The Great Gerald Wilson!
A Swinging Octogenarian Leads the Band!
Avatars of a Great Cultural Tradition
Born in a period when the last radio station devoted to programming classic acoustic Jazz, WRVR, had unceremoniously gone off the air and replaced with Country Music here in the Big Apple – the jazz capitol of the world – and the art form itself seemed in danger of going the way of the dinosaurs, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has been the vehicle by which the Jazz department at Lincoln Center assumed it’s place as the pacesetter and savior of this quintessentially American art form.
Thus it is no exaggeration to say that this aggregation of virtuoso musicians have served as the avant garde in the effort to rescue American culture from drowning in a sea of esthetic mediocrity and commercial banalities. From the outset the mission of the orchestra was to breathe new life into a grand musical tradition that had evolved to a stage where it could rightfully take its place among the great art music of the world; but, alas, was being slowly starved to death by a lack of institutional support from the American cultural establishment. Who were far too busy genuflecting before the cultural artifacts of Europe to notice the impending death of the great American contribution to the classical culture of mankind.
Not only dose Jazz music require the highest standards of technical virtuosity from those musicians who aspire to master the form, but unlike the symphonic musician, who plays musical ideas notated by their composer, the jazz musician must also create the score as he conceives it at the time. Hence the musician that would master the art of Jazz must be prepared to conjure up complex musical ideas – “blues and the abstract truth” as the great arranger Oliver Nelson called it – at the speed of thought.
Furthermore, Jazz is the only arena of American culture that embodies the fundamental values of American civilization. Jazz is democratic, values individual freedom, promotes innovation and invention, swings to the clockwork rhythms of a machine age world, and is infused with a sensibility shaped by the tragi/comic sensibility of the blues; that most American of musical modes. Such a marvelous art is certainly worth preserving and taking its place as an integral part of the heritage of all mankind.
There are special moments in the history of art when the birth of an important aesthetic movement can be traced to a specific time and place. For instance Da Da, which emerged in the aftermath of the disaster of World War I and reflected the disillusionment of the European intelligentsia with modern technological civilization and the way it resolves international conflict, was born in the Café Voltaire in Zurich Switzerland. And New York will surely be remembered in the history of art as the City in which Jazz was reborn. Jazz at Lincoln Center will be remembered as the venue in which this act of cultural heroism occurred, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will be duly noted as the band of cultural warriors who rescued American culture from ignominy with their swinging axes.
Master Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis
At the opening ceremonies of Jazz at Lincoln Center Manhattan Congressman Jerome Nadler celebrated the importance of the occasion with the pronouncement: “If Yankee Stadium can be called “The House that Ruth built, Jazz At Lincoln Center shall henceforth be known as: The House That Wynton Built!” And the centerpiece of Wynton’s handiwork is the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, of which the great multi-Grammy wining bi-lingual trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize winning composer is Artistic Director and Conductor.
Wynton Conducting The Boys In The Band
The Lincoln Center Orchestra and Ghanaian Percussionist
Deep In the Groove Soul to Soul!
This band of peerless jazz virtuosi are the reigning masters of what the great cultural historian, theorist and musical critic Albert Murray -author of the seminal study “Stomping the Blues” and a artistic consultant to JALC at its inception – called “The fully orchestrated blues statement.” From the outset the mission of this band of cultural warriors was not only to make great music, but also to do battle in defense of the art of jazzing by institutionalizing the mysterious alchemy by which the Jazz tradition has been able to produce world class musicians in the absence of musical conservatories.
After correctly analyzing the process of educating the novice jazz musician by placing them under the tutelage of masters of the genre, much as master craftsman tutored apprentices in medieval guilds, they created an institution to accomplish this: the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Aside from its incomparable musicianship this Orchestra is distinguished by its ability to play Jazz music from any era or style with authenticity. I heard the Ellington Orchestra many times, and Basie too, and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, to name a select few. But none played this music better than the JALC Orchestra. For my money they are the best ever: the Muhammad Ali of Jazz bands: The Greatest!
Winter Season, 2009
* Photos – by Frank Stewart