination.”

For Mr. Marsalis, Rose Hall is already both things. “I could play music anywhere,” he said. “But having a real home means this organization gets to do what we do the way we want to do it. I can’t ask for much more.”

Larry Blumenfeld
The Wall Street Journal