House of Swing at Lincoln Center
Published: April 2009
By Robert Sandla
Jazz at Lincoln Center's new home redefines the landscape for the quintessential American art form. <b>Robert Sandla</b> reports
Far from images of smoke-filled boîtes, Frederick P. Rose Hall puts jazz in the heart of New York's towering Time Warner Center, in custom-designed quarters that rival those of leading opera and ballet companies and symphony orchestras. With more than 100,000 square feet and a $128 million price tag, this space proclaims that jazz has arrived. Big time. Rose Hall is the world's first performing arts institution devoted entirely to jazz, and the project, designed by architect Rafael Viñoly, is ambitious, incorporating three distinctive venues for performances, two rehearsal rooms that can double as classrooms, a jazz hall of fame, and a recording studio. Walls are painted bold shades of aubergine and chartreuse; warm wood is everywhere.
The arrival of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) from its original campus five blocks north turns the Time Warner Center—already loaded with the Time Warner headquarters, CNN studios, a retail mall, zillion-dollar apartments, and restaurants run by celebrity chefs—into a cultural destination. It would be hard for anyone near Columbus Circle at Central Park to miss the gleaming 50-by-90-foot window of JALC's Allen Room set on the fifth story, above the building's glossy shops. At night, when that room with a view glows, a big band may power its way through swing, a diva may croon blues, or a young man may wail on his horn.
And there's a kind of poetry to the location. Not surprisingly, JALC reveres Duke Ellington, and its premier education program, "Essentially Ellington," puts the Duke in the same league as Mozart and Bach. At Jazz at Lincoln Center, you don't have to hurry to "Take the A Train," the title of one of Ellington's biggest hits. It's in the subway station downstairs.
As part of a three-week opening festival, October 18 through November 6, featuring singers Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves, bluegrass guitarist Ricky Skaggs, Senegalese percussionist Abdou M'Boup, the 15-member Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is performing original compositions with the New York City Ballet, the modern troupe Garth Fagan Dance, and peerless tap dancer Savion Glover. In total, the first season will rack up some 450 performances, broadcasts, and educational concerts. Two tight ensembles are at the middle of it: the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, 18 musicians from the Latin jazz scene led by Arturo O'Farrill.
The presiding spirit is Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter, composer, arts advocate, leader of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and JALC's artistic director. As George Balanchine did when he supervised the design of New York City Ballet's theater, Marsalis outlined JALC's needs, set the tone, nudged the acoustics, and corralled the donors.
The other figure in the creation of JALC's new site was Rudolph Giuliani. When the Time Warner building was fin-ally going up, following several stalled proposals, one of the mayor's requirements was a center for performing arts. He want-ed an opera house, and he got one, albeit for jazz. JALC represents the result of a rare successful collaboration among developers, two successive New York City administrations, and a cultural institution.
The centerpiece of JALC—a space that's already an only-in-New York landmark—is the Allen Room, overlooking Central Park and Columbus Circle, with views of midtown Manhattan, the elegant towers of Fifth Avenue, and the syncopated skyline of Central Park South. Entering the Allen Room is like stepping into a glamorous Hollywood movie set—with tiered seating and risers that retract to make space for dancing.
"Originally, this was not a performance area, but the lobby," says Rafael Viñoly. "But jazz is not a formal, 19th-century art, and I felt that this site should be occupied by music. So I had the rare chance to create a space that is not necessarily a cabaret or a lobby or a theater, but some hybrid that could be used in various ways. The view underscores the connection between the city and this music. You couldn't ask for anything jazzier than the New York skyline right outside the window."
Giuliani got his opera house in the Rose Theater, a performance hall holding 1,200. Structurally, the place feels like London's Globe Theatre—intimate, focused, with no seat more than 100 feet from the stage—yet it's also flexible, with configurations for a concert hall with proscenium or a theater for dance and opera. Even in a city with dozens of first-class venues, the Rose Theater will be in demand.
And of course there's a late-night hot spot: Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. A sinuous, sophisticated space for 140 people to listen to small ensembles, the room is a concerto of curving bamboo and blood-red terrazzo, with not a single right angle. It feels like being inside a grand piano—one with views of Central Park.
As visually dazzling as JALC is, its looks were secondary, according to Viñoly. "The sound of these spaces is foremost," the architect says. "Technically, the acous-tical requirements for a concert hall for jazz did not exist. Building a concert hall or a house for opera or chamber music, you know the standards of excellence. Jazz musicians have played in some absolutely wonderful halls designed for listening to classical music, and there are plenty of places they hate, but there are no parameters for how a 1,200-person room for jazz should sound. So we had to create the parameters. The process was collaborative. The musicians contributed their views on defining the acoustics, we talked with Wynton, and we worked closely with the engineers."
Russell Johnson, a legend in the esoteric field of sound engineering, led the team that created the timbre of the spaces. Acoustical design is a difficult art; for each new concert hall with sound that shimmers, there's one that's dead on arrival. The glass in the cavernous Allen Room is designed to diminish harsh aural bounce, the recording studio is acoustically isolated, and the entire Rose Theater is a box suspended within the larger box of the Time Warner building. Maple floors in the recording studio are sprung, like floors in dance studios: mounted above the concrete base on the equivalent of thick rubber washers. The resulting sound is richer, fuller, more alive.
In a way, none of this matters if the art is not great, and though Marsalis and his band can cook, JALC's artistic profile has been fairly conservative. Instrumental jazz is historically a misogynistic art, and Jazz at Lincoln Center has been something of a guys' club during its 14 years. (Until recently there were no women in the jazz orchestras; now, twentysomething alto sax dynamo Erica von Kleist has joined the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.) Until a few years ago, JALC was not a place to hear the screaming innovations of Ornette Coleman or musicians of the jazz avant-garde. But as the center has grown, its outlook has matured and broadened.
Of course, all the steel and stone of JALC's grand new home could make it a kind of trap, representing a more choreographed approach to a typically improvisatory art. JALC executive director Derek Gordon foresees no such conflict: "When you consider Wynton's vision, when you look at Viñoly and his creative design, you see that everything is meant to be flexible," he says. "The Rose Theater can be configured in a variety of ways. The Allen Room is designed to accommodate a range of events and activities. Many different types of visitors will want to come to this space, and we want them to feel welcome. Wynton calls this 'the House of Swing,' and that is the principle behind everything here. It's got to flow; it's got to swing."
Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th St., New York; 212/721-6500; for complete schedule of performances, see www.jalc.org.
ROBERT SANDLA writes for Opera News, Dance Magazine, and Playbill.
Jazz at Lincoln Center inaugurates its new home, the Frederick P. Rose Hall at New York's Time Warner Center, with a series of performances in its three spaces, the Allen Room, Rose Theater, and Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. For complete programs, see www.jalc.org; 212/721-6500.
Oct. 21Nov. 7
Dizzy Gillespie Festival
Three-week festival celebrating the music and spirit of Dizzy Gillespie.
Jazz in Motion
Dance meets jazz: New York City Ballet, Elizabeth Streb and her modern dance troupe Streb, Garth Fagan Dance and tap genius Savion Glover perform premieres with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis.
The Jack Johnson Festival
Jazz and film join forces when filmmaker Ken Burns gives a preview of his new documentary about Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, and the Wynton Marsalis Septet performs Marsalis's score live for film excerpts.
For the holiday season, the musical setting of Diane Charlotte Lampert's fable Suite for Human Nature receives a new score by Marsalis, performed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Boys Choir of Harlem.