Jazzing up the Middle East

Grammy award winning musician Wynton Marsalis speaks to Global Citizen at the opening of his Jazz at the Lincoln centre in Doha, Qatar.

The sun is streaming in through arched windows and glinting off the Arabian Gulf beyond. It silhouettes the lone figure standing on stage, clutching a trumpet as an expectant hush falls among the seated gathering. There is a pregnant pause as the group of journalists, dictaphones in hand and pens poised above notepads, wait for a soundbite. It doesn’t come. Finally Wynton Marsalis says: “I feel I should have something important to say but I really don’t. So I’m just going to play.”

And with that, the jazz maestro with three decades in the industry behind him puts his instrument to his pursed lips and does what he does best.

He plays for 20 minutes straight at the press conference announcing the opening of Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha and then, having barely spoken a word, he steps off stage. But there is little need for an explanation.

For while this is not one of the smoke-filled basements and cellars where jazz first took hold a century earlier, the mournful, meandering notes of

St James Infirmary Blues filling this brightly-lit venue bring with them echoes of the funereal marching bands of New Orleans and haunting jazz melodies synonymous with Chicago’s Green Mill or the Blue Note in New York.

And they speak volumes of Marsalis’ role as a cultural ambassador, bringing jazz to a part of the world where it is still relatively nascent.

Grammy award-winning Marsalis, 51, is one of the last surviving jazz greats, a bastion of a golden age in the musical genre.

Born into a family of musicians in New Orleans, where the roots of early jazz first took hold, he first picked up a trumpet at the age of six and was playing with the New Orleans Philharmonic at 14.

Today he is regarded as something of a national treasure and plays to audiences around the world. He has won nine Grammys and was the first jazz musician to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music for his epic work, Blood on the Fields in 1997.

He was only a child when the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk were playing but the swing jazz he plays with his band is faithful to those legendary figures, as much a tribute as it embraces a traditional strand of music which is struggling to remain popular.

Yet here he is at the St Regis Doha hotel in Qatar, where a new purpose-built club has been created for a reported $20 million as the first international outpost of Jazz from the Lincoln Center (Jalc) in New York, which he founded in 1987 and where he serves as artistic director.

For 25 years the venue has operated singly on the fringes of Central Park with a mission to “enrich, entertain and expand the audience for jazz through performance, education and advocacy”.

Last month it ventured outside that home for the first time with the Qatar outlet – the first of five such venues around the world – opened at a special launch featuring Marsalis playing with a quintet of musicians from his orchestra.

“In the spirit of jazz ambassadors – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie – we are continuing the legacy of bridging cultures around the world.

We know of the power of jazz to transform the world. It is going to be the same here in Doha as it was for all the people who first discovered it,

said Marsalis.

Jalc Doha will operate year-round, flying in world class musicians to play up to three sets a night for a fortnight-long stint at the St Regis.

Its New York home, which stages nearly 3,000 performances a year, has always had a strong educational element with an emphasis on introducing a younger generation to the music.

As a not-for-profit organization, Jalc has struggled to recoup its $40m annual running costs, of which two-thrids comes from ticket sales. It is hoped the deal with St. Regis Doha will bring in another $1.5m a year within five years and help fund its educational programmes.

Adrian Ellis, the former executive director who was key to striking the international deal, says: “It will have a light educational touch – not that we will turn the jazz club into a seminar but to just tell enough about the music as it is being played to make sure people see connections and have some idea of what is going on.”

The idea was born after a chance conversation with Paul James, St Regis Hotels’ global brand leader. James had long been searching for a way to evoke a bygone era and golden age of the original St Regis Hotel, built in 1904 by wealthy businessman John Jacob Astor IV and hosting the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie at the peak of the swing years.

Omar Alfardan, the Qatari president of the Resort Development Company, which holds the franchise for the St Regis Doha, completed the triptych of jazz enthusiasts keen to spread the message globally.

They may have grown up thousands of miles apart but Alfardan and Marsalis share a strange quirk – both their fathers brought them up listening to Louis Armstrong.

“Culture and the language of music is universal,” says Alfardan. “This is part of a long-cherished dream to bring some of the best in world culture to Qatar.”

That bridging of nations is manifesting itself in a unique project he is working on with Marsalis. He has given the jazz legend recordings of pearl diving songs, which Marsalis is using as the basis of original compositions.

But nurturing a love of jazz among Qataris, many of whom have never encountered it, is going to pose a challenge. Before the opening of Jalc Doha – the first club of its kind in Qatar to feature international artists – the only other venue in the city playing live jazz nightly was the Oryx Rotana hotel.

For a genre which is fading in popularity in the western world, how will Marsalis persuade those who have never been exposed to it to become jazz lovers?

“One venue is all you need,” he says. “The fact there are a lot who don’t [listen to jazz] makes me more committed.

“When I was in my 20s, the audience was in its 70s and I was told they were going to die – that I would not have an audience in 20 years.

“Thirty years later, I still have an audience.”

Marsalis is not without his critics. He has been accused of refusing to evolve and focusing too singularly on a certain period of jazz.

And he has become notorious for objecting to rap and hip-hop, claiming they exploit young black people.

The musician is unrepentant: “I have strong feelings about anything I think is ignorant or reductive of people. Kids need education and instead [they] get exploited by companies who are selling music as a commodity.”

Talks are underway about opening other outposts of Jalc in the next five years in Malaysia, Argentina, Indonesia and China.

Marsalis says the venue’s presence in Qatar shows the nation is “progressive”, adding: “It is time for us to reap the benefits of all the groundwork and come together culturally in a meaningful way – not just by coming and playing gigs then going home but having education and some sort of meaningful interfacing because something will come of it later that we cannot even see now.”