Night Fire, scratchboard and ink, by Nancy Wolitzer.
Gena Raps: You founded and produced many successful projects, including Jazz at Lincoln Center – where you hired Wynton Marsalis – Reel to Real, and now MOTI, Music on the Inside. How did you find your passion?
Alina Bloomgarden: My passion started while sitting at Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theater, when I would listen to him draw out each singer, one after another. I remember specifically hearing him coach someone singing, “You go to my head, and you …” He talked to each one with kindness and a dose of reality; there was something about it that moved me. I felt like I was hearing truths I’d longed to hear all my life.
There was something in that music that was alive – it was speaking about human experience. I wanted to hear it and I felt like I needed to hear it. I wasn’t even working at Lincoln Center yet; I was a senior executive at Macy’s. I used to meet my boyfriend, who was studying saxophone, at the Jazz Cultural Theater.
I felt a shift in energy when I would enter the club. There were black people, white people together. They’d be cooking soul food in the back room. And wonderful jam sessions with great musicians. The way they would support each other, and the humor, imprinted on me deeply.
Two or three years later, I was working at Lincoln Center as Director of Visitors Services. I heard that they were looking for new programming ideas for Alice Tully Hall for the summer. I said, “We should have jazz,” and I felt like I was hearing Barry – Barry Harris is as much a proselytizer as he is a great musician. He would say, “If someone doesn’t do something, the jazz musician is going to die out. Youth aren’t going to know about it.”
I said, “Jazz is an American art form. It has a place in America’s pre-eminent performing arts center. We could make a difference in how it’s respected in its own country the way it’s respected in Europe.” Nat Leventhal, then president of Lincoln Center, said, “Okay, write me a proposal.” Three proposals and four years later, I was learning as I went – because what did I know? I only knew the feeling, and I trusted it, and it led me. It wasn’t based on knowledge, that I knew every singer or every musician or what cut it was; most jazz musicians can tell you who played with whom and identify the song. I never knew all that. I still don’t. But I knew the truth of it, and I could rely on myself and trust that as a guide.
GR: Instinct led you to this passion …
AB: Yes. In the process of three proposals and four years, I was learning a lot. By then, I’d become a producer. Nat convened a meeting of the usual suspects and went around the room in his administrative voice, asking, “What would you do in Alice Tully Hall in the summer?” And in that same tone. “Okay, Alina. You can give your idea now.” You know that tone they have?
I said, “I want to produce and present jazz at Lincoln Center and pay tribute to the great composers of jazz and do repertorial concerts. Not jam sessions. Something in the dignity of Lincoln Center. And I want to call Wynton Marsalis. I think we can address his aesthetic vision.”
They all said, “Oh, she can’t get Wynton Marsalis.” I called Wynton’s manager, who thought he would be interested. Wynton came and spoke to me for three or four hours. I asked him if he’d be artistic advisor. He said, “Oh, you don’t want me. No one likes me.” “Never mind that,” said I. By the time I went upstairs with Wynton Marsalis, they started to respect me. And they threw me the ball.
The first thing I did was to call Dorthaan Kirk at WBGO because I didn’t know one phone number. I got her Rolodex, and we were off and running.
GR: In 1987, when Jazz at Lincoln Center was founded, other than people like [pianist] Marian McPartland, jazz seemed mostly a man’s world. Additionally, when you started Jazz at Lincoln Center, jazz didn’t have the popularity that it has now. The music was treated as second class, coming mostly from African-Americans, who were also considered second class. Jazz at Lincoln Center built the stature and audience on a national level. What were your hurdles?
AB: I’ve told you a few of them. It took three proposals in four years. The first time I proposed my idea, the management at Lincoln Center thought the jazz audience would be rowdy. That’s the furthest thing from a jazz audience. The jazz audience is a very intellectual audience, really; it’s a different audience than they were imagining.
It’s funny to say what the hurdles were because one of the gifts was how many musicians were so excited to come together and play with people they had been with before – for example, sidemen with Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker or Coltrane or Monk. And now they were leaders of their own bands, but they hadn’t played together for a long time. It became a reunion!
Those first years. It was powerful! I introduced every concert, and then brought on the people from WBGO, to emcee. I remember each time I’d look out into this completely black audience. I’d feel the energy of so much love and appreciation. There was so much appreciation because jazz hadn’t been given the respect, and the audience were people who really loved the music and loved these artists.
In the third season we put together an Ellington band of every living alumnus from the Ellington orchestra and young lions like Wynton and others. We hired David Berger to transcribe Ellington’s works, works that had never been written down. They were just on recordings. And there they were, being played live for the first time in years.
That was one of the highlights. I think that’s when Lincoln Center started to notice, oh, there’s something here. We sold out every concert. The New York Times called it the most important jazz festival in America –produced by Alina Bloomgarden and Wynton Marsalis.
GR: A birthing …
I was going to ask you about the planning of the building, which opened in 2004. Did you have anything to do with the opening?
