When the 17th season of Carnegie Hall’s Shape of Jazz series opens October 18, the program boasts a slightly revised name: the Joyce and George T. Wein Shape of Jazz. But make no mistake—that seemingly small modification, first announced in 2018–2019 with an expanded offering for the 2019–2020 season, holds plenty of weight. George Wein is the founder of both the Newport Jazz Festival (1954) and the Newport Folk Festival (1959), the founding producer of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and the producer of thousands of concerts in numerous other settings. He is an Honorary Trustee of Carnegie Hall and was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2005.
The Shape of Jazz is henceforth dedicated to Wein—who donated $1 million toward the series in 2018—and his late wife, Joyce. “It’s a realization of the meaning of my life to have this series at Carnegie Hall named in honor of my wife and me,” says Wein, now 93. “Having the Shape of Jazz permanently utilizing our names means that our relationship with Carnegie Hall will go on forever. Carnegie Hall is the cathedral of musical arts. Its reputation goes back to its conception more than 125 years ago. The programming of this series is all-important in acknowledging the evolution of jazz as the true American artform.”
Wein, who is also an accomplished jazz pianist in his own right, is no newcomer to Carnegie Hall, having already produced nearly 450 concerts at the venue, including events under the banners of the Newport Jazz Festival (1972–1980), Kool Jazz Festival (1980–1985), and JVC Jazz Festival (1987–2007). He remained involved with the Hall in other capacities prior to the establishment of the Shape of Jazz series.
This year’s series, launching with the phenomenal teenaged pianist Joey Alexander and his trio, reflects the diversity that has always been at the heart of both the Shape of Jazz and Wein’s overall approach to booking live music. The other four concerts in the new season feature Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke and his trio plus percussionist Cyro Baptista, trumpeter and vocalist Bria Skonberg, guitarist and vocalist Kurt Rosenwinkel, and trumpeter-composer-bandleader Theo Croker & Big Brother. Each concert takes place in the 599-seat Zankel Hall.
Not surprisingly, all of the scheduled artists are excited to be a part of the program. “Who doesn’t dream of performing at Carnegie Hall?” asks Skonberg. “I am beyond thrilled to be making my debut at this historic venue as part of the 2019–2020 Shape of Jazz series; it has been a source of much inspiration and motivation. I’m honored to make music where so many of my heroes created history.”
“It’s a dream come true to perform as part of the Shape of Jazz series!” concurs Croker. “To be following in the footsteps of giants and joining the legacy of jazz at Carnegie Hall with my music is an honor.”
Since its inception in 2003, with concerts featuring David Murray, Dave Holland, and others, the Shape of Jazz has always strived to feature performers who represent the many sub-genres of the music. There is, in fact, an irony inherent in the name of the series, says Danny Melnick, president of Absolutely Live Entertainment LLC, who has selected artists for the series since the beginning. “The whole concept of the series for me,” he says, “is that there is no shape of jazz; there is no definition of jazz. It isn’t for me or Carnegie Hall to define what we think jazz is and present it in a certain way.”
Keeping that in mind, Melnick says, “We try to have leaders of different generations and to have different instrumentation, different styles of music. There are so many incredible jazz musicians out there playing at a very high level, leading really strong ensembles, playing very important, mostly original music, and they encompass a community that is so diverse and so different than anything else in the world.”
Carnegie Hall’s association with jazz, it is important to note, predates the launch of the Shape of Jazz by several decades. “A precursor to what we call jazz today was heard in Carnegie Hall on May 2, 1912, when James Reese Europe and his Clef Club Orchestra presented a ‘Concert of Negro Music’ to benefit the Music School Settlement,” says Rob Hudson, manager of the Carnegie Hall Archives. “The New York Sun noted the integration of the audience, ‘which was large and thoroughly well mixed, but united in its applause,’” he adds.
Paul Whiteman’s heralded orchestra, which featured soloists Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden, performed at the Hall in the 1920s, and on April 27, 1928, the featured artist was W. C. Handy with Fats Waller on piano. Benny Goodman’s legendary concert of January 16, 1938, with his swing orchestra, marked not only the Carnegie Hall debut of the famed clarinetist, but that of pianist Count Basie. The concert is often considered a turning point in the history of the music, bringing to it a mainstream respectability that had previously eluded the genre. In subsequent decades, performers including Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie (with Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald on the same bill), Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Ornette Coleman, and the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane all made historic appearances at the Hall.
The Joyce and George T. Wein Shape of Jazz series, says Melnick, is poised to carry on that great tradition. “I am very proud of the series,” he says. “It’s been a really powerful snapshot of what has happened in jazz in much of the past two decades. It stands on its own, but is also part of the continuum of jazz at Carnegie Hall. It’s a great honor to have the trust of the Hall’s artistic team and to be able to continue to share this great music with audiences.”
For more information, visit carnegiehall.org/jazz.
Jeff Tamarkin is a veteran music journalist.