Twenty years ago, Martin Williams wrote an article for the Sunday New York Times under the headline, "What to Do About Jazz in Our August Cultural Centers." In it, Williams, one of the most respected and influential critics in America, bemoaned the absence of jazz in major institutions such as the Lincoln and Kennedy centers beyond the occasional star-focused concert and "the jazz circus masquerading as a festival."

When, Williams wondered, would such institutions "realize that if they are really going to stand for art and culture in this country, they are going to have to recognize jazz?"

As it turned out, both sooner and later. Not long after the article, Williams became director of the jazz program at the Smithsonian Institution's fledgling Performing Arts Division, producing many programs of both jazz and American musical theater, selecting and annotating the definitive, multi-record "Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz" and generally continuing a lifelong advocacy of 20th-century popular culture that focused on jazz and musical theater but also embraced comics, television, film and children's literature. After the dismantling of the Performing Arts Division in 1981, Williams moved over to Smithsonian Press, while continuing to produce concerts and historical record projects and lecturing around the country.

Twenty years ago, Williams's proposal to assimilate jazz into cultural institutions included residencies by major jazz composers and band leaders, the formation of repertory orchestras, the building of a permanent repertory of classic jazz scores and the commissioning of jazz works.

"Much of what I suggested is now possible," says Williams. "I'm convinced that there will be, in major cities, jazz repertory orchestras playing the great works of all the ensembles -- not only the big bands but primarily those -- in concert and perhaps for dancing as well, which I think would be a healthy thing. That will be a commonplace thing within 10 years."

Indeed, New York's Lincoln Center recently announced the establishment of a Department of Jazz as 12th member of the Lincoln Center operation, and the first since the Film Society and Chamber Music Society were established in 1969. Its goal is to produce three nights of jazz a week at two new recital-size performing spaces, using the center's large halls for more ambitious programs. There will also be educational programs for adults and children, training opportunities for young musicians, archival and scholarly activities, all aimed at revolutionizing public understanding and knowledge of jazz, which Lincoln Center Chairman George Weissman calls "one of this country's most profound contributions to the performing arts."

Several repertory jazz orchestras have been established, including the American Jazz Orchestra and Doug Richard's Richmond-based Great American Music Ensemble, which will present a Duke Ellington concert Saturday at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater as part of a jazz series produced (and hosted) by Williams. Tenor saxophonist Buck Hill and violinist Joe Kennedy Jr. are special guests. The Terrace Theater series, begun last year, proved so successful with subscribers that second performances were added for each night. Each program celebrates the development of a single jazz composer (the March 23 concert will match the Great American Music Ensemble with the work of Thelonious Monk).

For now, of course, Washington does not have a jazz repertory orchestra, though it is rumored that the Smithsonian Institution will soon announce the formation of one under the leadership of Gunther Schuller and David Baker.

"The Kennedy Center should have a resident repertory orchestra, as well, and as soon as possible," says Williams, helpfully suggesting that the Great American Music Ensemble is quite capable of capitalizing on any such opportunity, unlikely as it is to arise any time soon. After all, the Kennedy Center is still smarting over the Peter Sellars/American National Theater fiasco, in which the avant-garde director produced a series of plays so daring audiences dared to stay away.

"Some mistakes have been made in the past because everybody wants to go big, they want to put it in the Eisenhower, the big halls, and I don't think that's the way to do it," says Williams. "You have to start small and keep it small and if you're successful, you accommodate yourself to the audience. Don't assume the audience is going to accommodate itself to you."

In fact, since there's no limit on dreams, Williams feels the Kennedy Center could also support a resident company doing American musical theater in repertory year round. "The Volksopera in Vienna, the small theater in the Vienna State Opera House {comparable to the Terrace}, does their operettas and ours in rep, yet we don't do it," Williams notes.

That will become easier with the progress of yet another project that Williams is involved with, the Smithsonian's Jazz Masterworks Editions. These will provide orchestras with scores for classic jazz works (the first three volumes focus on '30s and '40s works by Ellington, Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson).

