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?
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.
Origin stories may not always represent a complete truth, but they do give people something to hold on to. What defines the origin of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which has just started its 31st season, is the need to prove itself. In 1986, the board of Lincoln Center issued a report that said, “Lincoln Center should focus on excellence in its core offerings and that no compelling case can be made for adding a new constituent in an area like jazz.” Three years earlier, Alina Bloomgarden, then director of visitor services, brought the idea of a permanent jazz program to the center’s president. “I submitted three proposals between 1983 and 1987,” Bloomgarden recounted. “My first two proposals were rejected; some thought jazz audiences would be rowdy(!).”
When the board finally gave its tepid approval, Bloomgarden invited Marsalis to help her plan a summer concert series. The incipient jazz program had to demonstrate its commercial viability as well as the merits of the music and, it seems, the community from which it comes. The first three concerts, in August 1987, celebrated women in jazz (Betty Carter, Sasha Daltonn, Marian McPartland and others), the pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, and the saxophonist Charlie Parker.
The founders of JALC believed that the stakes were high—not just for the music but also for the life of the country. By the late Eighties, many of jazz’s greatest innovators had died; jazz clubs were shutting down; most colleges and universities had yet to form jazz-studies programs; and some warned that the increasing popularity of electronic instruments, and the commercial aspirations that came with them, threatened the identity of the music. At the same time, the limitations of the civil rights movement were becoming more widely apparent; some schools, workplaces and neighborhoods may have been desegregated, but the country was hardly integrated. AIDS was ravaging American cities, giving many people a new excuse to demonstrate their disdain for others. The Cold War and its end gave a boost to militarization and globalization. And Reagan’s intensification of the War on Drugs precipitated the period of modern mass incarceration.
Not nearly of American society, but certainly of jazz, Wynton Marsalis was considered to be a savior. The stories about Marsalis reprised the ones told about Miles Davis in the Fifties and anticipated the ones told today about musicians like Kamasi Washington or Robert Glasper—that he would return artistic seriousness and market viability to a genre that had lost its way. But unlike those contemporary musicians, and like Miles, Marsalis radiated a brashness that all but dared critics to reject the savior mythology.
Marsalis’s own sense of what he was saving is recorded in “The New Orleans Function” (1989), a three-part suite styled after the city’s funeral marches, which is, in a way, a musical extension of Bechet’s origin story. The second part, a song called “Premature Autopsies (Sermon),” features an impassioned oration written by the critic Stanley Crouch and delivered by Reverend Jeremiah Wright. In addition to offering testimony to the profundity of jazz as art, Wright’s address, set to life-giving music, can be read as an assessment of American society and as a statement of purpose for Marsalis. Under the guidance of mentors like Crouch and Albert Murray (who was also involved in the founding of JALC), Marsalis had come to understand the possibilities for American culture held within the music. And so the sermon can also be read as a statement of purpose for what would become Jazz at Lincoln Center:
It is possible that we who listened heard something timeless from those who are the descendants of the many who were literally up for sale—those whose presence on the auction blocks and in the slave quarters formed the cross upon which the Constitution of this nation was crucified. Yet—even after that crucifixion, there were those who rose in the third century of American slavery with a vision of freedom.
There were those who lit the mighty wick that extended from the candle—and carried it. There were those who spoke through music of the meaning of light—those who were not content to accept the darkness in the heart that comes when you surrender to dragons who think themselves grand. There were those who said, “Listen closely, now”—those who said, “If you give me a fair chance, I will help you better understand the meaning of democracy.” Yes—that is precisely what they said. “If you give me a fair chance, I will help you better understand the meaning of democracy.” These are they who were truly the makers of a noble sound.
A chance, perhaps one fair enough, was given. After two summers of the concert series, Gordon Davis, a member of the Lincoln Center board at the time, advocated for a new committee to reconsider forming a permanent jazz program. In 1990, the board finally agreed to deepen its commitment by instituting Jazz at Lincoln Center as a funded department. Then, in 1996, ten years after its initial denial, the board voted to elevate Jazz at Lincoln Center to full constituency, joining the City Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera, and the other houses dedicated to European arts.
The leaders of JALC quickly undertook the construction of a facility designed specifically for the acoustics of swing- and blues-oriented jazz, one that could also accommodate the institution’s educational and archival pursuits. During the construction of Frederick P. Rose Hall at Columbus Circle, which cost $131 million, Lisa Schiff, the board’s chairperson, explained their fundraising strategy in just one word: “Wynton.” As part of his strategy, Marsalis performed with popular musicians outside of the jazz world like Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. (As David Yaffe wrote in 2005, “Marsalis’s insistence on laying down the iron law of swing with rock and R&B icons added a rich tension to their performances.”)
