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Wynton Center


Jazz at Lincoln Center was accorded full Lincoln Center constituency status in 1996. However, it wasn't until 1998, when un-hepcat mayor Rudy Giuliani idiosyncratically mandated that any plans submitted for the highly sought-after Coliseum site include a performance space for JLC, that Wynton devised his "Ten Fundamentals of the House of Swing."

Written on cocktail napkins during a red-eye flight, "The Vision," as Wynton calls it, reads like what it was intended to be: "the metaphorical blueprint of a groove, to be articulated into design." According to Fundamental No. 1, "the entire facility is the House of Swing . . . we want all 100,000 square feet to dance and sing, to be syncopated and unpredictable, but not eccentric." Fundamental No. 5 says, "The two main performance spaces should represent two sides of the same thing, like night and day, or like a man and a woman." The Rose Hall, representing "woman, or night (this is not Jazz at Lincoln Center's main hall, because like a family we play no favorites), should sound like Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Paul Desmond, and Miles Davis." The front, or "male," Allen Room "should have the feeling of a street parade . . . an ancient Greek theatre . . . there should be a question of where the band ends and the audience begins . . . the room should feel like Duke Ellington's Orchestra -- sensuous, spicy, and able to accommodate all tempos."

The project's lead architect, the flamboyant Uruguayan Rafael Viñoly, who jokes that he's a former Tupamaro revolutionary and is noted for designing massive convention centers, found Wynton's manifesto to be "immediately translatable into the language of art and love." A copy of the "Fundamentals," accompanied by Viñoly's plans, now fills a bedroom wall in Wynton's homey and spacious river-view pad on 66th Street, directly behind the Juilliard School he once attended as a 17-year-old trumpet prodigy. It is a minute's stride, gig bag at his side, from Wynton's place, past Balducci's, to the stage door of Alice Tully Hall, where he's conducted the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for the past decade. Columbus Circle will mean a longer walk to work, but it will be worth it. "Sometimes I'll get up in the middle of the night and look at the plans," Wynton says. "It's like a dream, one I always knew would happen."

Truth be told, however, Wynton, unhappy with heights and deep water, isn't thrilled be on the rickety catwalks of the rising House of Swing. Still, he looks slick, in his Brooks Brothers casualwear. It is part of being the star, the front man, the artistic director. Brooks Brothers is a corporate sponsor. This is no problem, since Wynton, who'd rather play backup for Kenny G than be caught dead in Phat Farm, is pretty much Brooks Brothers to begin with. Hands on, he does all his own ironing, the board in the cedar closet of his bedroom, alongside twenty or so hats, each on its own hook. On the road, he sometimes irons the clothes of the guys in the band, too. "They bring them to me because they know I'll crease them right," Wynton says.

"Jazz steel," Wynton notes, clutching a naked girder as the late-fall wind whips through the open superstructure. It is a phrase he likes, "because we're not after something that is going to disappear. We're building an institution." That's what people don't understand, Wynton says -- the need for permanency. It is an issue, after all -- this notion of an institutionalized House of Swing, especially a $115 million one crammed into the middle of the commercial colossus of the AOL Time Warner corporate headquarters.

"Institutions create institutional music, and that is not what jazz is about. This is a music where nothing is ever played the same way twice," says Howard Mandel, a writer who's president of the Jazz Journalists Association, echoing the often-heard objection against the supposed canonization of what is referred to as "the Marsalis-Crouch-Murray version" of the music. Not that anyone doubts Marsalis's 100 percent dedication to the future of jazz (of the opinion that knowing the chord changes to "C Jam Blues" will absolutely save your soul, he's a tireless jazz educator, offering several dozen lectures and demonstrations each year). Problems arise with Wynton's alleged "neo-traditionalist," anti-avant-garde bias against everything he personally deems as "unswinging" -- i.e., much of the past four decades. The fear is, while the legacies of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington will be forever celebrated on Columbus Circle, such post-Coltrane artists as Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra will be written out of the music's history.

Some just can't stand the imprimatur of the uptown big-money squares. For her part, Lorraine Gordon, who owns and operates the Vanguard, the club started by her husband Max 66 years ago, says, "I love Wynton; he's my favorite. But jazz in a shopping mall? What's that about?"

