NEW YORK -- "You wanna have a good time? Come here," says Wynton Marsalis, the trumpet virtuoso and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, as he slurps up a piece of sushi. "This is something historic. There's never been anything like this -- never."
He's not talking about the sushi. He's talking about the Frederick P. Rose Hall, Lincoln Center's brand-new, $128 million house of jazz, which opens tonight with a gala concert that will be hosted by Marsalis and aired live on PBS.
The Allen Room, a 550-seat amphitheater, boasts a 50-by-90-foot window providing a striking view of the New York skyline.
(Photos Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
The new hall contains a Jazz Hall of Fame, recording studios, classrooms and three elegant performance venues: an intimate 140-seat cafe, a 550-seat amphitheater with a 50-by-90-foot window providing a striking view of the New York skyline, and a 1,200-seat concert hall, the first specifically designed for the acoustics of jazz.
"It's probably the most grand place jazz has ever had," says Nat Hentoff, the prolific jazz historian.
"It's a beautiful facility," says George Wein, the legendary impresario who created the Newport Jazz Festival 50 years ago. "The sound in the Allen Room" -- the amphitheater -- "is just perfect, as good as I've ever heard."
"People will come from all over the world to visit this House of Swing," Marsalis predicts as he dispatches another sushi roll.
Designed by architect Rafael Vinoly, who created the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, Rose Hall will be a hotbed of activity, not all of it jazz-related. The cafe will host jazz concerts every night of the year. The other two venues will have regular jazz concerts, plus opera, dance recitals and other performances. And two classrooms will host regular jazz classes for adults, plus "WeBop" classes for kids as young as 2.
Rose Hall is the new home of the 14-year-old Jazz at Lincoln Center program, but it is not really at Lincoln Center. Actually, it's about six blocks south, part of the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle, and located atop an upscale mall that houses a Borders, a Williams-Sonoma, a Godiva Chocolatier, a Crabtree & Evelyn and a Calvin Klein Underwear emporium.
A monument to jazz at a mall?
Well, why not? The music that was born a century ago in Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans, has been played in nearly every venue imaginable -- in dive bars and opera halls; in whorehouses and churches; in steamboats on the Mississippi, where Louis Armstrong's music drifted across the water to inspire an Iowa horn player named Bix Beiderbecke; in the Cotton Club, the elegant gangster-owned Harlem nightspot where Duke Ellington became famous during Prohibition; in the Reno, the funky '30s Kansas City nightclub where the bandstand was so crowded that Count Basie's orchestra could barely squeeze in and the great Lester Young had to hold his sax to the side, which soon became his trademark; in the Club Germaine in Paris, where Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist writer, was introduced to bebop saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, who said, "Glad to have met you, Mr. Sartre. I like your playing very much"; in the streets of Accra, Ghana, where Louis Armstrong played to 100,000 Africans in 1956; and in the White House, where Richard Nixon sat at a piano and played "Happy Birthday" to Duke Ellington in 1969, where Jimmy Carter sang "Salt Peanuts" with Dizzy Gillespie in 1978.
So why not in a mall?
"A mall is where people come," says historian Hentoff, "and the more people who are exposed to the music, the better." Rose Hall was built with $128 million donated by various governments, corporations and private philanthropists, with the biggest chunk, $32 million, coming from the New York City government, according to Derek Gordon, the executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The late Frederick P. Rose, a New York builder and philanthropist, gave $10 million, which is why the whole joint is named after him and so is the main concert hall. Allen & Co., an investment firm, kicked in a similar amount, which is why the amphitheater with the big picture window is called the Allen Room. Coca-Cola ponied up $10 million, too, and thus the center's nightclub is called Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola.
"Dizzy wouldn't mind," says Hentoff, "as long as the bread was good."
"It's great to have billionaires giving money to jazz," says Wein. "That's different."
Indeed it is. Jazz has seldom been commercially successful, and these days it's fallen on hard times. Sales of jazz records are anemic -- at least in the United States -- and so is attendance at jazz concerts. The folks at Lincoln Center hope the new facility will inspire renewed interest in the music. But nobody expects the place to support itself just on ticket sales. (Getting in the door at Dizzy's, by the way, will set you back $30. Prices for other events vary widely.) Keeping the doors open will require continued help from philanthropists.
"Contributions will always be a factor, as they are with any performing arts facility, including the Kennedy Center," says Gordon, who was a vice president at the Kennedy Center for 12 years before taking his new job at Lincoln Center.
Will this new venue siphon business away from New York's perennially struggling jazz clubs?
Marsalis hopes not. "We're not here to compete with them," he says. "We know the club owners. We talk with them. If there's a problem, we'll work it out. We want them to keep their doors open."
Lorraine Gordon, proprietor of the Village Vanguard, the legendary jazz nightclub started by her late husband, Max Gordon, in 1935, isn't worried about the competition. Jazz, she insists, can support many houses.
"Jazz should have an elegant place that's brand-new and shiny -- I think that's great," say Gordon, whose club has not been new or shiny since FDR was president. "But the Vanguard is the cornerstone of jazz. Everybody who loves jazz wants to play at the Vanguard."
Many artists who played the Vanguard over the years are now enshrined in Lincoln Center's new Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, which was financed by a grant from Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun and named after his brother, the jazz producer Nesuhi Ertegun. The one-room Hall of Fame -- which will be open to the public free of charge every weekday -- contains video tributes to the inaugural class of inductees: Armstrong, Ellington, Gillespie, Beiderbecke, Young, Parker, Sidney Bechet, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum.
Those jazz immortals -- all of whom have moved on to the big jam session in the sky -- were inducted into the hall on Sept. 30 in a ceremony that included plenty of live jazz in the Allen Room with the New York skyline shimmering in that big picture window.
"Herbie Hancock was playing 'My Funny Valentine' when the moon came out," says Derek Gordon. "It was really a magical moment."
Gordon expects more magical moments at the grand opening tonight. Marsalis plans to lead a New Orleans-style jazz parade to the hall and bands will be blowing in each of the three concert venues. Maryland Public Television will broadcast an hour of the festivities live, starting at 10:30.
"I'll be there," says Lorraine Gordon. "I bought a new dress, and I'll be wearing my high-heeled sneakers."