Each accomplishment for JALC has brought a new set of challenges, and the building and operation of its own facility proved no different. JALC has often been criticized for its high ticket prices, but to its credit, it provides a set of offerings that extends far beyond the concert stage. These include pre-concert lectures, which are free but poorly advertised; live streaming of all concerts, which is also free; educational programming for people of all ages; and maintaining an archive of written compositions. These are JALC’s efforts to put Wright’s sermon—“I will help you better understand the meaning of democracy”—into institutional action. And yet, when Americans discuss how to address our deepest problems, how to steer this lost thing, we tend not to look to the arts, let alone to jazz, for guidance.
One can arrive at a more meaningful understanding of JALC and what it has offered the country by considering an institution that is often described as something of its antithesis: the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which was founded in Chicago in 1965 and borrowed much of its thinking from the black cultural nationalism of the period. Originality, or the sense of it, guided almost everything AACM members did. Even though the first generation of AACM members was greatly influenced by swing and bebop, some of its members sought to distance themselves from that lineage by calling their music “Great Black Music” rather than “jazz,” a term that’s inescapably unoriginal. In the book A Power Stronger Than Itself, the trombonist and AACM member George E. Lewis quotes the saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell describing the aesthetic vision for his album Sound (1966), AACM’s first recording: “Sound is a composition that deals, like I say, with sound, and the musicians are free to make any sound they think will do, any sound that they hear at a particular time. That could be like somebody who felt like stomping on the floor … well, he would stomp on the floor.”
Lewis also recounts how such a relationship to sound and freedom manifested at AACM performances: “At a Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble event in December 1966, Lester Bowie opened the event by stalking across the stage wielding a shotgun. Later, drummer Leonard Smith danced with an oversized Raggedy Ann doll, accompanied by Malachi Favors’s banjo. Another performance saw Favors wearing bells on his ankles and stripes painted on his face.” (The JALC Orchestra members wear matching suits and ties for their performances.)
The AACM’s notion of artistic originality accords with its ideal of cooperative self-determination: the group initially relied exclusively on membership dues for funding, presented and marketed its own concerts, and made decisions about almost everything by majority vote. In addition to being an incubator for original music, the AACM, like JALC, made education and community development essential parts of its mission. And perhaps in this way, in the name of its own radicalism, the AACM could be said to be even more steadfast than JALC. Its strong anti-corporatist beliefs have prevented the organization from securing the sort of endowment that JALC enjoys.
Even though the AACM has been described as a radical, black-nationalist organization, its main concern has been with showing the way, through its music and its institutional example, toward equality and greater freedom for everyone. As Muhal Richard Abrams, the AACM’s founding president, put it, the organization operated from the idea that they were “helping ourselves up to the point where we can participate in the universal aspect of things, which includes all people.” Indeed, although their aesthetic sensibilities have taken the institutions in different directions, both AACM and JALC embody and extend theories for cultural change that attempt to deal with the damage done by racialized exclusion, discrimination and poverty.
But by prioritizing originality, sometimes at the expense of discernible meaning, the AACM is an example of how the artistic innovations we call “radical” can play out in counterintuitive ways. Artistic and social movements that have been labeled as radical often exhibit a functional conservatism—an inward-looking posture that is inflexible in the face of challenge or change. Conversely, what Jazz at Lincoln Center does has radical potential by way of the very same attributes that critics call conservative or misguided. For instance, when the location for Rose Hall was determined, many people scoffed at its placement within a high-end shopping mall at Columbus Circle, and perceived its isolation from the main Lincoln Center campus four blocks to the north to be a slight. But there may be no more appropriate location: nestled within a house of consumerism, JALC showcases the music born from a freedom struggle, one that encourages both players and listeners to reach for higher ideals.
For the AACM, freedom is achieved by shaking off restrictions (“an awakening,” as Abrams put it); for JALC, freedom is achieved through mastery of tradition and form—within limitations. In a 2002 interview with the pianist Ethan Iverson, and after a brief and positive discussion of the AACM, Marsalis elaborated on his thinking regarding the label “jazz.”
Everything can’t be it, if only because you can’t teach it to other people.
That’s a very pragmatic way to look at it. If I take my kid out here and say, “Everything that you do is basketball,” I can’t teach him how to play. You apply that to any field. You’re going to have a problem teaching people, if you don’t have a meaning. It’s great for you if you can realize something that intensely broad. But you’re going to have trouble with your next generation. Because to learn everything is hard.
