Fire Music

Lincoln Center Thaws Its Cold War on Jazz Activism

"There have always been blacks, going back to Booker T. Washington, who have eschewed any confrontation with white norms," says Shepp. "That's part of the reason for Wynton's and Mr. Murray's unheralded success. They've made white people feel very comfortable that blacks don't care about anything but entertaining them. [Marsalis and Murray] have kept Lincoln Center on a purely cultural basis, knowing damn well that white folks get upset when Negroes start talking about civil rights and socio-economic freedoms"—topics Shepp spoke about extensively during the '60s, and again two weeks ago, when he blurted in Alice Tully Hall, "We send people to die needlessly! It's senseless. We could deal with our own problems here before we deal with other problems around the world."

Convincing or not, his words resonated, and exemplified a brand of rebellion that, Murray says, Jazz at Lincoln Center proudly excluded from its original philosophy: "Lincoln Center is about aesthetic sophistication, which has nothing to do with political protest."

It seems ironic, then, that Lincoln Center is hosting "Jazz and Social Protest." Perhaps there was a glitch at the board meeting? Or perhaps Lincoln Center's new management wants to thaw its cold war on jazz activism. Todd Barkan—artistic administrator for the past two years—among other Lincoln Center employees, deserves credit for broadening the center's programming.

Poet Amiri Baraka: percussion can still confront you.
photo: Jimmy Katz
Poet Amiri Baraka: percussion can still confront you.

"One of the most important lessons we can learn from Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln," says Barkan, "is their resolute insistence on being themselves—that's a real important idea. It's related to the essence of the music we're trying to promote at Jazz at Lincoln Center. We're becoming much more able to present many different elements of the music with moving into our new wing. More jobs and more musicians is what we're trying to do—and that will involve everybody from [John] Abercrombie to [John] Zorn—A to Z."

"If they came to us and invited us to perform in those positive, healthy terms," says free-jazz pianist Matthew Shipp, dismissed by Crouch as an inferior, irrelevant musician, "we'd surely have a discussion."

Maybe panelists will both address Barkan's comments and discuss the reasons activism has been brushed aside by Lincoln Center for the past decade. The event's host won't mind, right? And there's plenty of history to unrevise, insists saxophonist Oliver Lake, who formed the Black Artists Group and World Saxophone Quartet to "protect artists' rights and encourage self-empowerment," he says. "Lincoln Center had the ears of all the major networks and newspapers. The fact that they had such a powerful PR arm meant they were able to take money out of the pockets of people like the Art Ensemble and the World Saxophone Quartet. Lincoln Center did a PR number on all of us."

"Yes, there was an emphasis on the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong," counters Barkan. "But I don't think Jazz at Lincoln Center has deprived any musicians or any elements of the music from any kind of financial support whatsoever."

"Oliver isn't exaggerating at all," says David Murray, another former member of the World Saxophone Quartet. "[Lincoln Center] had to do and say everything they could to get this deal over. Now that they've got this deal over, they're trying to soften the story. But there was a lot of shit flying at that time, and when the shit came their way, they were very offended. I was one of the ones throwing the shit back. But I've forgiven all these guys because, basically, the world sees exactly who they are."

"There was a lot of talk on the streets," offers Bowery Poetry Club owner and poet Bob Holman, regarding claims that Lincoln Center helped to cause an economic decline in politically charged jazz. "But whatever happened then, I do know that, now, Marsalis is giving his own time to help a low-profile downtown arts organization that does a lot of heavy-duty street work. And jazz is absolutely potent politically these days. I think of things as varied as Baraka's performances at the Bowery Poetry Club and Wynton's benefits for Steve Cannon's Gathering of the Tribes. Two diverse examples: Baraka as a spokesperson for radical change, and Marsalis working for one of the most hidden and wonderful downtown arts organizations, giving his own time on an annual basisto donate a small concert in an intimate space. . . . Jazz musicians and poets have historically come together to promote political change, and that's definitely still going on."

"Everybody's mad at Wynton," says Crouch. "But if Marsalis becomes the symbol of everything you can't stand, i.e., a Negro with more power than you . . . look, all this stuff about music being more inclusive—'I want to be open, man, I want to be open'—well, why does being open have to include not playing?"

Not playing, or not swinging? Much avant-garde jazz today doesn't swing, by Lincoln Center's standards, which seem to measure swing using a calculator and graph paper. And while not all un-swinging jazz expressly protests war or encourages race equality, much does—free-jazz bassist William Parker's catalog, for instance, demonstrates a strong link between tampering with conventional 3/4 meter and demanding social change.

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