Even Ellis Marsalis, father of Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason, reveals mixed feelings. Ellis, considered by some observers to be the "hippest" of the Marsalis clan, once drove all the way to Los Angeles to see Ornette Coleman, whose "harmolodic" approach has been found deficient in swingingness by the JLC brain trust. Accompanied by fellow New Orleans player and teacher Alvin Batiste, Ellis told Ornette he dug him, then got in the car and drove home. Now, standing in the crowded Vanguard dressing room, Ellis, a large, friendly man, casts a loving gaze at his famous son and says, "Jazz at Lincoln Center is a great thing. A lot of musicians are going to get work because of it. But this New York, you know, it's not my New York. My New York had clubs, little places to go, to relax and just play. This New York, it's kind of cosmetic. But times change; you have to accept that."

Wynton, of course, has heard it all before. Like a jazz Howard Roark bestride six-inch-thick rubber "isolation pads" that will muffle the rumble of the A train Billy Strayhorn said was the quickest way to Harlem, he decries, "Who could be against this? . . . Jazz is about both change and tradition. Who says it has to be played only in dark rooms filled with curls of cigarette smoke? Always on the margin. That outlaw thing. That's a romantic, limiting fantasy. This is the greatest music ever produced in this country, made by the greatest musicians. You think it doesn't deserve something first-class, like any other great art?"

Yet even now, with people talking about him as one more Balanchine or Bernstein, a New York cultural leader-commissar, there is another kind of permanency to think about: the tenuousness of life around here these days. Wynton was in L.A. during the WTC nightmare, getting ready to put on his most recent magnum opus, All Rise, at the Hollywood Bowl: "I saw it on television. The planes, over and over. All I could think about was how perishable everything was."

Indeed, our little tour of the future home of Jazz at Lincoln Center was held up for about half an hour that very morning. Bruce MacCombie, the JLC executive director; Laura Johnson, the general manager; and Jonathan Rose, the chairman of the building committee, were there. But Ted Ammon, the chairman of the board, was not. It was strange, everyone said, because Ted, the investment banker-jazz fan who had contributed more than $2.5 million to JLC, was not the type to be late. It wasn't until the next morning that people heard Ammon was dead, murdered in his Hamptons home.

A week later, at a memorial service for Ammon at Alice Tully Hall attended by several representatives of the Suffolk County homicide squad, Wynton eulogized, "We want to know the particulars of death -- it repulses us, it calls us, it fascinates us . . . but only the dead know the facts of death, and they never tell." Then, along with Wycliffe Gordon, Victor Goines, Walter Blanding Jr., and others from the LC Jazz Orchestra, Wynton broke into "Didn't He Ramble" -- "Didn't he ramble . . . Rambled all around, in and out of town . . . till the butcher cut him down" -- a tune that has been played at New Orleans jazz funerals since the days of Bunk Johnson, 100 years ago. They really ripped into the tune, with Wynton, seemingly on the verge of tears, playing the happiest music he could think of. It was a priceless kind of thing, because even if Ammon's much-battled-over estate was worth $100 million, no amount of money could buy this: being sent off by Wynton Marsalis. Except the people at Alice Tully didn't quite get it. They sat there mute. Eventually Wynton said, "You know, you don't have to be so quiet."

A couple hours later, Wynton, up in his apartment overlooking the Hudson playing chess with saxophonist Walter Blanding, remained a little puzzled. "To me," he said, "death is not morbid; it's people's reaction to it that's morbid . . . nothing lasts, that's a given, but that's exactly why you've got to keep on working." It was like on the final cut of the album Last Date, when Eric Dolphy, who would die less than a month later, says, "When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air forever. You can never capture it again." It was like Charlie Parker dying at 34. If you're a player, you take that as an inspiration to keep playing, harder than ever. Impermanence only increases urgency, said Wynton, whose first extended work was Griot New York, a 1991 three-movement piece performed in collaboration with the Garth Fagan Dance company.

"That summed up how I felt about New York," Wynton says. "In the middle, the city is destroyed. Then the lovers, the two dancers, build it back up again. Heal it. I really wanted it to have this feeling of myth, urban myth, ultimate danger and redemption. To me it is a heroic story."

The challenge is to battle disorder, things flying off into meaninglessness. There has to be a center, says Wynton, paraphrasing Yeats, his favorite poet. That's how it is in music, and buildings, too, Wynton said, especially "a temple" like the new JLC. Wynton addresses the issue in No. 8 among "The Fundamentals of the House of Swing." It says: "We must have an icon that serves as the symbol for the facility everywhere."

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