Williams acknowledges "an enormous underground of people taking things off records and passing them around, and it gets bigger all the time," but the Masterworks project will codify and make widely available crucial works by major jazz figures. The Masterworks will include large study volumes (from Smithsonian Press) with scholarly introductions covering history of the works, critical notes and essays, with corollary performance editions of full scores and parts.

Williams, whose sharp ear and encyclopedic knowledge have helped illuminate the jazz world since the '50s, is hopeful about the eventual impact of the Jazz Masterworks Editions and pleased that Lincoln Center has made a breakthrough move -- he calls it "a stamp of approval for the whole proposition of repertory." But he's also anxious to point out that "the reason {the classic jazz revival} is happening is because young musicians want it to happen and are doing it on their own."

"In past when older styles were revived, you frequently had a case of young musicians who couldn't play terribly well and who discovered that they could get through an older style fairly well and therefore stayed in it, but they weren't really what I would call professionals," says Williams. "Now you've got young players who can play anything they want to play without any question, with the whole tradition of this music, and they're choosing to do this: That's the significant thing."

The standard bearer and chief advocate for this movement is trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who will provide overall artistic guidance at Lincoln Center, where he is already director of the "Classical Jazz" series.

"Wynton is so important," Williams says. "For the first time, it's young, obviously outstanding black players who want to do this. In the past this kind of thing has always been the white man's burden. There's a new maturity: {jazz} has always been a music of rebellion for one generation after another, and for it to outgrow that ... is a very important thing."

Marsalis is also representative of the new virtuosi, equally adept at jazz and classical (he's an alumnus both of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Juilliard). Williams suggests that many of the musicians who form the basic orchestras at America's august cultural centers are required to shift from playing Verdi, Wagner and Strauss to Gershwin, Berlin and more contemporary musical theater.

"And they don't do any of that quite well enough to my ears," Williams says. "We don't train musicians to play all the idioms that mean something to us in this country. Why don't we? It's wrong. Why can't I take a good musician and throw any style at him and have him do it well? We don't train people that well."

That's changing as jazz is further incorporated into the academic process, but Williams feels that many teachers need to learn the traditions "and they're just begining -- they did not know the history of this music."

"And why not make it a future requirement that if I'm graduating with a degree in jazz and I'm a trumpet player, I should be able to improvise respectably well in the styles of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown? If I graduate as a classical pianist, I've got to know how to hold my fingers right to play Chopin versus Bach and be able to interpret both of them respectably well, or I don't get out of school."

In the meantime, there is a wealth of gifted musicians out there capable of creating any number of repertory jazz orchestras, with the size and instrumentation of a big band but with instrumentalists capable of playing in small groups of various sizes and shapes. For instance, Doug Richard's Great American Music Ensemble is drawn from Charlotte, Hampton and Richmond, coming together for engagements that they must generate themselves. "They all have other jobs -- some teach, as Richards does -- but their dedication and interest are such that when jobs come, they come in, rehearse and do it. It's the musicians themselves who are making it happen all over the place."

Richards may not be a big name outside jazz circles, but Williams feels that big names are not really necessary to propel the classic music of Ellington, Basie and others. "Two of the best musical theater revivals of recent years were 'The Cocoanuts' and 'Monkey Business' at Arena. The Marx Brothers -- talk about tough to revive! There were no names {in the cast} and they were wonderful, and the runs were extended."

Much the same could happen with groups exploring the great works of jazz. Witness the Terrace Theater series, which next year will celebrate Basie, Armstrong, Charlie Parker and, of course, Ellington, the deep well of jazz composition. Down the line, Williams adds, such orchestras "should be commissioning new works. I'm not wanting to turn jazz into a bunch of museum pieces. A music that has no past worthy of respect can't have much of a present and probably will have no future at all, so let's go after that past and sift it for its best and keep it alive."