Reasons to be cheerful: Wynton books Ornette

Wynton Marsalis has high regard for the music of Ornette Coleman — as demonstrated by Jazz at Lincoln Center’s just-released 2009-2010 concert schedule, which begins next September 26 with a single performance by Coleman’s quartet featuring two bassists and his son Denardo on drums. 

This booking might seem like a point of departure for JALC, which has a reputation for being tradition- rather than innovation-minded, but it really isn’t. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performed its members’ original arrangements of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Coleman’s music in January 2004. Here’s Wynton soloing on Ornette’s tune “Free” from an LCJO concert in Salt Lake City:

Marsalis also played his trumpet at a smaller Coleman-celebratory (but non-JALC) concert in 2004 at New York’s Merkin Hall in a manner proving he fully comprehends and can partake of the freedoms Coleman’s concepts encourage. He comes by his appreciation of Coleman from several directions. For one thing, his father pianist Ellis Marsalis was fascinated with Coleman’s iconoclastic music back in 1956, driving from New Orleans to Los Angeles with drummer Ed Blackwell, clarinetist Alvin Batiste and reedsman/composer/arranger/educator Harold Battiste to make Ornette’s acquaintance. That was before Coleman had recorded; Ellis Marsalis visited with him for two months. Ellis, Alvin Batiste and Ornette reunited at the 2003 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival

Critics might suggest that Ornette Coleman’s iconoclasm is dated by the 50th anniversary this year of his breakthrough recording The Shape Of Jazz To Come, but in fact Ornette’s music instigates a permanent revolution. Jazz At Lincoln Center’s presumably “neo-conservative” orientation is based on remarks artistic director Wynton Marsalis made in the 1980s (documented in the interview with him included in my book Future Jazz) emphasizing a particular slice of jazz history and a resulting canon of jazz icons, as well as the inescapable tendencies towards institutionalization with which an establishment as large as Jazz At Lincoln Center must contend. As far as canons go, Ornette Coleman was inducted into JALC’s Nesuhi Ertegun Hall of Fame in November 2008.
The JALC concert season in the past couple of years has sought to amend its reputation with billings such as John Zorn’s Masada Quartet sharing a concert with Cecil Taylor’s trio; the 2009-2010 season also moves against type by including Maceo Parker, alto saxophonist renowned for his r&b-pop playing with James Brown, Ray Charles and P-Funk maestro George Clinton, and electric-keyboardist Russell Ferrante’s quartet Yellowjackets with electric guitarist Mike Stern. True, Zorn, Taylor, Maceo Parker, the Yellowjackets and Stern have been around a while. JALC makes no claims that it introduces unknown or cutting edge artists, but in the interests of inclusion, in 2009-2010 will present jazz interactions with reggae, Afro-Cuban music, tap dancing, rap, tango, gospel, the late Brazilian composer Moacir Santos and French-Italian accordionist Richard Galliano, as well as concerts based on the jazz-jazz music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fats Waller, Mary Lou Williams, pianist Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, hard bop and vocalists including Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling and Manhattan Transfer with Jon Hendricks.
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  1. Paul Wells says

    Actually they introduce unknown acts every Monday night at Dizzy’s, under the “Upstarts!” rubric. Most wouldn’t fit anyone’s definition of “cutting-edge,” but the variety of music by young musicians, not all of them in Marsalis’ circle and many of them from outside the United States, is impressive.
    HM: Quite true, Mr. Wells, thanks for making that point. Dizzy’s has a welcoming jam session quality at times, providing a significant service to musicians and listeners, probably some great sessions enjoyable to all, shapes of music to come. (Confession: I’ve read about but haven’t been there since Jane Ira Bloom introduced her New School class interpreting Ornette, which must have been 3 at least years back). Club settings have traditionally been much more likely place to find the sort of thing that so seldom happens in a concert hall (Jazz at the Philharmonic, Jazz at Massey Hall, Monk at Town Hall, etc. notwithstanding) — and the recital room is another situation entirely. Dizzy’s, with Todd Barkan famed of Keystone Korner overseeing, is a significant running part of JALC’s overall initiative, supported or put in place by Wynton Marsalis. Who has played at his hottest in jazz clubs (cf: recordings of his Septet live at the Village Vanguard, ’90-’94).

