The boomlet in institutional jazz

By KEN FRANCKLING, United Press International  |  June 3, 2003 at 12:25 PM
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Unlike Europe, where much jazz is sustained by government-subsidized festivals and resident radio and TV orchestras in which musicians draw lucrative year-round salaries, the United States jazz scene has had a hand-to-mouth economy for most of its century-plus tradition.

The first major exception was Jazz at Lincoln Center, which over the past decade has solidified its institutional status, built an endowment, pays its stable orchestra a salary, and is moving ahead with plans for a building of its own on New York's Columbus Circle. The fact that J@LC's artistic director is trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, one of the most visible musicians in jazz and no longer just the precocious leader of the late 1980s "young lions in jazz" movement, certainly has helped.

Lincoln Center's high visibility programming and endowment success has led to two similar yet distinctive experiments in New Orleans and San Francisco.

Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield recently was named director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and executive director of Dillard University's new Institute of Jazz Culture. Mayfield also is co-leader of the Crescent City-based Los Hombres Calientes, one of the country's top Afro-Caribbean jazz ensembles.

He scoffs at accusations he is patterning his career and his new institution on mentor Marsalis's success with Lincoln Center, though the fellow New Orleans native is an advisory board member for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

"I think some people assume that Wynton has given me some position. That's just ridiculous to me, and it is ridiculous to him. I think part of the tradition in jazz is to learn from the elders." If Louis Armstrong were alive, "I'd be trying to get with him," Mayfield told JazzTimes magazine. "I'm not creating any of these things only for myself. It is a community effort. It has to be."

SFJAZZ, the parent nonprofit arts organization that runs the San Francisco Jazz Festival each fall, has taken a different tack under the leadership of its executive director, Randall Kline.

Several years ago, it launched an ambitious Spring Season of highly creative themed jazz concerts under the artistic direction of saxophonist Joshua Redman, who recently moved back to his native Bay Area from New York.

This spring, SFJAZZ also announced creation of an all-star resident jazz ensemble. Beginning next March, Redman will lead a multi-generation group called the SF Modern JAZZ Collective. It will include Bobby Hutcherson, the dean of modern jazz vibraphonists, plus Nicholas Payton, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, pianist Renee Rosnes, trombonist Josh Roseman, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Brian Blade.

It will undertake an annual multi-week residency in San Francisco--workshopping new and newly arranged compositions, performing in concert, leading education events for youth and adults, and more.

Following its San Francisco stay, the group will hit the road, touring in other parts of California in 2004 and, in future years, throughout the western states and across the country.

The group's annual repertoire will balance works of a great jazz composer of the modern era (i.e., 1950s onward) and new compositions commissioned by SFJAZZ from the eight band-members themselves.

The size of the band in performance will be as flexible the music itself, morphing from a full-ensemble octet into various quartets, trios and duos as the situation requires. Next year's great composer works will be from saxophonist and modern jazz revolutionary Ornette Coleman.

"The chemistry of this band is going to be wonderful. Each member is a brilliant jazz musician in his or her own right, and a great composer and leader on the jazz scene today. It's very fortunate that they're all willing to commit a five-week period of time to this residency and contribute their creativity," Redman said.

"We each have a great commitment to originality, creativity and expressivity in the present. We all share a recognition of jazz as a music that is constantly and continually changing, evolving and innovating over time. And I think we all have a desire to be a part of this change."

This new SFJAZZ initiative is being seeded by a $300,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation.

Kline said the word "modern" in the collective's name is almost as tricky to define as the word "jazz"-- and that's part of the point. "For me, 'modern' is a good word to use," Kline says, "because in addition to meaning 'contemporary' or 'leading-edge,' it also addresses the changing nature of what we consider modern. Modern art museums deal with this same kind of gray area all the time. They represent the capital-M 'Modern' art of the '50s -- which dovetails perfectly with an era of the jazz repertoire that we're interested in -- but they also champion the most exciting new currents in art.

"If there could be an embodiment of SFJAZZ's philosophy in presenting jazz, emphasizing that there's both a history and a vital present and future to it, this band would be it," Kline said. "Just as we do when we're presenting the San Francisco Jazz Festival and other concert events, I'd like to find a way to make the music accessible to new audiences, without making musical compromises."

The members of the SF Modern JAZZ Collective will begin each year's San Francisco residency with a full two weeks of workshopping, without the pressures of touring and performing.

"Thanks to the institutional backing, we have the luxury of being able to start with a phenomenal amount of jamming, rehearsing, and non-performance-related music activity. The music will have a chance to really develop outside of a gig context," Redman said. "I hope that this different model of working together is going to help produce some great music that might not otherwise come about."

The jazz world will be watching closely.

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