Armstrong's Music To Light Up Season For Jazz At Lincoln Center

Trumpeter/singer's centenary prompts celebration of his works and influence.

The spirit of trumpeter Louis Armstrong — considered the first great jazz soloist and the father of jazz singing — will guide the 2000-2001 season's programming of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

"Armstrong was the epitome of soul and down-home sophistication," said trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, JALC's artistic director, "and Jazz at Lincoln Center is going to put on some very swinging events to mark the enormity of his contributions to our art form."

The 10th season of JALC begins officially in September, but because Armstrong's date of birth was July 4, 1900 — or so Armstrong claimed — Marsalis and his players in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra will inaugurate the centenary celebrations in honor of "Satchmo" with a free concert in Liberty State Park, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, on Independence Day.

The regular season will include more than 450 events worldwide, mixing all-Armstrong programs with a wide variety of concert themes. The Armstrong programming, which includes concerts, lectures and film, will center on three ideas, according to Marsalis.

"The first is [Armstrong's] virtuosic trumpet playing. It's not old, and it will never be old. The second is that he was the first jazz musician to make playing the American popular song an important part of jazz. And the third is that his world vision has become the general vision of the world — the acceptance of people everywhere. He was the first jazz musician to go to many different countries. Everywhere he went, he played with the musicians there, and his way of playing was one that recognized the similarities between different styles of music."

As he became known more as a singer later in his career, Armstrong had hits with such songs as "Blueberry Hill" (RealAudio excerpt). But it was early in his career that he helped shift the focus of jazz from ensemble interplay to solo improvisation.

"We can say that without Armstrong, the music we call jazz would not be what it is today," said Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, in Newark, N.J.

On September 24, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra will start the season by performing a score trombonist Wycliffe Gordon wrote for the 1925 Oscar Micheaux film "Body and Soul." The next set of performances will feature the new works of a yet-to-be-determined young artist joining Eric Reed, a former pianist in both the LCJO and Marsalis' septet.

The program's combination of old and new is central to JALC's mission, according to Gordon J. Davis, chairman of the center's board of directors. "We are not a museum and never will be," Davis said. We seek to be a forum of creativity, where the past and present collide to mold new ideas and new collaborations and new forms, for an unfolding of jazz in its second century."

The Armstrong theme carries over to JALC's educational programming. The schedule includes the Louis Armstrong Jazz Curriculum Project, an interactive multimedia jazz-appreciation blueprint for elementary- and middle-school students. Developed in collaboration with Sandy Feldstein, of Playintime Productions, the educational plan will be available nationwide in 2001. It supplements the established "What Is Jazz?" series, featuring Marsalis and the annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival.

In addition to its full slate of concert performances — including LCJO tours in France, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic and England — JALC is producing a series of dance concerts at New York's Hammerstein and Roseland ballrooms, featuring the LCJO and offering dance instruction for those who arrive early.

Other special events include the Jazz at the Penthouse: Duets on the Hudson series, featuring pairings of musicians performing in the intimate Stanley Kaplan Penthouse, atop Lincoln Center. The season's lineup includes Joe Lovano, Percy Heath, Stefon Harris and many others.

Additionally, an announcement will be made April 5, regarding the new Columbus Circle building, being constructed exclusively for JALC, expected for completion by 2003.