- Posthumously Live: Canon Formation at Jazz at Lincoln Center through the Case of Mary Lou Williams
Over the course of its quarter-century history, Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) has rapidly become the world’s largest jazz institution and, intentionally, one of its most influential. But before even one note of the opening concert sounded in the summer of 1991, musicians, journalists, and listeners had already begun to criticize the organization for the ideological ramifications of its programming choices. Organizers of the inaugural season planned to put its million-dollar budget, unprecedented in jazz, into offering a steady stream of concerts supplemented by six lectures and two educational programs for children. Established members of the jazz community expressed wariness of the change this massive new institution would bring. In an article for the New York Times in August 1991 titled “Good News in Jazz, with a Big Caveat,” critic Peter Watrous wrote, “Even nationally, the brute force of a million-dollar first-year budget and a string of 18 concerts, all emanating from an American institution dedicated to the preservation of classical music, has to act as a legitimizing influence.”1 Watrous’s use of the word “preservation” rather than “performance” is striking, and it speaks to the basic conflict highlighted by the organization’s opponents.
“Preserving” the music of the past through new live performances does much more than simply maintain something that once was: it also redefines the past while creating something new in the present. The [End Page 400] legitimacy that JALC has brought not just to the contemporary music that is performed there but also to the venue’s particular interpretation of jazz history continues to be a source of concern because it is difficult for any single organization to act as the primary curator of a diverse tradition. As Watrous warned in 1991, JALC was set to become “a partisan in an ideological argument, and it should not be when its program is the only one of its kind in the country.”2 Because of its sheer size, high level of financial support, associations with high culture, and commitment to educational outreach, JALC has played—and will likely continue to play—a defining role in how the general public sees jazz and its historical canon of performers and composers. In addition, because so many of the artists explicitly endorsed by JALC are no longer living, the institution has a great deal of power over the images of these musicians as they are presented to its large audience. This phenomenon was exemplified in a concert at JALC that posthumously celebrated the historical significance of Mary Lou Williams after she was inducted into the institution’s Hall of Fame. Through an analysis of this performance, I will seek to tease out some of the differences between the reception of this now-canonic artist during her lifetime and the way she is presently presented in what performance studies scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett would call her “second life” as jazz heritage.3
The New Face of American Jazz
Jazz at Lincoln Center originated as a summer program called Classical Jazz that offered its first three-concert series in 1987. As the title of the series implies, the act of drawing this repertoire into the same performing arts complex that houses the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the New York City Ballet presented jazz as an art more closely allied to high culture than to popular entertainment. Four years later, JALC had become a year-round endeavor, and in its second season, its first collaborative program with the New York City Ballet further cemented the presence of jazz as one of Lincoln Center’s fine arts. By 1995 support for JALC had grown to the point that the venue granted the organization at least three landmark criteria for recognition: (1) JALC was given equal status with Lincoln Center’s other arts programs; (2) JALC was the first significant addition to Lincoln Center in nearly forty years; and (3) before the end of the program’s first decade of existence, its organizers had plans already under way to build a substantial new space dedicated entirely...