Wynton Marsalis and the temple of jazz
Wynton Marsalis is scheduled to do an interview about Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s $128 million new permanent home and performance space. But the interview can’t get started because Marsalis, who has been JALC’s artistic director since its founding in 1991, can’t stop staring at the temporary stage in the Allen Room, one of Rose Hall’s three sumptuous theaters. The stage that’s bugging Marsalis is a modular thing on little aluminum legs. You can add or subtract pieces from it, and it’s obvious that Marsalis would like to subtract. Ask anyone involved with JALC: Marsalis doesn’t like stages, doesn’t like being above the audience, likes to perform in the round, and on and on. There is almost nothing about this place that he hasn’t put his stamp on, right down to the freight elevator, which is decorated with a scrap of the score from one of his compositions, “All Rise.” He seems flustered for a second when he can’t tell what kind of wood is used in the Allen Room’s floor, but then he looks straight at you and says, “But I know exactly what it cost.” Would JALC even have this new home if it weren’t for Marsalis? Managing to be both tactful and accurate, he gives a little smile and says, “Eventually.”
It’s taken long enough already for America’s greatest indigenous art form, usually consigned to smoky clubs and raw downtown lofts, to take its place uptown alongside opera, dance and classical music. As Rafael Vinoly, the project’s architect, points out, “This is much more than just a permanent address for jazz. This building is an excuse for something important to happen, for people to realize just how intrinsic to the culture jazz is.” Jazz record sales may be stagnant, its audience no bigger than that for classical music. But the JLC staff is determined to use its new home to show New York and the rest of America what it’s been missing. And you will be hard-pressed to find anyone in the jazz community, from musicians to club owners to critics, who won’t give Marsalis most of the credit for ramrodding JALC’s struggle to build its own home. The jazz composer and clarinetist Don Byron takes it a step further: “We’ve got the Philharmonic, the various opera and ballet orchestras, none of whom have even 25 percent African-American participation. And none of them have a music director who’s African-American. In a major city, this is the only legitimate gig that’s run by a leader who’s black, so how bad is that?” He pauses. “Now the fact that it’s in the middle of a mall, that’s kind of weird.”
JALC’s Rose Hall is actually several blocks south of Lincoln Center—which has been running out of space for years—lodged in the new Time Warner Center at New York City’s Columbus Circle, cheek to cheek with—yes—an urban mall housing Williams-Sonoma, Borders and assorted high-end restaurants. The site’s developers were required by the city to earmark a portion of the building for public use, but it was the then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani who insisted that the space be given to JALC in 1998. The new facility has ample classroom space, one of the biggest and best recording studios in the city and the exquisite Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, designed by the architect David Rockwell. And on Oct. 18, when the opening-night crowds sit down to hear the JALC Orchestra in the Rose Theater, or the JALC Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra in the Allen Room, or Tony Bennett in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, they will be hearing jazz as it has never been heard before.
Even before picking the architects, the Lincoln Center jazz folks hired acousticians. “This is a project where acoustics is a really big deal,” says John Storyk, one of the sound experts. “It’s not like the roofing contractor or the elevator consultant. If we said, ‘We really need the glass to be this big or to change its shape,’ they generally did it.” The acousticians listened hard when Marsalis and other jazz orchestra members talked about what they liked in various halls around the world. One member of the sound team even spent his vacation touring with the band to hear what they heard. As a result, Storyk says, the performance spaces in Rose Hall combine “lots of bits and pieces from all over the place. It’s kind of like jazz itself. And underlying everything is the idea of flexibility. Every space has to be able to do 10 different things. Like jazz.”
The acoustic triumph of the whole project is the Allen Room, with that sky-size window. Glass is an acoustician’s nightmare, but by angling the window slightly, the designers pushed the sound up, not back at the audience. When it hits the ceiling, it meets a grid of spongelike diffusers that spread the music back over the audience with an almost golden quality. Another big plus is something you’ll never see: to keep it free of outside sound or vibration, the Rose Theater floats within the building around it, like a box within a box. It’s connected only at the floor, where it rests on neoprene. As a result, the hall is quieter than most recording studios. But the best feature of all was a happy accident: only when the room was finished did its designers discover that, thanks to the box-within-a-box design, cell phones don’t work there.
Still, why should someone in Boise or Tallahassee or Tucumcari care whether or not Jazz at Lincoln Center gets its own performance space? “Because,” Marsalis says, “this is the United States of America.” He sweeps his arm to include the room where he stands and the cityscape outside. “These things stand as a symbol of what we can achieve, and symbols are very, very important. Our goal is to change the cultural paradigm. We want kids to come here, and when they do, they’ll want to come back. And when they come back, they’ll bring their parents.” Marsalis singles out the Jazz Hall of Fame, a small room at the heart of the new complex full of interactive exhibits honoring the greats of the music. The first inductees include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. There are no surprises on that first list, but Marsalis points to the necessity of educating even the faithful on the importance of the past. “I ask my students if they think segregation had an effect on Charlie Parker. They say, ‘No, don’t think so’.” He looks genuinely pained. “We don’t have to battle for the legitimacy of jazz. That’s done. What we have to do is strive to make jazz and its history and legacy available, because jazz is about bringing different things and different people together.” For the first time in history, Rose Hall gives jazz its very own stomping ground to make it happen.
by Malcom Jones