Was Booking Anthony Braxton a Sign That Kennedy Center Is Getting Gutsier?
There's little to add to Ben Ratliff's wide-lens New York Times review of Anthony Braxton's Saturday night concert at the Kennedy Center. There is, however, a section of the review that may merit some closer attention:
Many knew in a general sense what they were coming for. Mr. Braxton, 67, is an American musical force with hundreds of records. But the Kennedy Center is a subscriber-based institution, patronized partly by those who might not follow jazz beyond the institution’s mailings. And so, by Minute 5 or 6 of a 75-minute performance, the grumbling began, robust and aggrieved, from those who thought they were going to hear something similar to what they knew.
“What does it mean?” I heard it behind me. Forceful exhaling too. Soon walkouts. All good and healthy.
There were, in fact, 48 walkouts. I counted.
Good and healthy it may be, considering the context. But despite my prediction from last week ("Those smiling bureaucrats in the Kennedy Center audience won’t know what hit them"), I'm not used to seeing that at the Kennedy Center. Neither, I suspect, is the Kennedy Center. Forty-eight is hardly a mass exodus, but according to Director of Jazz Programming Kevin Struthers, the Terrace Theater—where Braxton performed—seats 500. And it wasn't a full house. No doubt KenCen was prepared for some attrition at a (rare) avant-garde jazz performance, but a >10 percent walkout is significant.
There's a lot to take away from this. For one, that Braxton after almost 50 years still has the power to provoke. For another, that Washington D.C. in the Obama era remains a conservative place. But perhaps more importantly, it says something about the Kennedy Center's jazz programming in the Jason Moran era: They're willing to take a big risk.
There are plenty of platitudes about risk and danger as essential elements of jazz, in that it's an improvised music. But this is a far more concrete sense of risk and danger: bringing in someone who drives off even those who already paid $38 for that person's concert. It simply did not happen in the Billy Taylor era, certainly not in its last decade or so. The big band led by bassist Dave Holland, while admittedly progressive and challenging, was also tightly arranged and richly melodic—and the most difficult jazz I recall seeing at KenCen between 2001 and 2010. And nobody walked out.
It's hard to say whether the Kennedy Center can continue in that kind of direction. As Ratliff points out, the Kennedy Center's audience is subscription-based, and there's a good chance the subscription crowd's tastes run more conservative. So could avant-garde programming scare away the center's core jazz audience? "I don't see why it would," Kennedy Center spokesperson John Dow says. "Braxton is an avant-garde musician so things like walkouts come with the territory. But his is a voice in this community that should be heard."
There's also the possibility that booking nontraditional jazz could have the opposite effect, giving KenCen a new reputation for bold and envelope-pushing programming choices. Reviews of the concert so far, including Ratliff's, have been positive. Both Kennedy Center representatives I spoke to for this piece, Dow and Press Officer Emily Krahn, asked me if I hoped to see more of this kind of performance in the future—with Dow saying that the next season will bring "a firming of Jason Moran's direction."
All that said, just one event like this occurring every season could by itself take the Kennedy Center a long way in its jazz programming. Moran's inaugural season as artistic advisor for jazz is most noteworthy for the full, rich spectrum of jazz styles it presents, from the ubertraditional (Moran's "Fats Waller Dance Party") to the uberextreme (Braxton). One concert on the outer edge per season is still a fairly conservative approach, from a business standpoint, but nonetheless enough to reframe the Kennedy Center as an arts institution that takes chances.
Another quote from Ratliff's review suggests that point: "Mr. Braxton at the Kennedy Center has a ring to it: it signifies Mr. Moran is playing ball, that he is going there." If they can stay the course, walkouts and all, it might be the Kennedy Center itself that's playing ball, too.