Marsalis keeps spirit alive as a.d., musician, historian

Though it feels lightning fast, it has been 10 years since Jazz at Lincoln Center brought the quintessential American music form into the hallowed halls reserved for the classics. In that decade, the organization has elevated the art form and, with the construction of its own building, is about to “thrust jazz into the center of New York culture.”

That’s the perspective of Bruce MacCombie, a composer and administrator with roots in New England classical music organizations who took over as the jazz program’s executive director Sept. 1.

His first project is raising the remaining $35 million needed for the $115 million Frederick P. Rose Hall, which will cover 100,000 square feet, and feature three performance spaces, and classrooms and studios, all dedicated to jazz. The facility, located at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, will open in the fall 2004.

MacCombie steps into an organization that has been widely hailed for its educational efforts and its resident orchestra led by artistic director Wynton Marsalis. His predecessors have paved the way on a wide number of fronts:

This month at Juilliard sees the arrival of 18 students who comprise the first class dedicated to jazz; the org’s Ellington band competition, which started in three states, includes the whole of the U.S. and is expanding to Australia next year; a jazz curriculum, with texts and a 10-CD set, is being spread out to schools through Scholastic; and the band continues to build a library of transcripts of great jazz from the pens of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and others.

Education, says Marsalis, the trumpeter and composer who is the only jazz musician with a Pulitzer Prize on his resume, “ties together the most people of all ages. It’s the most fun. Performance is what makes everything possible.”

Those performances are part of what has made Jazz at Lincoln Center the largest nonprofit jazz organization in the world. Beyond “Nutcracker” performances in December at Avery Fisher Hall and a Mingus program in February at Alice Tully Hall, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is involved in its most extensive tour yet, hitting 45 cities under the moniker of “United in Swing.” Currently playing the West, it will hit mid-Atlantic and Northeast states in April.

For the performances, the J@LC Orchestra will be varying the program, throwing in originals to complement the standards. This means the works by band members such as saxophonist Wess Anderson and trumpeter Marcus Printup get a chance to find their place alongside pieces from Armstrong, Ellington, Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and other masters.

“We choose music to enrich our library,” says Marsalis, explaining the repertoire process. Jazz at Lincoln Center employs transcribers who write charts, based on the original recordings, for the big band, which are then placed in the library and made available to high school and college bands.

The current tour began at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 13 with the West Coast premiere of Marsalis’ epic work “All Rise” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. To some degree, that’s a precursor of things to come at the new Manhattan center.

A broader palette

“There will be more genres of music and jazz cross-pollinated with other genres,” says Todd Barkan, the center’s recently hired artistic administrator whose background includes record producing, running the Keystone Korner jazz club in San Francisco and managing the Boys Choir of Harlem. “We’ll see a broader musical palette with the new facility. Musical excellence is the only line being drawn.”

Barkan’s first step toward achieving that goal is designing programs for the 2002-03 season under the heading the Year of the Drum, which starts with African and Japanese percussion. It will require a Herculean effort: The 2001-02 season features more than 400 education, performance and broadcast events worldwide.

Among the more intriguing programs are the shows at Lincoln Center’s Stanley H. Kaplan Playhouse. Sept. 27-29 features four shows of Jimmy Scott and Carmen Lundy and during May 2-4 an homage to the father of modern samba, Pixinguinha, will be staged. In addition, a series of duets will include saxophonist Lee Konitz and drummer Paul Motian on a bill with accordionist Richard Galiano and Mark Feldman (Oct. 11-13); and saxophonist Donald Harrison and Akua Dixon will share a bill with pianist Jason Moran and saxman Greg Osby (Feb. 7-9).

The new center — Barkan, Marsalis, MacCombe and general manager Laura Johnson all agree — will be much more than just a presenting vehicle. It will be the one spot in New York where people, especially children and musicians of all ages, can comfortably congregate.

To that end, a planned 140-seat Jazz Cafe is designed, says Marsalis, to bring people together at all hours of the day and give musicians a place to play. It will also be used for seminars and educational events.

Challenges ahead

Jazz at Lincoln Center will continue to develop outreach programs, add much needed rehearsal space in the city and, down the road, a possible record label. Before that happens, says Johnson, the org will be looking at the professional development of teachers, and organizing more educational tours and more multiday residencies worldwide.

“The greatest challenge are the school policies — how well is (music education) supported? How much time is allowed for it?” says Johnson, who started with Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1995 as education director. “Jazz embraces everybody because it’s American. You show (kids) parallels between jazz and contemporary music. Jazz is about creative expression and requires constant invention and kids love to make up things. ‘Ode to Joy’ doesn’t cut it for a lot of school children.”

Johnson and Barkan see youth as tomorrow’s audience, one that hasn’t been cultivated since the disappearance of the national jazz circuit in the early 1980s.

Barkan is pretty blunt in talking about the future of jazz, saying that no matter how many young musicians they help out, “the stigmata has to be taken off the music.”

“There has to be some responsibility in the mass media to integrate jazz,” Barkan says. “The cultural powers can’t be afraid of it. There’s a misperception that whenever you have jazz it won’t appeal to as many people (as another music form). Take some Ellington, a beautifully played ballad, something that really swings — that will play in Peoria. … Wynton’s greatest contribution may well be bringing jazz music to the mainstream of American life.”

Singular P.O.V.

Marsalis, who has taken his fair share of criticism for having a dogmatic aproach to jazz and its lineage, freely admits “I don’t like change that much.” Yet since he has become the face of jazz for the 21st century, it’s hard to fault him for having a singular point of view, particularly when it comes from such a well-intentioned core.

“We’re a family of the same thing,” he says of his musicians, extending from the members of his early quintets in the first half of the 1980s through to the LCJO’s 14 musicians. “What we know is how important it is to bring people to this music. When musicians go on, they include teaching (in their work). (Trombonist) Wycliffe Gordon is teaching at Michigan State and wherever he goes he brings the same feeling (to his audience and students). The same is true for Marcus Roberts and Eric Reed. That’s what we know.”

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