At its heart, jazz is about improvisation — its unique tempo, melodic arrangements and chord progressions break from the classic conventions of rhythm, meter and harmony. Brilliant artists have shaped the genre over the course of its rich history by expressing their own distinct sounds and styles through improv atop standards and originals alike. To its students, it’s more than playing technique —it’s the result of an expert fluency in the language of music, a mastery of creativity that enables artists to push beyond traditional boundaries to discover something exciting and new.
For Wynton Marsalis, managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), an embrace of the jazz flavor of improv has been the hallmark of an award-winning musical career. But as COVID-19 spread in mid-March, it may have also been instrumental in helping him pivot his organization in response. Along with virtually every musical and theater venue across the United States, JALC’s concerts – and revenue – came to a grinding halt. Marsalis — comfortable with playing in the unknown — quickly focused his energy on bringing the power of performance to digital platforms, keeping his artists, students, and fans connected and enjoying the music they love at a time when they perhaps needed it most.
As part of our Office Hours Q&A series on @AmericanExpressBusiness on Instagram, we asked Marsalis to walk us through how COVID affected JALC, and how his ultimate mission of making jazz accessible for everyone served as a guiding principle for the decisions he made in his journey to pivot.
There are many great lessons for small business owners embedded in the story of how you were able to pivot Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) for a virtual universe, which before the pandemic, had been relatively uncharted territory as far as revenue drivers go. From deciding to record “Quarantine Blues” to launching a free two-week Summer Jazz Academy in July, did you find your decisions to be driven by instinct? Or by signals you were seeing among your subscribers?
In everything I do, I am driven by Jazz at Lincoln Center’s mission to entertain, educate and expand a global community for jazz through performance, education and advocacy. Since 2014, JALC has developed a wealth of audio recordings, video footage, music charts, photos, written and interactive material to serve its growing audience of fans, musicians, educators, advocates, students and scholars. Before the pandemic, we livestreamed most of our programs for free on our website and social media to make sure our performances reached a global audience. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is our full-time resident orchestra that tours 13 weeks a year nationally and internationally. Blue Engine Records, our in-house record label, was created to make our immense archive of music available to everyone. Education programs like Let Freedom Swing, Essentially Ellington and Jazz for Young People concerts reach students in schools around the world, making jazz music accessible to the next generation of leaders, thinkers and artists.
Especially now during this pandemic and during this time in our history, it was more important than ever to continue our mission. Jazz has the ability to uplift all of us, many who are isolated and in need of community. At the beginning of our quarantine, our customer service team reached out to our ticket buyers solely to connect and check in on our patrons. We continue to maintain that communication and hear about how much they are enjoying the classes, music, and concert livestreams we’re sharing virtually. Even during my American Express Office Hours conversation, I saw comments that said “I love your masterclasses online!”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jazz at Lincoln Center has made available a robust, curated and weekly program of offerings to reach people all over the world and bring the healing power of jazz music into homes and communities. The effort, which has grown to include jazz masters from every corner of the globe, serves as a “virtual commons” whereby people can find and access live webcasts from musicians and directly support their work and livelihood. Keeping with its mission, JALC continues to be a resource for cultural nourishment and comfort in these uncertain times.
You’ve talked about “unleashing your managers” and following a “loose but flexible framework” for decision-making to keep Jazz at Lincoln Center moving in the direction of digital products that were budget-conscious and could make up for some of the lost live show revenue. Would you describe that framework more, and explain how you were able to rally your managers behind it?
Making jazz accessible is central to the mission of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, all of our content has been available for free to everyone on jazz.org. We have seen that our patrons continue to donate to support the organization. We recently restarted live webcasts from Dizzy’s Club and we are charging a $10 virtual ticket to view the webcasts, still keeping the price point at an accessible level. The truth is without ticket sales, we have no income stream so we have to think of creative ways to make some of that loss back.
Jazz at Lincoln Center has developed a wealth of audio recordings, video footage, written and interactive material to serve its growing audience of fans, musicians, educators, advocates, students, and scholars.
I have shared this with the staff at almost every staff meeting we’ve had since the outbreak of COVID-19 – “we have to rely on the trust that we’ve built over the year and to see if we are who we said we were before this.” This means trusting in the integrity of everybody in the organization. One of the biggest things I’ve learned during this pandemic is about my senior management team – they’ve been unbelievable. I always believed in them but it brings me to tears to think about the extra mile that everyone has gone. I’m surrounded by people who have been so unbelievably dedicated at a very difficult time.
What did you learn about the next generation of artists and musicians through your communications with them during the crisis? How do you think jazz changes with them – both through the lens of the pandemic and through their upbringing as digital natives?
The silver lining during this pandemic is that going virtual has made us more accessible to everyone around the world at all times. I started an online video series called Skain’s Domain as well as a weekly social media conversation with JALC’s social media manager Madelyn Gardner. I had to learn how to use all the platforms from home by myself but that also gave me a chance to connect with audiences around the world!
I am seeing musicians of all ages composing, teaching, and performing in so many innovative ways. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra all created and played new music together but separately in their own homes and they are taking over JALC’s social media accounts. All the education programs for children as young as eight months old in WeBop classes to adults in Swing University are all learning online. Musicians like Riley Mulherkar, Camille Thurman, and Alexa Tarantino have been highlighted on JALC’s digital content.
In addition to Jazz at Lincoln Center, I am also the Director of Juilliard Jazz. I’ve learned a lot from my Juilliard students over the last few months. The students are engaging in citizenship, asking how they can be active socially and sharing a larger sense of desire to influence our country in a positive way. I believe at the end of this challenging time, that is what we will see – a renewed investment in civics: in education, in health, and in the arts.
We look to be on the horizon of a return to at least some degree of live performances and outdoor theater. Even if we were to return to normal and reopen venues at full capacity, are there any virtual ‘products’ you believe Jazz at Lincoln Center will continue to expand and offer to subscribers and fans?
Jazz at Lincoln Center in a way has always provided a combination of live and virtual performances. Our live concerts were streamed on our website and on social media. I believe many of the programs we are currently offering will continue after things get back to “normal.” But the live experience is so key to jazz. When we designed Rose Theater, I asked to be able to see the audience because especially in jazz, it’s all about engaging with the audience.
Finally, part of the success of the pivot was from the early and often communications you sent to everyone, from orchestra members to staff to subscribers and fans, letting them know how you were doing and what was on your mind, often through the form of mantras. What mantra would you offer to keep small business owners to encourage them to keep going?
“Let’s face this challenge by challenging ourselves and choosing to rise to the occasion.”
That’s something else I also say a lot to the team. This is a challenging time but we will come out of it. Louis Armstrong lived through the Spanish Flu epidemic from 1918-1919. In his memoir, he only dedicates two paragraphs to it. He talks about having some sort of resistance to the flu and devotes his time to caring for the sick while he is unable to play because of the closure of clubs during the pandemic. The Jazz Age in the 1920s right after the flu. Things will return back to normal and people will want to gather again after being in isolation for so long. We are looking forward to that moment and will be ready when those doors open.