And if there’s no standard of excellence, the most competitive students will not want to play. … The thing about conservatism is the comfort of numbers. Everybody agrees.
The tension between the “radicalism” that gets associated with the AACM and the “conservatism” that gets associated with JALC is akin to the academic and art-world debates between postmodernism and modernism. The AACM’s version of postmodernism eschews any notion of universal standards of excellence or of truth and beauty, often because those standards have been associated with white supremacy; for Marsalis and JALC, those standards may have historically been associated with white supremacy, but mostly what they’ve done is given shape to the cultural inheritance all Americans carry, and provided an opportunity for transcendence, or progress—by way of honest confrontation and mastery of form.
In January 2018, Jazz at Lincoln Center hosted an event with the magazine JazzTimes called the Jazz Congress—something like an academic conference for the jazz community, with panels about urgent issues and practicalities like audience development and digital marketing. The first panel discussion was titled “Jazz and Race: A Conversation,” a moderated talk between Marsalis and Iverson. Marsalis, wearing a gray double-breasted suit and dark tie, began the discussion by speaking from prepared notes:
I want to start by saying something about “black.” “Black” is not anthropological. That’s the first thing I want to clarify. It’s social and it’s political. … Race in our country is a stand-in for a dominant culture to create a permanent underclass to be exploited for social reasons, for rituals, for sacrifice and for economics. … Jazz music refutes the construct of sectarianism, which is used to divide and conquer people. It is itself a refutation of that. This is what I’ve learned. I grew up in black nationalism, in black power, which is itself a construct. The most difficult thing to do is to go deeper than whatever everything around you told you was true and the reality you could see. Because there’s another reality inside of another reality. And jazz symbolically is a unifier—that’s what it is. It is the result of hybridization of cultures.
That Marsalis gave this sort of introduction to the conversation is notable for its difference, in tone and groundedness, from more common public discussions about race, which often jump straight into tallying representation and assessing power on a who’s-up-who’s-down basis. The facile equation of representation, in the sense of visibility, and power, while not unimportant, is symptomatic of our fixation on high drama and our desire for easy solutions. It ignores the power, beauty and potential that “have-nots” actually possess, and those hard-earned qualities that the “haves” may lack—the cultural resources to make sense of and counterstate the pain inflicted by those systemic abuses.
Most crucially, against a society that continually confuses the two, Marsalis is almost always explicit about the difference between race and culture, between what is taken to be intractable and what we can change. Marsalis’s bold position—that the differences we give life to aren’t essential or determinative differences at all—relies on a lesson he learned from Albert Murray. “Identity is best defined in terms of culture,” Murray wrote in his 1970 book The Omni-Americans. “American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. … Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”
By contrast, when, during the second meeting of the AACM, the (“white”) pianist Bob Dogan asked, “You mean that if someone is a certain race then they can’t come into the group,” Abrams replied:
I mean that we are going to have to decide whether we will have an interracial group or not. Being frank about it, when we started we didn’t intend to have an interracial group. Not as opposed to another race, but we made it on the premise that each has his own, up to a certain height. Then, the collaboration and contact with the other races or body takes place. …This is not opposed to white musicians. We know that we clearly have economic, social and other obligations to ourselves because of our positions as black musicians. We’ve been lacking a lot of things, and we have to bring up ourselves.
After further debate, no affirmative group decision was made, but Abrams’s position became the de facto position of the AACM. Such a stance, even if it doesn’t represent the highest ideals, is understandable in the context of American life in 1965. And yet the hybrid nature of American culture stubbornly presented itself; over time, the AACM’s orbit expanded to include people outside of its initial vision of itself—whether in the form of artistic collaborations (as with John Cage and with concert stops in France and Germany), performing space provided by the University of Chicago, or financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts, which was hard-won and fraught with discriminatory practices.
As if in defiance of a term like “Great Black Music,” Marsalis told the audience at Jazz Congress bluntly, “Your chance of playing like Charlie Parker is zero whether you’re white or black.” He played the line for laughs, but the joke refutes the notion that a before-and-after, stepwise strategy for achieving equal representation in the arts is the most sensible one—or even possible in a nation as mixed as ours. Marsalis seems to hold a set of beliefs that amounts to something very near to American exceptionalism: heroic action is necessary to overcome our problems, and our problems are necessary to inspire heroic action. But his belief in American heroism is tempered by a universal humanism that transcends national histories: it’s an exceptionalism that knows Americans are just another group of people figuring out how to deal with life—that America is fundamentally itself just one concept to help them do that—and that every person has within them the potential to become heroic. In fact, the belief in heroism requires such a stance. As Albert Murray has said, no adventure no hero, no dragon no dragon slayer: what life presents as obstacles are better viewed as opportunities to rise to the challenge, to achieve heroic action. And so, out of the post-Emancipation crucible, blues-oriented jazz became the most adequate and meaningful artistic form for shaping life in the United States: when the break comes—the shift in time signature, the key changes, etc.—your best option is to call upon all of your knowledge, keep your composure, listen closely, and swing. But no degree of expertise, or swing, wins the battle for good: antagonistic cooperation is a never-ending proposition.
