The opening of Frederick P. Rose Hall marks the rise of jazz from subterranean to skyscraper. Last Tuesday evening, Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center unveiled Rose Hall, a $128-million masterpiece. Perched above a high-end super mall in the Time Warner building, it is the only major venue in the world built specifically for the sounds of jazz.
The exclusive grand opening was a celebration of the man behind the music, Wynton Marsalis. There was no invocation to the living jazz deities, but instead the evening was dedicated to his birthday. While Marsalis could have showcased the world’s most famous and innovative jazz musicians, he opted instead to support friends and family.
Family was indeed the theme of the entire show in Rose Theater, the complex’s main stage. One by one, relatives of the orchestra members were featured, though unfortunately this sense of familiarity did not extended to my seat in the balcony. Far away from the inclusiveness, I felt divorced from the night’s music and, even more importantly, from the frontiers of jazz.
The sound of Rose Theater, lauded by everyone from Ed Bradley to The New York Times, was plagued by delay and echo in the balcony. And to make it worse, the lights were tormenting. Bright beams glared straight into my eyes; I felt like I was in a food court surrounded by tacky, forcefully symmetrical colors.
But gems grew in this poorly lit rough. Abbey Lincoln, ex-wife of bebop master-drummer Max Roach, gave a breathtaking performance of “Down Here Below,” a Marsalis original. She sang like the Empress Nina Simone, echoing her growl with withering precision.
Tony Bennett, on the other hand, sang a disappointing rendition of “Lost in the Stars.” His voice lacked sweetness and packed no punch. And what’s worse, his seemingly choreographed, made-for-PBS hand gestures represented all that is wrong with name-brand guest appearances.
But rather than giving up on Rose Hall, I hop the rail and head to Club Coca-Cola, the smallest stage of the center (it seats only 140 people). After almost crashing headfirst into Ken Burns, I find the club, and it is magnificent. A woman with ancient elegance exits where I enter. I hold the door for her and see my aunt’s ghost in her face.
The sound of the club reminds me of an Al Capone speakeasy in Chicago. Curved wooden walls breath with the music; their undulation echoes the shape of sound itself. “It’s the Gehry groove,” says the man next to me. He is Joe Salvatto, the chief sound engineer for the evening’s simulcasts on PBS and WBEZ. Joe’s ecstasy is contagious.
“Wynton is a badass. He puts all of himself into everything he does,” Salvatto says, with soft persistence. “This place is a sound engineer’s dream.”
He riffs about the complex, and the mileage of the jazz canon: “Rose Hall is designed like a race car, ready to be kicked into full gear. There’s no space like it. Every Mario Andretti of the jazz world wants a run around this track.”
As we talk, pianist John Hicks, former member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, makes an impromptu appearance on the bandstand.
“Wynton knew this would happen,” Salvatto explains. “Imagine being a jazz musician. All your life you’ve played in dingy clubs with no recognition. Then Wynton comes along, and Manhattan is at your fingertips.”
Hicks digs deep into the Steinway, tying knots with notes, cherishing the sound and the city behind him. He finishes a Thelonious Monk tune, and I leave Club Coca-Cola with Salvatto who opens up hidden side tunnels, leading me to the Allen Room.
Of the three venues in Rose Hall, the Allen Room is most spectacular. Behind the stage is a 90-foot glass window that invokes the city in all her majesty. The window leans back to Central Park, its heaving trees colored by fall and the lights of Columbus Circle.
I stand awestruck until Salvatto sweeps me away from the Allen Room, back to Rose Theater. We walk right next to the stage and listen: The fidelity is tremendous. Now I catch the smack of the snare; now the horns sound fat and round.
Then out of nowhere, African musicians invade the theater, parading through the aisles in traditional regalia. They interrupt the jazz orchestra with tamlins, square Ghanaian drums. Their rhythm is a welcome climax to the long night of music. Wynton’s group stops playing, except for the drummer who stays on and plays a few beats with the musicians from Ghana. In those last fleeting measures the circle of Jazz comes to life, and from the front row of Rose Theatre it sounds sensational.