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Jazz at Lincoln Center Celebrates 30 Years with 'All Jazz is Modern,' A Series of Digital Singles

Frank Stewart
Myra Melford in the Frederick P. Rose Theater in 2016.

Thirty years ago — on Aug. 3, 1987 — Jazz at Lincoln Center held its first-ever concert, at Alice Tully Hall. This morning the organization’s in-house label, Blue Engine Records, announced “All Jazz is Modern: 30 Years of Jazz at Lincoln Center,” a series of 30 tracks culled from the archives, to be released in digital formats throughout the 2017-2018 season.

The series kicks off with three tracks, available today on streaming services and for purchased download. One of those is “The Strawberry,” a sort of torqued calypso by pianist Myra Melford, which she performed with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra last year.

Melford, who occupies a set of creative coordinates not typically associated with Jazz at Lincoln Center, is a fitting choice for the first round of track releases. According to Gabrielle Armand, who manages the organization’s Brand and Audience Development department, also serving as Blue Engine’s label head, outreach is a core part of the mission behind the new run of singles.

“Doing these as digital releases will allow us to go really broad,” Armand said, “and venture out on platforms where we can be discovered — even by people who don’t listen to jazz, or do listen to jazz but not necessarily to the music we program and present.”

Armand curated “All Jazz is Modern” in close partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center’s managing and artistic director, Wynton Marsalis. She said his list of 50 standout performances provided the initial framework for the project. “He and I talked regularly about what the overarching vision of the archive should be,” she said. “He wanted to put out performances that are memorable, that are unique, and that would be surprising to people who weren’t here to witness them firsthand.” 

That means part of the new series will stretch back as far as Jazz at Lincoln Center’s infancy, before it was a constituent partner of Lincoln Center. The program originated, in 1987, as a trial balloon called “Classical Jazz at Lincoln Center.”

Produced by Alina Bloomgarden and WBGO’s Dorthaan Kirk, that series spanned just three concerts: “Ladies First” (just what it sounds like); “The Music of Thelonious Monk” (ditto); and “Bird Night,” a Charlie Parker tribute featuring alto saxophonists as fresh as Wessell Anderson and as well-traveled as Jay McShann.

Recording engineer Todd Whitelock, who has overseen the process of digitizing the Jazz at Lincoln Center archives, characterizes the effort almost in terms of a rescue mission. Much of the early material was recorded on inexpensive analog or digital tape. “The tapes have become brittle and may stretch, break or drop out once played,” he wrote in a production memo. “Additionally, the machinery to play them on is now obsolete.” 

The full scope of the series is undisclosed, for now. Along with “The Strawberry,” the initial spate of singles includes “Ring Shout,” a Wynton Marsalis composition performed in Havana, Cuba in 2010; and “Single Petal of a Rose,” a Duke Ellington ballad that served as a feature for baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley, in 2015.

Credit Frank Stewart
Joe Temperley with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 2015.

Armand said that some other selections will fall along the unexpected axis, drawing from a more experimental tradition, for instance. “But I also think some of the performances themselves will surprise people – just the playing,” she added. “Some folks who are important now but made their debut on our stage. Our some folks who we might have counted out because they were in their 80s, but they played their asses off on our stage.”

More information about “All Jazz is Modern: 30 Years of Jazz at Lincoln Center” can be found at jazz.org/modern. The music is likely to see physical release at the end of the series, in 2018.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.