Lincoln Center Elevates Status Of Jazz

In 1987, when Lincoln Center’s director of visitor services, Alina Bloomgarden, started a small, three-concert jazz program to take advantage of the dark concert halls of August, she hadn’t a clue what would happen to her series.

Yesterday, the Lincoln Center Board awarded the institution’s jazz department, Jazz at Lincoln Center, equal status with the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet and the other so-called constituents of the center.

Jazz has done very well here,” said Nathan Leventhal, the president of Lincoln Center, in making the announcement. “It deserves the place.”

Technically, status as a constituent gives Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic and financial freedom and the ability to appoint its own board, matters now overseen by Mr. Leventhal.

But to those involved in the program, and to the jazz world in general, the symbolic significance is much greater: it is the first time that jazz, an American art form, has been fully accepted by one of the nation’s premier performing-arts centers, where the bulk of programming is still given over to European arts.

“It is a recognition that jazz is a fine art,” Wynton Marsalis, the program’s artistic director, said in an interview yesterday. “Though the people have always known that it’s a fine art, I think that this type of institutional recognition is important.”

“Programs of this nature all over the world look to Lincoln Center for ideas,” he said. “And it sends a clear message to art complexes that jazz music is important and to have a jazz program is an integral part of an overall esthetic conception. So I’m extremely happy, but we have more work to do.”

The jazz program has traveled a long way. When Ms. Bloomgarden began her program, called Classical Jazz, it was because a reluctant Lincoln Center was acquiescing to a persistent employee. As her small program grew, it finally became clear that it was filling seats that were often empty, and that the people who were coming to hear the music were more affluent and younger than Lincoln Center’s traditional audiences.

By 1991, the institution was confident enough to create Jazz at Lincoln Center, making it a department with a year-round schedule and with the bill footed in part by Lincoln Center.

“It’s amazing how quickly the program has grown,” Mr. Leventhal said. “Alina started with three concerts, and now we’re up to 150 events a year, with concerts in 60 cities and 15 countries.”

The move comes when general interest in jazz is booming. All the major record labels have continued their jazz programs, jazz-studies programs in academia have begun to show substantial growth and the publication of jazz books and videos is expanding.

Carnegie Hall also has its own jazz program. And jazz concerts and series are increasingly finding corporations, private donors and grant organizations to underwrite them.

“When we announced a year-round program in 1991, we said it was our duty to help the program financially,” Mr. Leventhal said. “We set a goal of an endowment of $2.5 million, but the program already has gifts of $3.4 million.”

“I’m flabbergasted they’re so far ahead because in today’s climate it’s not easy to raise endowments, because they’re essentially private,” he continued. “There are no signs that say ‘Jazz at Lincoln Center Sponsored by ABC.’ “

But the road has not been without bumps. The jazz department has been steadily bombarded by some critics and musicians who consider its programming, which focuses primarily on mainstream jazz and has largely ignored the avant-garde jazz of the 1960’s and 70’s, too narrow. Mr. Marsalis has been called a nepotist for his assignment of commissions to himself and to young musicians widely seen as his disciples. There has also been criticism of what is seen as a paucity of white players in the program.

Paradoxically, the controversies and free-floating acrimony have kept Jazz at Lincoln Center firmly on center stage, a position that many in the program believe hastened the awarding of a constituency.

The squabbles certainly did not hurt attendance, which has risen strikingly over the last four years. This year’s three shows have all been sold out, including “We’ll Take Manhattan” on Saturday, which featured two quartets, a septet and two big bands, one of them the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by Mr. Marsalis.

“I’m surprised that it’s grown as quickly as it has,” Mr. Marsalis said of the program. “When I first started, we were just putting on concerts.”

“This sort of success just opens up the field to more work, to do things that haven’t been done before,” he said. “We’re going to commission more work, publish literature, publish scores, have concerts by musicians from all over the world. The possibilities are endless.”

by Peter Watrous
Source: The New York Times

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