The Last Encore?

By Wells Tower
Sunday, May 13, 2007

ONE SATURDAY EVENING IN MARCH, the first night of the Kennedy Center's weeklong "Jazz in Our Time" celebration, nearly every living jazz titan who could spare the time and was feeling hale enough to make the trip gathered in an upstairs lounge to pose for a group photograph. The guest list included pianists Dave Brubeck, Ahmad Jamal and Hank Jones, trumpet players Donald Byrd and Clark Terry, saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Benny Golson, vocalists Nancy Wilson, Al Jarreau and Abbey Lincoln -- along with 22 others. The Kennedy Center's PR corps dubbed the occasion "A Great Day in Washington," a calculated hat-doffing to a legendary photograph of a similar gathering nearly 50 years before, which ran in Esquire magazine and became the subject of a documentary, "A Great Day in Harlem." The first "Great Day" portrait shows 57 jazz musicians shouldered together on the stoop of a soot-streaked Harlem brownstone one summer morning in 1958, five years before the Beatles' first record. If a cathedral is ever raised for the worship of jazz music, a stained-glass reproduction of the Esquire photo will probably glow above the pulpit. The photo encapsulates or foretells just about everything you need to know about the golden century in the greatest musical tradition born on American shores:

There's trumpeter Red Allen, who played with Jelly Roll Morton, the composer loosely credited with jazz's invention at the turn of the century, squeezed in with 1930s swing legends such as drummer Gene Krupa and Count Basie, alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, who set fire to the old traditions and forged swing into bebop, standing within spitball range of post-bop composer Charles Mingus, not far from cool jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who played with the late Miles Davis, whose "Kind of Blue" reissue would be America's top-selling jazz album in 2001, a century or so after jazz had blared its birth cry in the saloons of New Orleans. Looking at it now, the "Great Day" photo seems somehow implausible, less a record of an actual event than a giddy, era-garbling collage, like the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," where Bob Dylan poses cheek by jowl with Sigmund Freud.

Much has changed in 50 years. Jazz has come a long way from that anonymous stoop on 126th Street to one of the nation's loftiest marble troves of high cultural treasure. Beyond the photograph, the jazz luminaries gathered here at the Kennedy Center had a grand evening ahead of them -- a concert in their honor and a ceremony, complete with gold medals, dubbing them "Living Jazz Legends," the proceedings emceed by the heavyweight champion of the venerability circuit, James Earl Jones.

The Esquire shoot was a casual, chaotic affair, the musicians wearing suits or shirtsleeves, shades or porkpie hats or toking on cigars. The photographers couldn't keep Harlem out of the shot, and a dozen or so gangly neighborhood kids elbowed their way amongst the musicians, taking up spots beside Basie on the curb. Tonight's event, held in the elegant gloom of the Kennedy Center's jazz club, was invitation-only, mandatory black-tie. As the honorees filed in and the room grew dark with evening dress, it was hard not to note a funereal air in the room. While jazz had gotten respectable, it had also gotten old. The roster of titans, with a couple of exceptions, were on the far side of 70, driving home the uncomfortable truth that the days of jazz superstardom slipped by some time ago. If the Harlem portrait captured the music's noble history alongside the younger generation who would carry the tradition forward, one couldn't help but notice in the present cast a distressing paucity of celebrated heirs.

By 6 p.m. or so, most of the living legends had arrived. Brubeck, squinting bonhomously under a blowsy wealth of white hair, loitered by the stage with pianist Chick Corea, who got his start with Miles Davis, and who flouted the black-tie edict with a belted samurai-ish smock. Wynton Marsalis stood near the refreshment table, administering a vigorous massage to the upper arm of singer Jon Hendricks.

"Hey, aren't you too young to be here?" someone chided Marsalis, who is 45, and the only invitee shy of retirement age.

The singer Al Jarreau strolled in, wearing a beret and a tracing of lipliner.

"We were just talking about you," a woman said to him.

"As long as someone's talking about me," Jarreau said.

At the front of the room, where two rows of leather-upholstered chairs were arrayed on a low stage, a Kennedy Center representative stepped to the microphone. "On behalf of the Kennedy Center, we cannot thank you enough for coming to this historic occasion here this evening," he said. "But before we go any further, I have to credit the man who made it all possible. This is the man that says to me too often [that] in the world of jazz, people are only recognized -- you know when. . . Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Billy Taylor."

The applause surged, and Billy Taylor came forward, beaming a panoramic grin. "Everybody I'm looking at tonight I've known for more years than I even want to think about," said Taylor, who is usually introduced, after a deep breath, as a pianist, composer, educator, music advocate, media personality and the Kennedy Center's artistic adviser for jazz.

Taylor (at whose behest the center had built the suave grotto of the Jazz Cafe itself) had both organized the event and was to be one of its most rigorously feted honorees. In terms of lifetime achievements, few in the room could top him, whose career plaudit load includes an Emmy, a Grammy, two Peabody awards, the National Medal of the Arts (bestowed on him by President George H.W. Bush) and enough honorary degrees to clothe a good-size village in doctoral hoods. Nor are there many professional résumés out there to best that of Taylor, who has shared stages with Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and pretty much everyone who mattered in the age when jazz mattered most. But despite all that, Taylor remains an obscure, if beloved, figure in the world of jazz. Taylor is probably Washington's second-most prominent contribution to jazz history, outranked only by Ellington, yet you generally can't find his albums at the local CD shop.


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