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Most elevators, in most buildings, don’t play music anymore. And yet “jazz” is probably how most people would identify the cheesy stuff known as elevator music. If you were to ask someone with greater discernment, or someone somewhat snobbish about it, they might call it “smooth jazz.”

To get to Jazz at Lincoln Center, it just so happens, you have to take an elevator. As you ascend, you’re likely to hear Ella and Louis, Dizzy or Miles, the orchestras of Count Basie or Duke Ellington. The speakers are large and visible, and the music—just loud enough to call attention to itself—discourages conversation. Straight away, you get the sense that defiance is essential to what Jazz at Lincoln Center does.

The consistency of the institution’s vision since its founding in 1987 is vital to its defiance. In 2012, JALC issued a newly worded mission statement—“to entertain, enrich and expand a global community for jazz through performance, education, and advocacy”—though that’s mainly a restatement of what the organization had already been doing for 25 years. With consistency has come criticism—some worthy and some not—and since JALC’s beginnings, Wynton Marsalis, its managing and artistic director, has been as much of a target of criticism as JALC: he’s elitist, it’s said, he hasn’t embraced diversity, and he’s failed to foster musical experimentation.

For many musicians and writers, these alleged faults are secondary to another one: the very act of institutionalizing jazz. JALC has been said to be less like a performance space and more like a museum—the place where the music goes to die. “They’re trying to make jazz legitimate,” the pianist Matthew Shipp said about JALC in 1998. “The good thing about anything good is that it’s illegitimate. Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were illegitimate when they came along.… See, Lincoln Center has a monopoly on a certain thing, and they’ve tried to define jazz as that, so they can go on making a lot more money.”

Shipp’s relationship with Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he’s performed and given lectures in recent years, has changed, but his desire for artistic freedom marks a significant point of conflict with what’s required of an arts institution with precise cultural goals. Few ambitious artists will abide rigid confines for long; but where one virtuosic artist might feel restricted, another might discern standards on which an institution can be built—and by which a theory of aesthetics might become a theory of cultural change. Marsalis said as much in 1994: “There is no true jazz that is without swing and the blues. So I’m using traditional material in a new spirit, redefining the past for this time.” Yet for that spirit to remain new, it can’t ignore the spirit of Shipp’s 1998 polemic: no institution, especially not one as prominent as JALC, is beyond criticism or reappraisal.

At least since the mid-Sixties, the style of jazz that’s broadly called the avant-garde—what Shipp is known for playing—has been considered by many critics to be a strain of the music with the greatest artistic potential. It became the place to go because everything else had already been done. Yet for the most severe critics, the avant-garde turn was too late in coming because jazz has almost always been dead. During the Great Depression, when jazz ensembles shrunk, and the music stopped being one to dance to, the genre lost much of its wider appeal. It regained some of that popularity during the bebop era of the Forties and Fifties, but was then overtaken by R&B, soul, funk, and rock ’n’ roll. It also fell out of favor with writers who only looked for the life of jazz in radio plays or album sales.

While the obituary writers may have been right—something’s dying—they have been preoccupied with the wrong thing. By looking for signs of vitality in measures of jazz’s popularity, it becomes easier to ignore what the music, according to Marsalis’s definition, is: a refinement of empathic listening, a model for improvisation, and an embodiment of meaningful time perception. If this is right, then the supposition that jazz is dead carries meaning beyond itself. What if we are witnessing the death, or suffocation, of a society that values careful listening, serendipity and, like a jazz ensemble, the dedication to finding common ground?

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Perhaps that would be understandable. Americans carry a troubling heritage related to the buying and selling of goods that has perverted our sense of what does and doesn’t have value. Jazz began as an artistic and cultural counter-statement to a society that rhapsodized about its greatness as it enslaved millions of people. The clarinetist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet begins his autobiography with a revealing spin on the origin story:

It was right around Emancipation time. … A lot of people didn’t want to lose the Negroes. The Negro, he was three billion dollars worth of property, and here was a law coming to take it all away. … Well, they had the war, and it made a bitterness. … It was a crime; it was all political; it was the end of America. What would anyone want with a lot of black people being free, people who couldn’t even spell their names or read a book? … But the Negroes, it made them free. … But mostly there was this big change: a different feeling had got started.

Go down Moses, Way down in Egypt land;
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go…

It was years they’d been singing that. And suddenly there was a different way of singing it. You could feel a new way of happiness in the lines. All that waiting, all that time when that song was far-off music, waiting music, suffering music; and all at once it was there, it had arrived. It was joy music now. It was Free Day … Emancipation.

And New Orleans just bust wide open. … Maybe that’s not easy to understand. White people, they don’t have the memory that needs to understand it. But that’s what the music is … a lost thing finding itself.

To the extent that America remains lost—among the continuous challenges to making one thing out of many—the high artistic achievements by jazz artists and ensembles offer lessons for deriving meaning from the chaos.

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