Just one more minute, and the show would begin. I glanced at my clothing: striped sweater and jeans. Definitely a bit under-dressed, especially when compared to the buttoned-shirt and-dress couple to my left, and the suit-and-tie clad gentleman to my right. However, there was no reason to fret. The fifty people in front of me discussed and joked among themselves, creating a boisterous yet respectful atmosphere. All of a sudden, the studio lights dimmed, leaving a lone blue light to shine on the stage before us. The other customers and I, now the audience, waited in silent anticipation. Then, three musicians and a singer entered the stage. They set up their instruments: piano, double bass, drum set, and microphone. Immediately afterward they played jazz to a respectful and supportive crowd. This concert occurred in one of the epicenters of the genre’s life: New York City. Unfortunately, jazz is not particularly popular, even here. Yet it has not died, but instead adapted to a new culture. My particular experience at Columbus Circle was subsidized by Jazz at Lincoln Center, an organization “dedicated to inspiring and growing audiences for jazz” (“Organization History”). It does this by hosting multiple concerts per year to both newcomer and veteran listeners alike, along with educational programs for those who are interested. With such a rich sponsor, jazz has been given a chance to thrive within the economic revitalization of the city itself. And as dissimilar as musical expression and finance seem at first glance, America’s most populous metropolis has found a way to thematically link them together. All three entities have adapted and restructured themselves over time in order to serve a new audience and culture. In fact, it is this innate ability to adapt and improvise that makes jazz a powerful art form and an excellent representation of New York City.
Of course, New York City is certainly not the lone contributor to the history of this American genre. Throughout the 1920s, the Big Apple, Chicago, and New Orleans have all traditionally provided the atmosphere to allow jazz to grow and develop (Morgan). But many of the important testing grounds were found in the various clubs and dance halls scattered throughout the East Coast’s biggest metropolis. Popular places included the Cotton Club (founded in 1923) and The Savoy, which gained their place for offering both dancing and live music (“New York”). In fact, the entire Harlem neighborhood became the cultural mecca for the music. However, as the decades went on, more and more musicians left, resulting in a decline of jazz in the area. As different genres of music began to take over, New York City’s own homegrown music faded to relative obscurity.
Nevertheless, a whole school of music is extremely difficult to kill. It will always have its supporters. In the case of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the group’s entire mission is to reintroduce it to new audiences. To fulfill this mission, students and board members of Lincoln Center have set up multiple studios in the Time-Warner building (“Organization History”). Choosing the location to be at Columbus Circle was probably financially motivated, but is also symbolically appropriate. Just like the music it now hosts, Columbus Circle gained its fame during the frantic 1920s. At the time, it was famous for the various forms of entertainment one could find there. Chief among these was Reisenweber’s Cafe, which offered both food and dancing to its patrons. But it was most unique for “turn[ing] New Yorkers’ ears sideways with the first jazz ever performed in the northeast” (Shaw). In addition, Columbus Circle became a growing theater venue, beginning with the eminent Majestic Playhouse in 1905. More than a dozen theaters followed suit, dominating the area by the 1920s. Just as nightlife entertainment defined that particular decade, so it came to define this particular corner of Central Park.
Yet the passage of time was kind neither to Jazz nor its hosts. By the 1990s, Columbus Circle had become “one of the city’s most forgettable public spaces” (Stabile). The creep of modernity had ravished the area so that it became difficult to use by both traffic and pedestrians. Luckily, renovation completely turned its fate around. Created by the collaboration of multiple corporations and city government departments (such as The Palladium Company and the Department of Parks and Recreation, respectively) the $1.7 billion project has aimed to increase Columbus Circle’s commercial value (“Mayor Guiliani”). And in that sense, the development was a major success, as the project created the AOL-Time Warner Center, a five star luxury hotel, and a smattering of shops and stores.
