NEW YORK — "Welcome to Frederick P. Rose Hall," says a voice with no small degree of reverence as the lights fade at Jazz at Lincoln Center. "You are now in the House of Swing."
That's a name that Wynton Marsalis was seemingly born to appropriate. In fact, between tunes at a two-hour retrospective performance last weekend, commemorating the centennial of big-band legend Stan Kenton, Marsalis told the audience that one of the evening's featured works, Gerry Mulligan's Swing House, inspired the less-formal name of the largest of Jazz at Lincoln Center's three performance venues.
"This is what we are going to call our concert hall," Marsalis recalled telling Mulligan when the great baritone saxophonist was alive. "That's what we'll call it once we build it."
Now in full operation at Jazz at Lincoln Center at Columbus Circle, Rose Hall is swinging indeed. In essence a jazz arena with about 12,000 patrons seated in front, in back, around and, with twin balconies running the entire circumference of the room, practically on top of the band, Rose Hall seemed to ignite during Swing House. A fearsome exchange between an extended trombone section and alto saxophonist Sherman Irby ignited the music; an exuberant tenor sax blast from Victor Goines (who also plays clarinet) brought it home.
"I remember a conversation I had," Goines said before a performance sound check the previous afternoon. "I was talking to my good friend Herlin Riley (who played in Marsalis' famed '90s septet with Goines). He remembered when Wynton was first talking about Jazz at Lincoln Center. It didn't have a name as such back then. But he told Herlin, 'Man, I've got a vision for this program. We're going to erect a building and build a concert hall just for jazz. We're going to have programs for education. We're going to have performances with our bands in the concert hall. We're going to have other people come in with their bands. It's going to be outstanding.' And Herlin looked at him and said, 'Man, what are you talking about? How in the world are we going to do that?'
"And, lo and behold," Goines said, motioning in a small conference room next to Rose Hall draped in the works of artist Romare Bearden. "We now have Jazz at Lincoln Center. We call this the center of the jazz universe."
Despite its overall title (and perhaps Marsalis' initial intentions for the House of Swing), Jazz at Lincoln Center doesn't limit itself exclusively to jazz. The previous evening, as Marsalis and the orchestra opened the two-night Kenton tribute at Rose Hall, the smaller Allen Room, which seats 200 to 500 people, hosted a concert by blues veterans John Mayall and John Hammond that brought to life the songs of Blind Willie McTell, Sonny Boy Williamson and Otis Rush. A third venue, Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, a more cabaret-oriented venue suitable for smaller jazz ensembles, is in operation seven nights a week. These other rooms offer a bonus that Rose Theater does not: an eye-popping view of Columbus Circle and, in the distance, Central Park.
"And we have it here in Columbus Circle," Goines said, "where it cannot be missed."
Jazz at Lincoln Center offers numerous educational activities, outreach programs and pre-concert lectures, but its most visible offstage profile is maintained by the orchestra. A touring enterprise long before Jazz at Lincoln Center had a performance home, Marsalis and the orchestra possess a scholarly command of jazz tradition — from the essentials of Duke Ellington swing to the cool of Blue Note-era bop and beyond. And experiencing it in New York, one of the world's true jazz epicenters, is grand enough, but the true spark of the band's musical devotion shines when it travels to cities around the country and the world where jazz music is an event, not an expected, plentiful, nightly occurrence, as it is in New York.
Case in point: a 2003 performance by the orchestra at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts. Granted, the concert was being recorded for broadcast on BET. Still, the orchestra delivered three full sets that night that had its members performing the music of Jelly Roll Morton well past midnight.
"For a lot of people, we may be their only exposure to this music," Goines said. "We get to see how all of these people in different parts of the country assemble. They come together on a given night of a concert, put together their hard-earned money and try to remove themselves from the occurrences they have dealt with during the day — even if it's just for a brief period of time. They come to take part in an offering.
"You know, quite often we talk about the differences in these audiences. But we really try to reach out to the similarities. People come out because they want to hear great music and have a good time."