  2. says

    Obviously Wynton is not the only one making the calls on this stuff. There are others like the pianist Antonio Ciaccia who have a role in the process. I would imagine it’s also an economics thing – Lincoln Center knows they can generate enough buzz around Ornette Coleman playing in their “House of Swing” and they know they will do good business if not sell the show(s) out. My 2 cents.
    HM: Right, Wynton is not the only one or maybe the principal one making the calls, doing the booking — but he IS artistic director and I believe he probably suggests and approves bookings. More information, please, on Antonio Ciaccia, who is not found in a search at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s website. The JALC 2009-2010 season does advertise a number of “guest music directors” — Mario Adnet, Monty Alexander, Pablo Aslan, Wess ‘Warmdaddy‛ Anderson, Bill Charlap, Andy Farber, Wycliffe Gordon, Carlos Henriquez, Ali Jackson, Ted Nash, Kenny Washington, Matt Wilson — but they seem to be responsible for particular concerts, not overall bookings.

  3. says

    I can’t recall the exact year but I believe J@LC presented Ornette with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins in the mid-1990s.
    HM: A distinction with a difference: Ornette, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins performed at Lincoln Center in 1997 but under the auspices not of Jazz at Lincoln Center but of the Lincoln Center Festival, at that time directed by John Rockwell, former New York Times culture critic. The ’97 events focused on Ornette, were called ?Civiliation, and included two performances of Ornette’s symphonic “Skies of America” conducted by Kurt Masur as well as a Ornette’s band Prime Time with guest performers Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. This is covered in some detail in my book Miles Ornette Cecil — Jazz Beyond Jazz.

  4. says

    Hi Mr. Mandel,
    Thanks for your kind comments to our next season program.
    This is the link where I can be found on the JALC website. My role is Director of Programming and Concert Administration and I am responsible to book shows under the artistic direction of Wynton. I am in a programming team with Wynton, Phil Shapp and Todd Barkan.
    Yes we are big fans of Ornette’s music.

  5. says

    Not surprised by this, having read Wynton’s last book “Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life”. In the second section, dealing with a select group of jazz musicians, Wynton bestows warm praise on Ornette, and views him as being in the jazz tradition. So, I don’t think it’s a JALC “marketing move” at all.
    What I don’t think you’ll ever see at JALC–as long as Wynton is around— is a program dedicated to electric Miles Davis, say, a tribute to “Bitches Brew/On the Corner/Tutu”. Because Wynton, in his new book, trashes the electric Miles music big time, in uncompromising language. If you thought Wynton’s dim view on electric jazz, as set forth in Howard Mandels earlier book “Future Jazz” or observations in HM’s current book, were definitive…well, it’s tame compared with how Wynton spews on Miles in this new book. In short: Ornette good, post-1969 Miles bad. In fact, Wynton believes Miles was lagging by 1966, when playing with the second great quintet, that Miles couldn’t keep up with the young guns Herbie H., Tony W., or Wayne Shorter.
    HM: Thanks for the comment, Steve — Wynton may not be able to get with electric Miles, but that doesn’t disqualify the music from In A Silent Way through doo bop from being quite listenable and consistently innovative. Playing trumpet before the high intensity and high decibel backgrounds required MD to come up with a new approach and attack, which is surely what he wanted to do anyway. I’d have to return to listening to Miles’ albums with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter to test my impressions now, but from ESP through Filles de Kilimanjaro Miles — including Miles Smiles, Four & More, Sorcerer — Miles is hands-on directing the unit and sustaining the energy onstage besides entertaining his longstanding audience. On the Live at the Plugged Nickel boxed set he stretches out to face the challenges posed by his young band, challenges he encouraged. And what has Wynton done to let others take him out of his (admittedly broad) comfort zone? Duets with Willie Nelson?
    Wynton needn’t go electric; it wouldn’t suit him at all, and his recent poetry/rap efforts aren’t very satisfying. But he might reconsider some of personally his preferences as to whether they’re limitations keeping him from sampling to some genuine pleasures and/or Jazz at Lincoln Center from connecting to contemporary audiences.

  6. Au Contraire says

    TUTU may be best left to others, no? Marcus Miller’s band included Vernon Reid on guitar and Wallace Roney tearing it up.
    ‘The Many Moods of Miles Davis’
    Ryan Kisor/Terence Blanchard (May 11)
    Nicholas Payton/Marcus Miller (May 12)
    Performances: Rose Theater
    LISTEN! JALC Radio – Season 15, show 6:
    “I have to change,” Miles said. “It’s like a curse.” And so his trumpet voice–tender, yet with that edge–was bound up in five major movements in jazz. The JLCO’s Ryan Kisor opens with bebop and the birth of the cool. GRAMMY®-winner Terence Blanchard interprets hard bop and modal. New Orleans adventurer Nicholas Payton conjures the great 60s quintet. And Miles vet Marcus Miller electrifies with fusion, featuring Wallace Roney on trumpet.