The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette‘s assessment of the just-announced 2016-2017 Kennedy Center classical season more or less aligns with mine (And Washington City Paper‘s Mike Paarlberg). She particularly nails it with her conclusion:
My slight sense of disappointment may stem from my own misapprehension of the Kennedy Center’s goals. Is the Kennedy Center’s role to bring to the nation’s capital what is already out there — to curate American art in a series of D.C.-based shows? Or is it to forge new paths ahead? I think the Kennedy Center wants the answer to be both. I just wish it weren’t offering so many things we’ve already seen before. Its mission statement of 2016-17 seems to me to be, “We want to do new things — but we really, really don’t want to scare you away.”
Certainly there’s potential in Jason Moran‘s collaboration with musical polymath Georgia Anne Muldrow, a genuinely new project; the other two events in the “Jason+” series (with visual artists Joan Jones and Theaster Gates) have previously premiered elsewhere. (And fusions of jazz with visual art has become fairly standard fare.) The new Wayne Shorter commission, The Unfolding, has not apparently been premiered anywhere yet, but its listing on the Kennedy Center schedule as a “D.C. premiere” suggests that it will be performed elsewhere first. (KenCen was one of four co-commissioners for the piece.) And Shorter has premiered new music at the Kennedy Center in the past—just three years ago, in fact. It’s hard to call any of this, on its face, particularly new. And that’s before we look at the rest of the schedule (with one exception, which I’ll get to below).
Pacing Midgette, my disappointment is a bit more than slight. I don’t know that the Kennedy Center really even tried to innovate their approach to classical programming. The jazz department tried, though—and made some real headway. Jason Moran‘s 2011 appointment as artistic advisor for jazz (later beefed up to artistic director) heralded a genuine shake-up. Here was a programmer who was willing to take risks! He booked Anthony Braxton, for God’s sake! And in the face of a few dozen walkouts at Braxton’s concert, KenCen’s staff reaffirmed their confidence in Moran: They booked Cecil Taylor in the following season (though he canceled for health reasons and was replaced with the less radical, but no less monumental, Ahmad Jamal), Muhal Richard Abrams in the season after that. Then there was Soulive, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Robert Glasper, and the Revive Big Band. This writer was so impressed that in 2012 I called Moran “the vanguard of a new era in Kennedy Center jazz programming.”
Which makes the new season all the more remarkable for its tameness. That’s not a word one ordinarily applies to Gary Bartz, an alto saxophonist and NEA jazz master who’s genuinely great. But he lives in Baltimore; he’s hardly new to the area, or even to the Kennedy Center. Ditto Jimmy and Tootie Heath, KC perennials: Not that Jimmy Heath’s 90th birthday doesn’t deserve a gala celebration, but c’mon. Fred Hersch, Regina Carter, Jane Ira Bloom, Jane Monheit, Sherrie Maricle and DIVA Orchestra…all great, all worthy, all veterans of the Kennedy Center’s calendar. (And for that matter, veterans from the era of the late Billy Taylor, whom Moran succeeded and was a breath of fresh air from.) The Harlem String Quartet played in 2013. Singer Jazzmeia Horn, who performs next February, was here this past January.
Terence Blanchard, who in 2016-17 receives a season-long residency dubbed “All In,” is not exactly an audacious leap for the Kennedy Center, either. He’s been appearing there since at least 1999, probably longer, and has even been on the advisory board for the Kennedy Center Honors. He’s taken bold new strides with his new band the E-Collective, certainly, but D.C. audiences have had ample opportunity to experience that band, with a four-night booking at Blues Alley last summer and a headline appearance at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in February. The newly commissioned musical drama Bud, Not Buddy, for which Blanchard composed, is unquestionably new, but (from appearances) not especially groundbreaking.
Champion is the exception. It’s Blanchard’s jazz opera about boxer Emile Griffith, which premiered in St. Louis in 2013 and seems to have only had one other performance run, last month at San Francisco’s SFJazz. As best as I can tell, neither the Kennedy Center nor the Washington National Opera have performed a jazz opera before—a genuine innovation in their programming this season. Which is why it’s confusing that Champion is downplayed so much in the jazz season’s announcement, even while it’s billed as a highlight in the opera season’s announcement. Is the Kennedy Center trying not to cannibalize its audience? If so, it certainly seems counter to the multi-disciplinary angle they’re promoting in the jazz program.
Midgette’s characterization of the season (“We want to do new things — but we really, really don’t want to scare you away”) is in sharp contrast with Moran’s chance-taking programming of the last few years. The slate of reruns doesn’t seem in keeping with the aesthetic he established—that KenCen proudly let him establish. One wonders: Was he given a directive from the Board to reel in his ambitions?