After the “jazz and race” panel adjourned, the audience that had nearly filled the Appel Room, one of JALC’s glass-walled venues overlooking Columbus Circle, emptied out—leaving the room about half full for the next session, “Gender and Jazz.” This panel included drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, writer John Murph, and trumpeter and bandleader Ellen Seeling. Whereas the earlier conversation tended toward the theoretical, Seeling, in particular, focused the “Gender and Jazz” conversation on articulating clear pathways to change.
Prior to Jazz Congress, Seeling had been pressuring JALC to institute both open calls and blind auditions to hire musicians in its orchestra, which still does not have a woman member. She believes that those two measures are essential to fixing the industry-wide gender gap. The institution has agreed to adopt them, but Marsalis says there has not yet been an opening to fill. Seeling has committed to monitoring the integrity of these new policies. It should go without saying that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra exists as a diminished version of its potential without women’s participation. Indeed, by the logic of Marsalis’s heroism, and of antagonistic cooperation, the next sax man to play like Charlie Parker is more likely to be a woman.
Still, the potential that JALC might spur lasting cultural change is seeded far deeper than representation as such—far deeper, that is, than the composition of JALC’s orchestra: it originates with the ability of the institution to confront pressures of time, internal limitations and external agitations—to translate the swing form into the realm of organizational structure.
Jazz at Lincoln Center, or any other arts institution, can easily measure, and therefore promote, the number of people who like a photo or livestream a show. And roughly since 2012, the institution, like nearly every other arts institution, has prioritized growth online. (JALC maintains an online audience of nearly two million people, I was told.) But JALC’s enthusiasm for enhancing its own social-media presence also threatens its potential. Not only are such metrics a false measure of how many people are moved in any deep sense, but they also represent a return, in a new form, to the old practice of scanning radio plays and album sales for signs of jazz’s “death.” And in a deeper sense, the realm of social media conflicts with the ethos of swing time. To borrow from what John Berger said about the difference between a photograph and a drawing, social media suspends time, while jazz encompasses time—simultaneously dealing with the past and addressing the future.
If JALC exists, as Marsalis told me, to offer Americans “an alternative way to develop our national identity,” one that is more productive and meaningful than pop culture and mainstream thought, then a hazard for the institution is falling into what could be called the Teach for America paradox: if you establish an organization to address a specific problem, that problem will likely not be solved—not by that organization, anyway. A world in which standards of truth, beauty and common good are far less dependent on what’s trending or what sells would be a world in which Jazz at Lincoln Center is far less unique, and therefore less essential, as an institution. For now, they are essential, but they still face an unavoidable question: If you’re being paid to be the dragon slayer, will you ever stand a chance against the dragon?
To close its thirtieth season, this June the JALC orchestra performed “The Ever Fonky Low Down,” an extended composition by Marsalis, which included dancers, singers and a narration by actor Wendell Pierce. In character as Mr. Game, Pierce jested the audience with its own cultural inheritance: “I’m here for your edification, elucidation and your education. Here’s the situation. … I inspire and sell confidence. Don’t laugh—confidence determines the direction of the markets. And there’s nothing in the world more important than money, especially if it’s yours.”
With its theatricality, its use of dance, its borrowings from ecstatic church music and not least its anti-corporate message—its clear attempt to summon an awakening—“The Ever Fonky Low Down” was more like a work that the AACM might have produced than what the JALC orchestra typically performs. (They did wear their standard suits, though.) Near the end of the show, which focused on the human desire for comfort and our tendency to overlook other people’s suffering, Mr. Game concluded, “This is an international hustle. It has played out many times across time and space, and is not specific to any language or race. It takes on different flavors according to people’s taste, but always ends up in the same old place.”
Adjusting to the light, us concertgoers, bleary-eyed from a couple of hours in the dark hall, smiled and nodded with assent about what a good show that was. We filed into the elevators, and went down through the marketplace: jazz and its country of origin—as it was in the beginning. Whatever might have changed within us was as yet imperceptible.