YEAR IN REVIEW 1995 : JAZZ : Getting Back to the Roots : Jazz looked to the future by dipping into its past. The vital core was rediscovered by a new crop of powerful young players.

Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

When Wynton Marsalis led the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on stage at the Wiltern Theatre in early October, a somewhat diffuse jazz year began to come into focus.

The Marsalis ensemble, mostly young, all enthusiastic and talented, ripped off a foot-tapping, body-moving, crowd-pleasing program of music by Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. What made the performance especially notable was not so much the obvious fact that the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra can effectively deliver a program of jazz classics. Rather, it was the sheer energy and ebullience with which it did so, bringing the music to life by generating an astonishingly contemporary, collective musical shout.

By the end of the year, Marsalis’ leadership, both as an artist and as a powerful force for musical change, combined with the superb quality of the orchestra’s playing to generate an even larger impact--one that has resulted in an extraordinary development for jazz.


The announcement on Dec. 18 that the Lincoln Center Board had elevated the institution’s jazz program, which Marsalis serves as artistic director, was nothing short of astonishing. By placing jazz at Lincoln Center on an equal footing with the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet, the board confirmed the music’s artistic status and underscored the belief, held by growing numbers of observers, that jazz is correctly identified as a vital and integral component in America’s classical music.

It could not have happened without Marsalis, whose remarkable effect upon jazz in the ‘90s is becoming comparable to the powerful influence Leonard Bernstein had upon the dissemination of classical music in the ‘50s and ‘60s. (Like Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” during the 1960s for CBS, Marsalis was seen this year in an entertaining and informative television series, “Marsalis on Music” on PBS.)

During Marsalis’ tenure at Lincoln Center, the jazz program has expanded from a small, three-concert series to an international agenda with 150 events a year in 60 cities and 215 countries.

Directly linked to the October performance of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in Los Angeles was another program, barely a week later, also at the Wiltern (somewhat surprising since the hall is not an especially popular venue for jazz artists), by Keith Jarrett’s trio.

Unlike the Marsalis concert, which profited immensely from its association with the well-supported UCLA Arts program, Jarrett, who had not appeared in Los Angeles in more than a decade, did not sell out the auditorium. But the failure to fill every seat in no way affected either the quality of the music or the intensity of the audience response.

In terms of sheer musical creativity, it was the jazz event of the year in Los Angeles. The incredibly symbiotic interacting between Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette was apparent from the moment that the first lilting phrase of “Spring Is Here,” spinning lyrically out of Jarrett’s piano, was picked up by a counterline from Peacock’s bass and embellished by zinging accents from DeJohnette’s percussion.

As with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s program, it was music that was both new and old. Music based upon standards--the familiar melodies of composers such as Gershwin, Porter, Kern and Rodgers, and jazz perennials from Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins--performed in an exquisite set of variations that placed jazz squarely in the historical flow of American music.

And Marsalis and Jarrett were not the only musicians reconnecting with the mainstream. Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, at a Hollywood Bowl concert in August, devoted most of his set, a revelatory display of his skills, to familiar ballads and be-bop lines. At any given time, in fact, in numerous venues, jazz players were playing or recording material familiar enough to provide a connective link with their audiences.

The result has been the emergence of an increasingly diverse audience for jazz, racially and ethnically mixed, from students to seniors. Especially promising was the frequency with which young people, many of whom appear to be adding jazz to their musical lexicon, are showing up for the lower-priced second sets at clubs such as Catalina Bar & Grill.

The renewed interest in the great American songbook, in bebop, hard bop, soul jazz and mainstream--even a little swing and mainstream--was not limited to live performances.

The Impulse catalog, with its treasury of jazz from the ‘60s, was revived by GRP, with the resulting availability of classic performances, some never before released, by John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins and others. Blue Note, Verve and Columbia, and a host of smaller companies all dug up gems from their vaults.

Most impressively, there was a strikingly large number of important multi-CD boxed sets. Four were absolute must-have entries for even the smallest jazz record collection: “Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings” (ECM) is a continually exhilarating collection of state-of-the-art jazz recordings during four nights of superb, live performances. Similarly, “Miles Davis: The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel” (Columbia), chronicles a mid-'60s Chicago night club engagement by the splendid Davis band of the period. “The Heavyweight Champion, John Coltrane: The Complete Atlantic Recordings” (Rhino) affords a penetrating view of the legendary saxophonist in the years when his already exceptional playing was evolving to a level of astonishing improvisational brilliance. And “Big Band Renaissance: The Evolution of the Jazz Orchestra: The 1940s and Beyond” (Smithsonian) is an intriguing survey of an enormously diverse range of big-band jazz produced during an era generally associated with smaller groups.

Almost equally vital CD collections surveyed the music of Eric Dolphy, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Duke Ellington, Phil Woods, Clifford Brown and others.

Like the revitalized interest in standard tunes and classic jazz lines, the success of the reissues reflected a renewed need for connection between the music and its audience. As an added benefit, the reissues not only opened doors for new jazz listeners, they also provided significant bottom-line financial support. For companies such as Verve, which has given considerable priority to its reissue program, such recordings were not viewed as occasional vault throwaways, but as staple catalog items with considerable long-term value.

In short, 1995 was a year that saw jazz look to the future by acknowledging its roots.

Meanwhile, contemporary jazz, that odd merchandising category that features Kenny G, John Tesh and Richard Elliot among its stars, continued to score financially. Occasional blips of excellence, usually from groups such as Fourplay and players such as David Sanborn, burst through the flow of predictable rhythms and melodies. To its credit, “contemporary jazz” has provided a viable arena of work for good musicians who might otherwise have difficulty surviving. And, for some players, it has been an entre that opens the door to more provocative forms of improvisation.

But the essential jazz that has maintained its identity while evolving through a succession of styles for nearly a century--the jazz that Marsalis defines as “musical interplay on blues-based melodies, harmonies, rhythms and textures in the motion of an improvised groove"--was fully rediscovered by an entire generation of powerful young players. Those players--the Christian McBrides, Joshua Redmans, James Carters, Jacky Terrasons, Roy Hargroves and Eric Reeds of today, all of whom appeared in Los Angeles clubs and concert halls in 1995--will be the major names of the 21st century.

Meanwhile, the list of major names of the past who departed in this year included, among the seniors, pianist Jess Stacy, best-known for his tenure with Benny Goodman; former Count Basie alto saxophonist Marshall Royal; and trumpeter Yank Lawson. Players prominent in the post-war years who passed away included guitarist Jimmy Raney, drummer Art Taylor, guitarist Laurindo Almeida, arranger Marty Paich and organist-arranger Wild Bill Davis. From the ‘60s, trumpeter Don Cherry, saxophonist Julius Hemphill and pianist-composer Don Pullen played their final performances.