Follow Your Leaders? Revisionist Jazz @ The Lincoln Centre

A couple of years back, while on holiday in NYC with the fam, I went to see the Willie Jones III Quintet in The Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at the Lincoln Centre. The Dave Holland Trio (w/ Kevin Eubanks) were at the Village Vanguard downtown on the same evening but they don’t let kids in, at Dizzy’s you can be over 7 years old and they’ll take your money.

Located in the enormous Time Warner headquarters on Columbia Circle, the Jazz At The Lincoln Centre rooms seem incongruous. Not because they’re lacking aesthetically, on the contrary, they are wonderful to look at, but because they unapologetically reside in the shadow of one of the most heinous monuments to Western capitalism: the Trump International Hotel. This is the last place you’d expect a ‘progressive’ art form to be flourishing.

A jazz venue or the lobby at Trump International?

Now, I was well aware beforehand of the reputation of J@TLC amongst hardcore jazzers; that there is a lot of ‘veneration of the past’ going on in the shiny building next to Central Park, so it was no surprise to see WJ3’s band was billed as a ‘no frills, small group jazz… honoring monumental influences such as Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, and Billy Higgins’, but I put all second-hand prejudices behind me and took the wife and kids. Natch.

WJ3’s band – Eric Reed on piano, Terell Stafford on trumpet, Stacy Dillard on tenor and sop sax, and George DeLancey on bass – are all top-notch, widely-recognised and respected players who gave a fine recital of tunes old and new. But it was very much WJ3’s show. After every couple of numbers (largely drawn from his or pianist Eric Reed’s discs) there was a extended drum solo by the leader, all of which elicited a worthy response from the predominately white/middle class audience.

Now, there is no doubt WJ3 is a highly proficient drummer, but never once did he lose ‘the swing’. To some jazzmen this is de riguer, but to the rest of us this can be uninteresting. The same could be said for the playing of DeLancey and Stafford – both play straight-ahead and within the tradition as prescribed. Eric Reed on piano was a different kettle, but still his playing showed no influence of anything more avant. Only Stacy Dillard seemed interested in taking things further – but I was sure I caught WJ3 giving him the evil-eye twice during the evening when things were getting a tad abstract, and again when Dillard and Stafford were chatting off-stage during a drum break. Indeed, all five sidemen appeared to be on their best behaviour. I guess the money is good at the LC.

Stacy Dillard flouts convention in an open-neck shirt!

But let’s take a step back…

The controversial trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is the artistic Director at J@TLC. He’s regarded as one of the most powerful men in jazz, yet his reputation amongst musicians is, on the whole, poor. An ultra-conservative, he rubs musicians the wrong way with his outspoken views on what jazz should and should not be.

You see, for him, jazz ends in the 1950s. This means that the ’60s avant-garde and ’70s fusion musics are cast out. Marsalis believes that as soon as the influence of 1. swing and 2. the blues, leave your music, you are dead in the water, and he has devoted his career to making this his mantra and decrying any other alternative resonances.

Marsalis’s primary issue appears to be any sort of dilution of what he categorises as pure jazz. Now, we all know that anyone looking for purity or authenticity in any aspect of life (whther it be in the form of nationalism, the colour of your skin etc.) is not to be trusted, and that regressive thinking is a terrific tool for safe compartmentalisation; the past is unchangeable and we can select what we like from it without fear of surprises. We can easily point to something from back in the day and say ‘This stuff here was good, but that stuff over there was very bad – history has proved it!’. This is what Marsalis does. But it doesn’t stop there. He then rebuilds the past in his own image. As a supporter of the past, he also becomes the conduit. By association, he is the link to the greats.

W. Marsalis receives a medal from one of ‘the greats’.

This arrogance has been the bugbear of many musicians over the years, yet there are a few who clearly share his views on the anachronistic ‘suit and tie’ jazz, and these can be found playing at the Lincoln Centre, having passed the test to remain true to the corporate ethos of the enterprise. However, he plays the corporate game like no other jazzer before or since, and has managed to amass a most impressive amount of financial support for his institution over the years.

Now I have no problem with this, in essence. It is great to celebrate major historical events and the people who were a part of them, but Lincoln Center Jazz seems to do this at every conceivable opportunity. Indeed, one gets the feeling that those bygone days were halcyon, and that nothing can ever surpass them in terms of achievement. And that is a problem. And what a message to give the younger generation…

You’ ain’t never gonna be like Diz, junior.

Maybe it’s because he received the same rebuff in his youth when – in a story that haunts him to this day – his biggest put down came when he took his trumpet along to a Miles Davis show expecting to jam with the maestro, only to be rebuffed by Davis in a shower of expletives.

Wait a minute m*th*rf*ck*r… You want to play with ME? On MY stage?

The main problem though, is this: in a world where the arts are suffering through right-wing agendas and cuts, here we have an establishment figure telling us that experimentation and forward-looking thought is bad.

I could put forward the thought that, in the upper echelons of the post 9/11 world, there is a feeling of paranoia (resolutely shown in the mind-set of the current resident of the White House) and that this has affected management decision-making across the board. But surely this is the time to move forward not backward. ‘Comfort-zone’ arts are everywhere, they’ve always been everywhere. Right upfront.

And how about this – three days after 9/11, Marsalis and his Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra had a gig in Seattle that forced them to travel by bus from L.A. up the West Coast due to flights being cancelled…

“Our concert was scheduled to begin at 7:00 p.m.,” Wynton writes. “We entered the city limits at 7:00 p.m. Out on the stage we received an extended standing ovation from a sold-out house that had waited patiently to be, in the words on one patron, ‘reminded of who we are.’ The LCJO was back on the road. We heard that some acts chose to cancel their tours following September 11th. We chose, and still choose, to swing.”

‘Who we are?’ Didn’t they mean: ‘Who we were‘?

Sure, batten down the hatches at the airports and public buildings, but must it happen to the arts?


2 thoughts on “Follow Your Leaders? Revisionist Jazz @ The Lincoln Centre

  1. Nice! It’s like what AA Gill said when debating another journalist on why it’s OK to eat meat (something which, admittedly, isn’t quite of the same moral strain and also something I think most people are ambivalent about!). He asked the audience whether they subscribed to the view that nature with all of it’s animals and ecosystems was perfect and that we (humans) were at odds with it in our innate clumsiness. He said “The problem I have with that view is that is essentially suggests that there’s all the majesty and magic of the natural world… and then there’s you, and it relegates me to a role of a fucking ranger in your park!” For Marsalis, it seems, there’s the 50’s (or whatever he deigns the period is)… and then there’s you! Perhaps that attitude might have something to do with why some people are turned off to jazz…?


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