Although Columbus Circle’s rejuvenation was an economic success, it is in stark contrast to the more lofty ideals of Jazz at Lincoln Center. This was pretty apparent from the very beginning of my journey to my first jazz concert. When I entered the Time-Warner Center from a dark night, I was blinded for a couple seconds. The place was flooded with bright yellow light, supplied by dozens of high powered bulbs on the ceiling. Also present were dozens of expensive storefronts, ranging from Godiva chocolates to Wolford clothing. All modern, expensive brand names. All trying to entice the money out of tourists’ wallets with lavish product displays and high reaching windows. Perhaps I sound a little a bit cynical. However, I will give those stores credit: they have adapted to the twenty-first century quite excellently. Undoubtedly, advertisement is a significant factor in American culture. And one of its effects is to propagate the belief that certain brands add intrinsic value to their products. People become loyal to both the image and the products. Placing such gaudy storefronts in a bustling tourist center would most likely be very profitable, since it would take advantage of this manufactured loyalty. Personally, I would have preferred the previous focus on theater. After all, the beauty of the arts is the appeal to the emotional complexities of the human spirit. To me, that is far more interesting than the empty joys of impulse shopping. But considering today’s market forces, its current focus makes sense.
Because of this single-minded dedication to commerce, walking through the Time-Warner Center to a jazz show felt quite strange, almost unnatural. In contrast to the cold rationality of the marketplace, music is meant to appeal to the spirit. I had an appointment to listen to a soulful and distinctly American art form (“New York”). Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, defined this art form as being made up of three elements:
One is improvisation, and it means that we have something to say, ourselves that’s important, and only we can say. Swing, which means other people have something to say too, and we have to figure out how to negotiate and to give them their space and the respect of their space. And also the blues, and we play the blues it means we all have something to deal with (Marsalis).
Despite encompassing such broadly humanistic value, jazz has fallen into obscurity. In a sense, it was inevitable. Our culture has certainly changed significantly in the ninety years since the genre’s popularity in the 1920s. So has the accompanying music and media. However, since Jazz at Lincoln Center’s founding in the mid-eighties, the organization has been re-introducing this forgotten contribution of American culture back to the people (“Organization History”). They have carved out a place in New York City to call their own. Essentially, the sponsorship of Jazz at Lincoln Center has allowed jazz to adapt itself to a new time. To make the sound of human suffering- translated into a sound that affects the heartstrings- interesting and relevant to a new generation.
This city’s unique capability to support and revitalize was one of the many aspects that drew me to New York City. Of course, there were the material attractions, such as Central Park and Times Square. But the power to take a declining anything, especially an art form, and then give it a second chance is absolutely astounding. I certainly felt so when I sat at the late 2012 jazz concert. While I had been sure to examine the surroundings when I walked in, I did so again during the show. Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola was built for style and comfort, with the studio lights appropriately dimmed and fellow listeners leaned back in the firm yet fuzzy chairs. Mary Stallings sang soft, mournful songs while the Eric Reed Trio band played instrumentals in the background. Just as when I first heard jazz on the radio, eight years ago, I felt amazed by the variety of tones that could be made from instruments uncommon in the pop/rock standard. Most amazing of all was that they played in front of a gigantic window which showed the city skyline. Altogether, the location felt perfectly representative. Both jazz and Columbus Circle had a special prominence in history, before being whittled away by changing times. Yet New York City embodies the chance for anything, whether it be a building or an entire art from, to be reborn. And currently, both have succeeded. There is now, and for the foreseeable future, a place to see and to hear the sound of the city’s soul.
Marsalis, Wynton. Interview. CBS This Morning. CBS, 29 Nov. 2012. CBSnews.com. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.
“Mayor Giuliani unveils design for Columbus Centre.” Wired New York.WordPress, 28 June 2000. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.
Morgan, Thomas L. “Jazz, The First Thirty Years.” Jazz Roots., n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
“New York Jazz Capital of the World.” Jazz: A film by Ken Burns. PBS. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.
“Organization History.” Jazz. Jazz at Lincoln Center, n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.
Shaw, William. “Columbus Circle: The Heyday!” NYCTourist. NYCTourist.com, 3 Dec. 2012. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.
Stabile, Tom. “Columbus Circle Reconstruction.” New York Construction. The McGraw-Hill Companies, n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.