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A November Not To Remember

Perhaps it is the echo of the unsettling U.S. presidential election results ringing in my ears, but little music I heard in November 2004 offered the satisfactions—the joy, the balm, or the restoration of energies, the spur to move forward—that music usually provides.

Some of the month’s disappointments were foreshadowed by the gala opening of the fabulous new facility housing Jazz@Lincoln Center. Yes, the opening was a gala, with hundreds of the prime movers of New York and America’s jazz industry, though not so many musicians, in attendance. Yes, the facility is extraordinary, with beautiful views of Manhattan’s Central Park, Columbus Circle, and glamorous 59th Street visible through floor-to-ceiling windows. But the jazz itself did not generate as much excitement.

In the 1100-seat main theater, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performed its signature repertoire of works by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and, yes, Wynton Marsalis. The band seemed to be tentative in its exploration of the sonic qualities of its new home room, and offered a laughable arrangement of Charles Mingus’ “Better Get Hit In Yo’ Soul”, turning what has always been a fiesty hoedown into a prettified waltz. Among several guest stars were veteran vocalist Tony Bennett, who performed Kurt Weill’s aching ballad of cosmic philosophy, “Lost in the Stars”, and award-winning bluegrass fiddler Mark O’Connor, who played a composition by Thelonious Monk with what Marsalis admiringly called “perfect pitch”, not an important quality to bring to a “wrong is right” Monk piece.

In the concert’s second half, LCJO band members and their less established parents were featured, leading up to the Marsalis family band—the brothers Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfayo, drummer Jason, and father Ellis on piano—which was supposed to make the statement that everybody in jazz is family, but which instead gave the evening a very proprietary cast. No one needs to ask who runs Jazz@Lincoln Center.

Meanwhile, pianist Arturo O’Farrill (son of the late composer-arranger Chico O’Farrill) conducted clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera with the Lincoln Center Latin Jazz Orchestra in the 550-seat amphitheater called the Allen Room, and pianist Bill Charlap ran a jam session with soloists such as Count Basie’s tenor saxophonist and flutist Frank Wess in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Did Dizzy Gillespie drink Coke? Maybe. Did Coca-Cola pump a ton of money into the creation of this pricey but truly comfortable 240-seat club? Guess.

The next week, to escape the ponderous “it’s-good-for-you” pretensions of official jazz and the horror of having a mediocre yet trustworthy Democratic candidate lose the position of most powerful politician in the world to a man who has already proved himself uninterested in conducting effective foreign or domestic, educational or economic policies, I went to an event produced by the New York chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the musician-run organization which gave the world such mavericks as composer-saxophonist Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. Held in the borrowed chapel of a Unitarian church, the AACM concert featured bassist Brian Smith’s ensemble and reeds player Henry Threadgill’s group Zooid.

Smith and his usually worthy players, all of whom know jazz’s traditional styles but prefer exploration to recapitulation, presented original scores that had the dull formality of academic chamber music. Threadgill, a thorny person with a unique mind who I have been listening to since 1968, blew alto sax and flute sparely, less as an expansive and expressive soloist than as a specialist adding his part to carefully worked-out orchestration. Zooid comprises an electric guitarist and an oud player, a tuba player and a cellist, and a drummer, besides Threadgill. That may read like a potentially rich combination, but the ensemble’s repertoire did not take advantage of the possible blends. Instead, the instruments seemed to be stretched thin, as points that seldom connected along a line that may have had a story to tell, but revealed little in the process. Like the band’s name, its music is opaque, resisting both analysis and emotional effect.

Or maybe I was just in a bad mood, like the other 49 percent of American voters doomed to struggle on while the President promotes fear and war under the guise of faith and security. Oh, well. At least I can recommend the movie Ray, in which actor Jamie Foxx embodies the canny, if not very nice, man who pursued his personal inspiration to create rocking, wrenching soul music.

Hail the great, late Ray Charles! He was morally flawed—what human isn’t?—but he gave America something to be proud of, and left the world much music of undeniable feeling and enduring value.