Good News in Jazz, With a Big Caveat

As a model of how an institution should offer its wares to its city, Lincoln Center’s new jazz program could hardly be better. With the schedule announced this month, the ambitious yearlong program will include not only concerts but also films, educational series and lectures. Just as important, the entire octopuslike affair will be spread out across the city. It is hard to overestimate its importance in the next few years.

Even nationally, the brute force of a million-dollar first-year budget and a string of 18 concerts, all emanating from an American institution dedicated to the preservation of classical music, has to act as a legitimizing influence.

Unfortunate as it is, racism still lingers in the corridors of cultural power, and this sort of accreditation can only help run ignorance out of town, especially if the programs turn out to be as consistently good as they have been in Lincoln Center’s annual one-week Classical Jazz festival. That program has proved that jazz can succeed at an institutional level when the right musicians, money and rehearsal time are assembled, and that jazz has a future as repertorial music in roughly the same way as concert music.

Along with the American Jazz Orchestra, which has been plugging away in the relative obscurity of Cooper Union for the last five years, the Classical Jazz programs have completely altered the debate about jazz activity. The repertory movement, which in the early 1980’s would have seemed hopelessly archaic and revivalist at best, has taken on real force.

And this attitude is spreading to other institutions. Last year, the Smithsonian Institution began to sponsor its own jazz repertory group, the Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, in Washington. The concept has even moved from institutions to common practice: to be a complete young jazz musician now means having a knowledge of jazz’s historical moments and being able to use swing, be-bop and more modern styles as accents.

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So the first full schedule of this new program, Jazz at Lincoln Center, is important; people are listening and watching. As Lincoln Center’s first real adventure into jazz programming that is both repertorial and contemporary, the season adds up to a statement about what constitutes value in jazz.

And here lies a problem. When Rob Gibson, the director of the program, was hired last year, there was concern among New Yorkers involved in jazz that as an outsider he might not be able to resist the influence of a troika already influencing the direction of the Classical Jazz festival. Those three are the critics Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch and the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. They have in many ways shepherded the ideological development of the current jazz renaissance, and they are persuasive when arguing for their concept of jazz, a concept that disdains experimentalism in favor of an evolution based on tradition. They represent only one strain of a polyphonic discussion, but with a few exceptions the new program takes their perspective as the whole truth.

This in effect makes Lincoln Center a partisan in an ideological argument, and it should not be when its program is the only one of its kind in the country. The current national jazz consensus among young musicians, the first in 20 years, has paradoxically created the most critically divisive period in that time. Critics opposed to this jazz renaissance have called it a new conservatism; its tenets, based in traditionalism, are hardly without detractors. Jazz at Lincoln Center ignores a substantial part of the jazz world, and that doesn’t augur well for the program.

None of which is to say that the performances won’t be good or that a few concerts aren’t likely to be a bit out of character. The Dewey Redman show, for example, might lapse into 1960’s experimentalism, and the Israel (Cachao) Lopez show will investigate the connection between jazz and Afro-Cuban music. But what’s missing is an overall sense of intellectual generosity that befits Lincoln Center, a sense that the institution has a role as a steward in facilitating debate, regardless of the esthetic perspectives of the producers.

When Mr. Marsalis and Mr. Murray get together to discuss “American music” on May 12 at Alice Tully Hall (one hopes they don’t stray too far from jazz), there will be the empty sound of agreement. Where, for instance, is the immensely articulate pianist Cecil Taylor to propose a different vision of jazz? The argument about what constitutes jazz should not be put to bed so early.

The program is rife with events that sound like the product of insiders getting together. One lecture features Mr. Crouch reading from his coming book on Charlie Parker. Mr. Marsalis will lecture on the films of Louis Armstrong, and Mr. Marsalis’s musicians are regular performers during the year. Mr. Marsalis is the only musician who has been commissioned to write a new piece. Even the published program schedule, a collage of quotations, leans heavily on Mr. Murray and Mr. Crouch; no other critical points of view are expressed. And the concerts stick fairly close to the guidelines set by the Classical Jazz series.

In fairness, this is the first season, and such a mammoth undertaking must search to find its own voice. As it is, the project is extremely worthwhile but limited. In the coming years the breadth of what has happened in the 20th century under the name jazz, from Jelly Roll Morton in New Orleans to the Ganelin Trio in the Soviet Union, from Duke Ellington to Cecil Taylor, from Wynton Marsalis to South African township jazz, from Gerry Mulligan to the Jazz Passengers all deserve to be examined.

Any narrower a scope and Lincoln Center will have lost a valuable opportunity to show how a specifically American form of improvisation has defined the way a good portion of the world listens.

by Peter Watrous
Source: The New York Times

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