Season Premiere

Classic Arts Features   Season Premiere
Jazz at Lincoln Center launches its first season in its new home.

The Chinese aphorism "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" is quite applicable to Jazz at Lincoln Center's (JALC's) excursion, which began as a series of summer concerts under the banner of "Classical Jazz" in 1987. Lincoln Center, Inc. producer and then-Director of Visitor Services Alina Bloomgarden brought in the acclaimed classical and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis to serve as artistic director for a series of celebratory concerts that focused on the music of jazz titans Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dexter Gordon, and Tadd Dameron, among others.

Several longtime jazz enthusiasts on the Lincoln Center Board, including founding JALC chairman Gordon J. Davis, believed that jazz, as America's most distinguished musical creation, deserved a stable institutional home befitting its cultural stature. They also noted that the summer performances attracted new and younger audiences to the Lincoln Center complex; as a result, Jazz at Lincoln Center earned departmental status in 1991 and became a full constituent in 1996. This very month JALC unveiled its $128-million-dollar facility, the first ever designed specifically for the resonance and communal function of jazz.

Although the progression of JALC seems swift, the process of institutionalizing jazz programming at Lincoln Center didn't occur without criticism along the way. In the 1990s, some jazz critics claimed that the programming of Artistic Director Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center narrowly excluded post-1950s jazz styles and, moreover, that significant white jazz artists lacked adequate representation. While the past record of JALC as a constituent of Lincoln Center Inc. demonstrates the vacuity of these charges, one need look no further than its upcoming first season of programming in the Frederick P. Rose Hall to measure its democratic breadth.

Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall opens its doors October 18, 2004, followed by the Grand Opening Festival from October 21 to November 5, which will reflect the true expanse of Jazz at Lincoln Center's annual programming. Bill Cosby kicks off the season with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at the Rose Theater, followed by sultry alto Cassandra Wilson on October 22. Singers Dianne Reeves and Freddy Cole, who sounds remarkably like his brother Nat "King" Cole, follow on October 23. Two nights later the classic sounds of Ellington and Basie will resound via the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra's only performance of the season in The Allen Room. The secular foundation of jazz‹the blues‹is addressed in three evening performances focusing, respectively, on its African roots, and its country and soul extensions (October 25-27).

Just a few days before what some call the most important presidential election in American history, six world premieres will serve as background for liberation oratory by Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. "Let Freedom Swing: A Celebration of Human Rights and Social Justice" (October 28-30) includes compositions from artists as varied as gospel pianist and conductor Darin Atwater, Japanese pianist and band leader Toshiko Akiyoshi, American pianist Darius Brubeck, South African saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, multireed instrumentalist and arranger par excellence Jimmy Heath, and noted Czech pianist Emil Viklicky. While "freedom swings" in the Rose Theater, Brazil's greatest musician, Hermeto Pascoal will join expatriate percussionist Cyro Baptista in The Allen Room on October 29 and 30.

The two-week fête of performances is rounded out by jazz-inspired dance. The Artistic Director of JALC, Wynton Marsalis, will premiere his composition Welcome, with choreography by New York City Ballet Master-in-Chief Peter Martins, November 3-5, in the Rose Theater. Martins and Marsalis previously collaborated for Jazz (Six Syncopated Movements), which will be reprised with performances by dancers from the Garth Fagan Dance Company and the New York City Ballet. Also included in this celebration of dance and jazz are Elizabeth Streb's dance company, Joe Chambers's percussion ensemble, post-Charlie Parker alto standard-bearer Charles McPherson, and tap dance king Savion Glover.

As if the above wasn't enough of an auspicious, inclusive launch, the most intimate hall in the new facility, Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, will accentuate the various sides of the trumpet innovator for which the venue was named. From its opening on October 21 and for three weeks afterwards, various artists will tackle Dizzy Gillespie's compositions in small and big band configurations along with his penchant for Latin music. Professional musicians hold court on Tuesdays through Sundays for at least two sets, with late-night sets on Fridays; beginning in November, students will play on Mondays.

Education has always been at the center of JALC's programming. The popular Jazz for Young People concerts continue, with Jazz: The Big Picture on December 4, an exploration of the jazz and visual art connection, and What Is a Big Band? on May 7, 2005. The following week brings the Tenth Annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival. Thousands of high schools have received free scores of Ellington arrangements over the course of the program; 15 top high school bands will compete from May 13 through 15, with individual and group prizes awarded on the last night.

For adults, JALC will offer Jazz Talk and Jazz 101 classes. The former highlights the influence of jazz on modern art, December 13; the roots of Latin Jazz (including Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra) on January 31, 2005; and Ellington's New York, on May 9, 2005. The Irene Diamond Education Center will be the locale for the fall, winter, and spring Jazz 101 sessions, where jazz experts will concentrate on topics such as: BeBop, jazz in New York, the Jazz Age (held before the "Music of Paul Whiteman" concert on February 17), Latin Jazz, Thelonious Monk, New Orleans jazz, Duke Ellington, and the legacy of great jazz singers. This season JALC also introduces WeBop! classes for tots aged 2 to 5. The Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, a multimedia attraction for families and schools, contains rotating education kiosks highlighting the idiom's masters and history.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more innovative period of programming than JALC's 2004-2005 season. Beginning in January 2005, The Allen Room will be filled with the melodious singing of balladeer Bill Henderson and Rene Marie; superb pianist Bill Charlap re-invents masterpieces from the American songbook (February 17-19); vocalists Kurt Elling and Luciana Souza will soar, March 31-April 2; and from April 14 to 16, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra will represent the birthplace of jazz updated for the 21st century.

As seen above, a theme that surfaces throughout the season is a series of duo concerts. For several decades, electric guitarist John Scofield has merged the best of jazz and rock guitar. On March 11-12, he performs opposite one of the most exciting young pianists in the business, Brad Mehldau. Pianist Marcus Roberts, one of the numerous musicians whom Wynton Marsalis shepherded to public and critical recognition, and his trio will co-bill with the ensemble of Jason Moran, who won three "Rising Star" categories in the 2003 Down Beat Critics Poll. Both will present new commissions.

Yet larger ensembles also pepper the season. Marsalis premieres his "Suite for Human Nature" December 16-19, featuring the LCJO and the Boys Choir of Harlem. On January 28 and 29, Graciela, Claudia Acuna, and Herman Olivera join the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra with Arturo O'Farrill in a celebration of the great Latin jazz vocalists. In February the LCJO will display the role of steam train onomatopoeia throughout jazz history. The San Francisco Jazz Collective, led by tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, comes to the Rose Theater in March. The season ends on a high note in May with new music composed by LCJO trombonist Ron Westray to the classic tale of literature, Don Quixote, and a rousing three nights of concerts of the music of the great arranger, bandleader, and trumpeter Thad Jones.

Greg Thomas is the editor-in-chief of Harlem World magazine, and has written for, the Village Voice, and the Guardian Observer, among others.

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