Igor Butman on Lincoln Center Community

Igor Butman's personal blog,
June 25, 2012

In my opinion, Jazz at Lincoln Center is not just a concert organization, but an embodiment of the idea of uniting jazz musicians from all across the world. This is something that Wynton Marsalis has long been dreaming of, just as I have. We are all, in a sense, fighting for our dearly loved music – jazz – an art at once contemporary and all-embracing. It contains a great many elements, on the one hand, comparable with the serious academic tradition, and on the other – meeting the standards of contemporary music language. Therefore, the challenge facing the Jazz at Lincoln Center, which consists in expanding the boundaries of the influence of jazz, as an art of world importance, by means of bringing together musicians from around the world, is truly immense! Its implementation is carried out along different directions: thus, the Center boasts an excellent concert hall, internet radio station, Jazz museum, a number of children’s educational jazz programs. And most importantly, the inspirational force and generator of ideas for this colossal in scope and magnitude project is Wynton Marsalis – a dedicated jazz musician, versed in all imaginable stylistic techniques, - from academic and jazz classics to modern pop music.

Let me start from the beginning. I learned about Wynton Marsalis in 1980, after hearing his recording, in quartet with Herbie Hancock, aired on Voice of America. At the time the outfit comprising Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams – a line-up I greatly admired – had just ceased to exist. And all of a sudden, the Marsalis brothers, where I felt trumpeter Wynton was a key figure, began appearing with the same lineup. I recall already then being blown away by his phenomenal technique, sound extraction, and a mature playing that defied his actual age. Then I was able to lay my hands on Wynton’s recordings with Art Blakey, his first solo disc, several compositions from which we later played in quintet.

Finally, after so many years, our idol arrives in Moscow with the Jazz Lincoln Orchestra – a brilliant cast of top-notch virtuoso performers. That was his first tour to Russia. In addition to the concert, there was a jam-session. I remember a jostling crowd of jazz musicians packing the foyer of the hotel “Slavyanskaya”, all in anticipation of seeing Wynton, - of course, I was among them. And then – there he was – in a dazzling white suit, like an angel, with trumpet in hand. Our eyes met, and I had the feeling we had known each other since childhood. Wynton came across as someone I could relate to, a kindred spirit. I had never anticipated he would produce such an effect on me! Most interestingly, Wynton, too, as he later confessed, experienced a similar feeling. We played our way through a simply terrific jam-session, and I believe our friendship dates back to that precise moment. I think it was in winter of 1998.

Incidentally, after that jam-session there was another concert given by the Jazz Lincoln Orchestra. I was in the audience. Wynton saw me, and summoned me on stage – to play together (fortunately, I had the saxophone with me). It was a fantastic performance that produced a tremendous impression upon all of us.

Then there was another visit from Wynton Marsalis. Together with the Russian National orchestra he performed music from «Peer Gynt» and «The Nutcracker» in arrangement by Duke Ellington. At the time I already had Le Club, and that is where Wynton performed with his musicians. There was a crowd of at least 400 people assembled that night – more than in the entire history of the club, I think! The jam-session lasted well into the night, winding down at around 6 am. Besides showering upon us a wealth of wonderful music, what made that encounter particularly memorable was that it was when Wynton met up with our orchestra, and arranger at the time, Vitaly Dolgov. He was delighted – with the playing, Vitaly’s work, the very spirit of our outfit, the spirit of genuine improvisation, not constrained by any conventions! I believe that in some mysterious manner Wynton and I shared a similar perception of music and, in a philosophical sense, life itself. We even share the same hobbies: we both enjoy playing chess, relish good food. I recall several episodes when we indulged in some black caviar together – I was teaching Wynton the right way to eat it, - with a rounded spoonful. (Caviar has always been one of Russia’s famed delicacies, and a couple of times I took the risk of bringing some black caviar with me on trips to America – especially for Wynton). So, like I said, we would play chess, eat caviar, drink vodka. Incidentally, the last such indulgence ended up with Wynton vowing to give vodka a wide berth…

But back to the historic jam-session at Le Club... Upon flying back to America, Wynton gave an interview to acclaimed jazz critic Ira Hitler, where, besides other things, he mentioned me. Ira called me and let me listen to a recording of that interview. Wynton said a lot of sincere, appreciative words in my address, and mentioned he wanted to invite our orchestra to America. And while I was flattered, of course, I didn't want to get my hopes up, since I had heard similar statements from other famous musicians before that, on numerous occasions. It’s not that I didn’t believe them… I simply realized just how costly a project it would be: the visas, transfer, hotel accommodation, fees – all this requires considerable expense. Although, in all honesty, we were prepared to perform free of charge, but none the less. In a word, I never even dared hope. Suddenly we received a letter from the Lincoln Center with an invitation  to come over, and a detailed layout of all the accompanying nuances. I must admit, we were in a state of cultural shock! Several arrangements for two orchestras were written in haste – by our own Vitaly Dolgov, American master Andy Farber, Wynton Marsalis himself. And that’s the program we brought over to the U.S.

