Beyond Clubland—and Repertory


When Jazz at Lincoln Center opened the doors to its 100,000-square-foot, $128 million complex, folks in the jazz world sounded a common refrain: At last, the music had found a home within institutional culture. But jazz has been at home within America’s cultural and educational institutions for a long time. Since many of our arts centers are connected to colleges, Dave Brubeck deserves props. With his quartet growing in popularity in the early 1950s, Brubeck found offers for gigs pouring in. But he was getting tired of jazz clubs. He compiled a list of colleges, thinking his group would interest their music departments, and had his wife, Iola, contact them, offering “the world-famous Dave Brubeck Quartet in a special concert.” Fifty colleges accepted in the first year; many had never before sponsored a jazz concert. The tour generated more income than a string of club gigs would have and led to recordings such as Jazz Goes to College, Brubeck’s first major seller.

Precedents date back further and extend beyond the college circuit. Take Carnegie Hall. In 1912, the hall hosted a “Concert of Negro Music” that featured James Reese Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra. Not to mention these milestone Carnegie jazz events: a 1938 Benny Goodman concert, John Hammond’s late-’30s “Spirituals to Swing” concerts, and the 1943 debut of Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige.

Jazz at Lincoln Center is noteworthy for waving the jazz banner high and hard today. Producer Randall Kline has built a West Coast-style year-round jazz presence with SFJazz. Still, the life of jazz at our cultural institutions is better measured through the programming of performing-arts centers and arts institutions that lack the word “jazz” in their titles and through general-interest seasons at concert halls across the country. Those venues are fast replacing clubs as the seedbed for audience development and creative growth, and they reflect jazz’s changed role within our cultural consciousness.

“Jazz is central to the identity of Zankel Hall,” says Carnegie Hall artistic adviser Ara Guzelimian, “and that’s by design.” Carnegie’s new auxiliary space has aligned itself strongly with Nonesuch Records, drawing heavily from that label’s roster. Like Nonesuch, Zankel Hall works on the assumption that there’s a market of mature listeners who don’t frequent jazz clubs, but who appreciate jazz within an eclectic musical mix. Take a look at the marketing brochure for nearly any American arts center, and you’re likely to find a jazz series. When Mervon Mehta, vice president of programming at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, met with some of his colleagues from other cities recently, they wondered how the Kimmel could afford to present jazz. “You don’t think you can afford to program jazz?” he asked. “You can’t afford not to.”

Likewise, jazz musicians can’t afford not to play arts center gigs—the jazz club business is threatened as never before. According to agent Scott Southard, whose International Music Network roster includes pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, “Outside of four or five cities, I don’t know that there is enough of a market to support full-time jazz clubs across this country anymore. Clubs are falling away, and arts center bookings are absolutely replacing those engagements.”

In many cases, arts center bookings lean toward packaged “concept” bands such as the New Directions in Music group that Southard recently promoted, featuring Hancock, saxophonist Michael Brecker, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. Some cultural outposts simply recruit jazz ensembles into unexpected places; at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of the Universe, musicians perform amid models of planetary orbits. But arts centers, classical organizations, and other institutions also fuel creative and career desires. Two new commissions in the works from classical-music organizations will highlight Shorter’s growth as a composer for strings and in contexts that transcend the jazz genre and present, Southard says, “the direction he’s naturally moving in.”

Jazz’s reach is extended through institutional bookings. And these new alliances empower many jazz musicians to think beyond what a club can support, via commissions that were once considered the province of classical and “new music” composers. New award recipients for Meet the Composer’s 2005 commissioning programs include at least five bona fide jazz artists, among them saxophonist Jimmy Heath and pianist Geri Allen.

Such support for jazz often enriches what we prize most about the idea of jazz, especially an ability to express American values and identities in all their contemporary complexity. One potent venue has been the Asia Society, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. A recent concert found Indian American saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa mixing it up with fellow alto player Kadri Gopalnath, a South Indian musician who has translated classical Carnatic music to his instrument. The backing band included both trap set and mridangam, a two-headed hand drum.

“This collaboration would be too left-of-center for the jazz clubs and not pure enough for the world-music festivals,” Mahanthappa explained. “So it’s very difficult to find a presenter who will see the real value of it. I think that there’s a glass ceiling to what can go over in the jazz clubs.”

The Asia Society’s Crossovers series has enabled several established jazz players to express identity through music. Chinese American violinist Jason Hwang’s 2001 chamber opera distilled oral histories, including his own, into a poetic text, set to music that blended Eastern and Western instruments. Last year, Indian American pianist Vijay Iyer’s In What Language? combined music, text, and video images to grapple with globalization and the identities of “brown-skinned travelers” in airports. Rachel Cooper, who created the series, had an awakening at a 1997 Asian American Jazz Festival in San Francisco. “I’d been wanting to create programming about how Asian influences were part of the new American voice,” she says, “and I suppose it was natural that jazz ended up as the best vehicle for that. Jazz is this quintessential American music that has inclusivity as part of its form.”

When organizational missions align in concrete ways with a jazz musician’s creative desires, jazz thrives on the connections. Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center is known mostly for visual arts but has an impressive history of jazz presentation. Last month, pianist Jason Moran premiered Milestone, a Walker commission inspired by visual artist Adrian Piper. Moran’s music has referenced his love of art before. But for Milestone, the Walker invited him to root through their archives and meet with curators. When he became enamored with Piper’s work, the Walker arranged for Moran to meet the artist. And the center gave Moran, whose club and concert gigs regularly make use of prerecorded tapes, license and budget to create something of an expanded theater piece from his performance.

Jazz will be played in nightclubs as long as nightclubs survive (and they’d better). Dedicated jazz institutions will keep legacies intact. Arts center jazz concerts will present tried-and-true musicians to new listeners. But stay tuned for what develops at arts institutions not dedicated to jazz. These may be the most interesting sounds of all.

“The Walker is about ideas,” says curator Philip Bither, “and jazz is about ideas. If jazz is a form of the moment and is ever evolving, then organizations that are set up to support innovation, in whatever artistic discipline they are working, may be more in keeping with what jazz is about than an institution dedicated to preserving its history.”