AB: That question was one of my challenges. When Lincoln Center realized that they had something, they decided, “Let’s find the most experienced jazz impresario in the country.” They came up with Rob Gibson. When Rob Gibson came on, honestly, he didn’t really want me there.
It was very, very heartbreaking for me. Later I realized it was exactly the right next step for them. They have acknowledged my starting, and Wynton is with me on MOTI. That was one of the challenges and, yes, there is the male dominance of the jazz world.
GR: You did experience sexism!
AB: Yes. It was implicit at the time.
GR: Did you have role models or mentors as a producer?
AB: One person who encouraged me was Abbey Lincoln. I loved working with her. The first concert I produced was called Ladies First, featuring Marian McPartland, Janis Siegel, and Benny Carter, among others.
That concert was then called Classical Jazz at Lincoln Center. Which is so interesting because to me, a lot of what Wynton has continued to do with Jazz at Lincoln Center is classical jazz. It’s really codified jazz in so many ways, and because of what they’ve accomplished, Ellington will be heard in 300 years along with Bach and Beethoven. They have succeeded.
Benny Carter was a great encouragement. He’s a wonderful jazz musician. Of course we had a small budget, and I called Benny. We did a concert with him and Dizzy Gillespie.
When I called Benny in California he was writing scores for movies. Very successful musician and wonderful person and great musician. He said, “Oh, I’d love to be part of it. I stay at the Parker Meridien in a suite with my wife, and we travel first class.” It was like, okay. It was a lesson to know where you set your bar. And we did it. That was one of the things I learned. Not everybody sets their bar.
GR: What do you see as your strongest traits as a producer of music and jazz in particular?
AB: I have a reliance on a truth that I can feel. I rely on something inside because it isn’t based on scholastic knowledge of jazz. I seem always to be doing something I know nothing about, and in a way, I think it brings a freshness to it.
For example, when I had this idea, I was approached by many of the top producers in jazz: George Wein, a famous musician and the founder of the Jazzmobile, and others. They said, “Great idea, I’ll do it.” I thought, no, I’m going to do it because I don’t want to do the same thing you’ve been doing.
I had the nerve to do something different because the concerts I’d been going to seemed more like jam sessions, especially the bigger concerts in halls. I didn’t even know exactly what it was, but I was learning and I felt like there was something else to bring that wouldn’t be coming from people who’d already been doing it.
GR: One of your innovations was getting the music transcribed, written down for history.
AB: Well, that was the Ellington piece. The other innovations were bringing together alumni from other orchestras, having them together to play together for the first time in years, and celebrating some of the composers of jazz, like Monk and Charlie Parker, whom they loved.
There was so much love. They would think about what they were going to play, not just get up and get together and see what comes out, but really think about programming.
GR: How has the pandemic affected your work?
AB: After Jazz at Lincoln Center, I produced Reel to Real. I had this idea to create programs that brought together film and live performance. First of all to bring young people and family audiences back to live performance through film and video. Kids today are so much more acclimated to film and video, and I thought by segueing from film to live, it would bring them into the experience of live performance.
I did 64 shows for Lincoln Center. I loved that series. We were introducing children and their families, their young parents, to our cultural history when we celebrated Jimmy Durante, Lucille Ball, George M. Cohan and people that they wouldn’t really know about.
Using excerpts – the fun of that series was, I had a little machine. I could put every film that that person was connected to on my screen at home, and find amazingly great clips in terrible movies. I’d cull out these clips, and then I’d go to my video editor and we would put together shows featuring live musicians, artists, singers, and dancers who’d been inspired by those people.
I worked with Mark Nadler on a program about Jimmy Durante that was fun. We did a show with Mercedes Ellington called Story-Tellington, from the point of view of her as a young girl seeing her grandfather for the first time at the Apollo Theater. We did it from the bird’s-eye view of a young person.
While doing the Reel to Real series, I produced a program about Louis Armstrong with Wynton. Going back and forth between film and live performance, we took that Reel to Real on the road. I did what I called a Satch-piration from Woodstock, Vermont. Subsequently I was asked to do the curriculum for high school English students.
We brought the show from Lincoln Center to many schools. We also created a film to live show for adults, working with Ricky Riccardi, the Louis Armstrong archivist. With Dan Morgenstern, a scholar, we did a “Red Beans and Ricely Yours” dinner, which was Louis Armstrong’s favorite dish.
I was impressed that Louis Armstrong had his first real music education at the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, where he was sent after he was arrested on New Year’s Eve for shooting a gun with blanks.
It was life changing for him. First, he had three meals a day, which he hadn’t had as an indigent child. There was a music teacher and a boys’ band where he started playing the bugle. At first they had no use for him. They thought he wasn’t serious. Then they heard his sound and his natural talent. That was lifesaving for Armstrong.
I thought, what are we doing for youth today? That was the genesis of Music on the Inside.
