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A Jazz Orchestra Faces Questions of Age


The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra arrives Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl, bringing along some players who were almost given the summer off.

Last May, Rob Gibson--the director of New York City's Jazz at Lincoln Center, the program that oversees all jazz events at Lincoln Center, including the orchestra's--fired off a letter to six orchestra members, all over the age of 30.

Neither the letter nor the names of the recipients was made public. However, Gene Seymour of Newsday reported that Gibson's letter said that every player over 30 would be replaced in "an attempt on our part to get some of the younger musicians to learn about this music and begin to play it with some authority." The music in question is apparently the orchestra's summer program of Duke Ellington pieces.

The response was immediate and negative. Charges of age discrimination were hurled. Gibson quickly rescinded the letter and acknowledged in a second letter that he had made a mistake.

"It was careless wording that didn't convey the proper message," Gibson said earlier this week from his office at Lincoln Center. "I deeply regret it. It doesn't reflect the policy of Lincoln Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center or its artistic director, Wynton Marsalis."

Well, what was Gibson's message, then?

Gibson said that he was trying to tell the existing 16-member orchestra that personnel changes would continue as they had in previous years to reflect the orchestra's current repertory program.

"Some of our members are stylists who play the music of Duke Ellington better than anybody," Gibson said. "But they are Swing Era players who do not choose to play the music of Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman, two artists we are doing in repertory next year. At that time, different musicians will be selected. We have an aesthetic mission here that entails getting the right musicians for whatever music we are playing."

Whatever Gibson's message was, basing it on a criterion of age was obviously flawed. It is well known that there are numerous musicians over 50--Kenny Barron, Lew Tabackin and Eddie Henderson to name a few--who can play as modern as anyone under the age of 30. It is also well known that there are young musicians--Payton, Joshua Redman and Stephen Scott--who play as if they've been doing it for 30 years.

Jazz at Lincoln Center has also been under scrutiny for the manner in which it selects composers for its repertory program. So far, no white composers have been included.

Gibson bristles at such criticism.

"I'm a white guy working in a music where the major innovators have come almost exclusively from black composers and players, and I never think about color," he said. "Our choices for repertory programs are based on aesthetic considerations, and since we haven't yet featured the music of Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Fats Waller and Fletcher Henderson, there's no way we'll consider doing someone like Gil Evans or Bill Holman," two musicians Gibson said he deeply admires.

On a less contentious note, an all-star line-up of both African-American and white musicians will be performing Wednesday. These artists include Nicholas Payton, Ryan Kisor and Lew Soloff, trumpets; Art Baron and Britt Woodman, trombones; Norris Turney and Jerry Dodgion, saxes; Marcus Roberts, piano, and Kenny Washington, drums.

The orchestra's Ellington program is entitled "In the Spirit of Place." Among the pieces on tap are portions of the "Deep South Suite" and the "Paris Blues Suite," and "Harlem Airshaft," "Across the Track Blues" and "Rock-a-Bye River." The works were all transcribed by David Berger, who conducts the orchestra.

Berger pointed to "Air Conditioned Jungle," written by Ellington clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton in 1946 and probably not performed since then, as one of the most adventurous of the orchestra's pieces. "As a conductor, I feel like the ringmaster at the circus before the guys go up on the high wire," Berger said. "Here's a piece that's never been attempted, so it's like flying without a net."

CRITIC'S CHOICES: Pianist Eric Reed, who has been working with trumpeter Marsalis for the past year, is in from performances in New York, fronting a trio at the Club Brasserie tonight and Saturday . . . . Saxophonist Charles Owens, who is a regular with Mercer Ellington's orchestra, also leads a trio tonight, at System M in Long Beach . . . . Rickey Woodard, the hard-blowing saxophonist, takes a quartet Saturday into the Jazz Bakery.

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