It was there, during the rehearsal, that I was able to appreciate it for what it was, the Lincoln Center community: how musicians, despite the language barrier, experienced little difficulty in establishing a rapport, forging friendships. We suddenly realized we shared «common friends» - the universal idols John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis. – These people we had never seen in person, but we bonded in our knowledge of them, our reverence for them, an understanding of their philosophy, as expressed in sound. Those were three phenomenal rehearsals – each lasting 6 hours. My guys were stunned, - firstly, by the hospitality of our American colleagues, secondly, the highly professional manner of conducting rehearsals. There was an episode, when we were deciding which arrangement to select to accompany our friend, trumpeter Valery Ponomariov. He was playing the melody I Remember Clifford in memory of Clifford Brown, and we had two arrangement options: by Quincy Jones and Vitaly Dolgov. As a result, after playing the two versions, my colleagues opted for Vitaly’s arrangement, as more acceptable for Valery Ponomariov’s solo. After three rehearsals there followed two fantastic concerts at the Lincoln Center.     

Then Wynton Marsalis shared with me his idea of setting up Jazz at Lincoln Center – a large-scale music center, specifically targeting jazz art, where musicians of our rank could feel at home. Understandably, realization of so ambitious a project required titanic efforts and vast financial investments. Wynton said that he must find the money (aroundа $128 mln!), work on the design, and assemble qualified staff. At the time the idea seemed incredible. And then, suddenly, I hear that Wynton is launching this center! Moreover, on his birthday. How could I not come over? And it so happened that I embarked on something of a circumnavigation: I flew from Moscow to Vladivostok, - gave a concert there. From Vladivostok via Korea and Alaska I flew to New York – to witness the inspiring launch of the Jazz at Lincoln Center. I think that among those gathered I was the only international-guest. Indian pianist Madaf Shafi had also been invited, but for some reason was unable to attend. So I was the sole representative of Russian, and generally speaking, overseas jazz. I believe that I was greatly privileged to attend so historic an event; it’s definitely one of the most striking pages in my biography.

Having succeeded in opening the Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis proved that even the most bold and challenging projects can get off the ground. To be able to seek out, persuade, prove that the center is needed on an international culture level, - all this goes to show the tremendous amount of effort put in by Wynton Marsalis. And not only in terms of eloquence and ability to persuasively argue his ideas whilst pursuing his goal. The very music of Wynton Marsalis, his creative devotion prove better than words ever could the need for jazz to have a House of its own.

Jazz at Lincoln Center is the world’s first House of jazz. So now we face the daunting challenge of building these Houses, or, in a broader sense, Temples of jazz everywhere. I hope we shall succeed in doing this in Moscow. But for that I shall need to put in as much effort as Wynton did. His example inspires me. I am stunned by his capacity for work, and once again - inspired! That is a man of the strictest discipline. We might be playing chess all night long, yet at 7 am Wynton is already at the piano – going over new tunes. Then he sits down to the book he is writing… After which he receives pupils. Moreover, people from all social strata come over for these lessons with Marsalis, including from the poorest – and yet, he works with them all with the same zeal, generously sharing his skill, communicating with them. – In a word, not a minute of time is wasted. And all in the name of a higher goal: to expand the jazz community, drawing in an ever greater number of people, - performers or listeners – it doesn’t matter. No matter in what capacity a person comes into contact with jazz, this music invariably inspires, nourishes with its radiant energy, induces positive reflexes, expanding creative thinking. Jazz improvisation imbues our mind with the spirit of genuine Freedom and Love. This spirit needs to be safeguarded and consolidated, by setting up temples of the Arts, similar to the Jazz at Lincoln Center, cultivating in us a steadfast belief in the limitless freedom of man’s consciousness, its spirituality, its propensity for scaling the summits of creative endeavor. The jazz community of Jazz at Lincoln Center has already embraced a great many musicians from around the world. As one of its «graduates», I am already stirring things up, creating something here in Russia. This sort of work affords us a chance to forge better mutual understanding, to realize our commitment to excellence, - all this can yield quite unexpected rewards in life. These are some of my reflections on community, on Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center.