I felt that musicians would want to help and it could really make a difference for the young people that we’re discarding. Now we teach both youths and adults affected by our criminal justice system.
I walked around with the idea for about a year. I remember seeing Wynton at a friend’s retirement party, and he said, “Alina, give us an idea. We need you.” He hadn’t said that in about 25 years. I said, “Oh, I have an idea right now. You want to hear it?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “I want to bring music into facilities for incarcerated youth in the name of Louis Armstrong.” He said, “That’s what I want to do. Call me Monday.”
Tuesday, he came to my apartment, and we talked about it. What he wanted to do, and still wants to do, is to bring his whole Lincoln Center jazz orchestra into every prison in New York state. We determined – and I felt very strongly – that we needed to do more than just come and say, “Aren’t we great? Goodbye.” We want to teach people, give them something they can develop as skills and encouragement and a voice.
We’ve started with the educational side of it. It’s been mutually transformative for me and all the teachers who’ve taught and the people we’ve reached. We worked at Rikers Island for the first two years, in four different facilities for youth. Judy Gray came in with us and taught the blues. She would teach a simple 12-bar blues structure, and the young people would right away have something musical to say. So much to say, given half a chance!
We’ve graduated to state facilities and work now in Queensboro Correctional Facility and Edgecombe Correctional Facility for men, adults returning from prison upstate, getting ready for re-entry.
We started teaching guitar, singing, and songwriting. It is amazing when you put an instrument in someone’s hand – it’s tremendously empowering; people’s concentration, focus, and seriousness increase exponentially.
GR: When folks feel accomplished, it builds self-respect.
AB: Yes. Then we arranged with the facilities to have practice times. You can’t learn an instrument with a class once a week, and now they could practice. At the end of each semester we would have a performance for the whole population in the facility and feature our students and their teachers along with guest performers and other prominent musicians who would come in to perform.
GR: But now you can’t go into….
AB: The minute COVID happened, we were about to start a semester at Queensboro and Edgecombe. I’m proud and delighted to say that within two weeks, we pivoted to support for individuals in re-entry and also presenting MOTI zoom concerts every Sunday. Last night was our 46th concert since March, featuring prominent, distinguished musicians alongside somebody who’s been affected by incarceration for whom music has been an abiding resource.
Now we are matching up students everywhere in the country. We have a wonderful singer and songwriter out of Pennsylvania. We have somebody else in Baltimore. We match them with seasoned musicians and private teachers as mentors.
We’re working right now with the Jazz Foundation of America. They’re helping to support our teachers with some of the musicians in their roster, giving meaningful work to people. It’s a win-win because musicians don’t have the kind of gigs they would normally have, obviously, during COVID. They have so much to share, and want to.
COVID has actually been beneficial for MOTI in the sense that people are aware of what we’re doing. And it’s so timely in terms of the country’s awareness of the issues of criminal justice.
GR: What do you project for the future?
AB: I’d love to see a real movement of musicians for justice. I think musicians care about the issue, not only jazz musicians. To start thinking about our brothers and sisters who’ve been affected by incarceration and how powerful music is.
I always knew MOTI was a good idea, but only recently did I realize why music is so potent in this situation. People in prison are spoken down to and demeaned; a sense of their failures and inadequacy is reinforced over decades. All of a sudden they’re supposed to come out and build a successful life, get housing and a job. Music immediately creates an equal playing field. We’re just human beings making music together. We teach non-violent communication and talk about it, but with music, it just happens. There are many implicit life skills that you need: discipline, focus, and collaboration. There’s just so much in music that is imparted in an enjoyable way.
GR: These skills become intuitive.
AB: When I first realized we wanted to serve people in re-entry, I didn’t know how to reach people, which is still a challenge. I reached out to our colleagues and friends at the Fortune Society for recommendations.
They recommended a man who was incarcerated when he was 22 years old and was finally released last year after 46 years behind bars! When he first got in, there were music programs in prisons, but one of the crime bills [1994?], eliminated all programming. For the next 30 years he found every way he could to listen to music and to play. Friends sent him an old saxophone. And now, Don Braden is teaching him saxophone and Barbara Siessel the flute. Everyone is impressed, including the Fortune Society friends, how he’s improved and how he takes it so seriously. This is what we’re doing. It’s not about me; it’s really about how to help the people society has left behind. He’ll be featured in an upcoming program we are doing.
These are people who never would have known about music. They’re coming out of prison, usually back to the same influences they had. Now we’re bringing them whole different communities to feel a part of. I feel that I just can’t move fast enough. There’s so much to do.
As Alina Bloomgarden said, Music on the Inside (MOTI) continues its musical support of the incarcerated even after they are free. Michael Austin is one of the graduates of the program. While incarcerated, he kept himself alive and hopeful through music. Freed after serving 27 years for a crime he did not commit, Austin continued his musical career under the tutelage of his MOTI mentor, the great jazz singer Marion Cowings. in the clip below, you can see and hear Austin and Cowings learning and singing together.