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For Major Jazz Organizations, The Show Goes On Even When It Doesn't, Via Digital Means

Frank Stewart
Jazz at Lincoln Center
A moment from 'The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Plays Miles Davis' from Nov. 2018.

Over the last week, leading jazz organizations on both coasts initiated new digital programming for our socially distanced reality.

In Newark, The New Jersey Performing Arts Center announced NJPAC in Your Living Room. NJPAC’s executive director, David Rodriguez, described it this way: “You’ll find throwbacks to exceptional NJPAC concerts of years past, new work and conversations with some of our favorite artists, filmed performances of NJPAC-commissioned works, and even performances by our Arts Education students and Community Engagement partners.”

In New York City, Jazz at Lincoln Center began a series of real-time video chats over Zoom with its artistic director, Wynton Marsalis. (An archive of that talk, Skain’s Domain, is now up on his Facebook page.) “Although our hall may temporarily be dark to audiences,” Marsalis said in a press release, “the light and love in this music will shine brightly.”

Obed Calvaire performing with the SFJAZZ Collective, in an image from Fridays at Five.

Across the country in San Francisco, SFJAZZ kicked off Fridays at Five, a weekly online broadcast of concerts from the organization’s archives, free to members or anyone who purchased a digital membership. (Monthly Fee: $5.) The inaugural entry was an SFJAZZ Collective concert from 2018; this Friday’s offering will feature the Julian Lage Trio, in a performance from last fall.

“It’s like a concert: you show up at 5 o’ clock, or 8 o’ clock on the east coast,” Randall Kline, SFJAZZ’s founder and artistic executive director, said by phone. “Not only is it a chance to communicate with the people who are closest to us, but it’s a chance to try something.” SFJAZZ had been working toward the launch of a digital platform; its internal codename is DIANA, a mash-up of Digital Analog.

“We were hoping to get this Beta version up in the next six months,” Kline says. “It was going to happen sometime in late 2020.” Faced with a stay-at-home order from the city, the organization scrambled to move its timetable forward. The launch wasn’t without its glitches, but Kline calls it a lemons-into-lemonade win. (In addition to a laudatory article in SFGate, the organization got almost 350 new digital members out of it, a number that’s sure to rise as word gets around.)

This week, Jazz at Lincoln Center started a series called From the Vault, with previously unseen videos from its archives. Among the concerts in the first batch are The Music of Miles Davis, from 2018, A Jazz For Young People program called Who is Chick Corea? from 2019, and the 2019-2020 opener, South African Songbook, which yielded some of the music for an episode of Jazz Night in America.

There are other jazz organizations doing similar work along these lines, and we expect to see more of them in the near future. As you take in these resources, WBGO would encourage you to support the organizations behind them — just as we urge you to support the musicians listed in our new Livestream Hub

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