- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

Former Washingtonian Derek Gordon took a flying leap upward and northward this year. Taking off from his job as Kennedy Center’s senior vice president in charge of its education department, he landed in New York as executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, an off-campus constituent of that city’s main performing arts center complex.

It wasn’t exactly a blind leap. Mr. Gordon, who turned 50 this week, already had close ties with many in the music world and kept an apartment in Manhattan throughout much of his 12-year Washington stay.

In making the job switch last June, he went from overseeing a full-time staff of 40 with an annual budget of $15 million dealing mainly with programming and outreach to overseeing a $128 million facility with an annual budget of $27 million to $28 million and 130 personnel. He manages just about everything that happens at the much-publicized not-for-profit jazz emporium closely identified with its founder, trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, who is JALC’s artistic director.

Come January, Mr. Gordon’s JALC title is expected to change to that of president and chief executive officer — he mentions this in a characteristically low-key way, but it’s unlikely his 11-hour-a-day schedule will be much different.

This weekend, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, accompanied by the Boys Choir of Harlem, is in Washington to perform the world premiere of Mr. Marsalis’ “Suite for Human Nature” at the historic Lincoln Theatre. Described as an allegory for young people, the piece, with a libretto by Diane Charlotte Lampert, is the first jazz work ever commissioned by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

Mr. Gordon, a soft-spoken, self-effacing Baton Rouge, La., native, once said his favorite form of musical expression was opera. A graduate of Louisiana State University, he has enjoyed a long career in arts management, working for arts councils at both local and state levels in Louisiana, Texas and Pennsylvania. He knows all forms of music well and helped pay his way through high school and college playing and singing in lounges and coffeehouses.

Mr. Marsalis, 43, also a native Louisianan, and Mr. Gordon knew one another previously but not well. “He was always presented by WPAS, and he also appeared on Billy Taylor’s radio show from Kennedy Center,” Mr. Gordon recalls. “We knew what each other was doing, but it wasn’t until JALC was seeking a new executive director that I got a call from Wynton and we got together and chatted.”

The two men see each other every day that Mr. Marsalis is in town. “I’m part of his cell phone, believe me,” Mr. Gordon says in an interview in his bare-bones office, adorned with old Kennedy Center posters, down the street from the JALC facility at Broadway and 60th Street facing Columbus Circle.

From there, he directs the myriad activities — staff, programs and services — involved in Mr. Marsalis’ offspring: a 100,000-square-foot, three-venue complex known as the Frederick P. Rose Hall that opened Oct. 18 — Mr. Marsalis’ birthday. Included are two performance spaces open to other art groups, plus a jazz club called Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, run by JALC “365 nights a year” and named for the late trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

As a new performing arts facility for New York, JALC is an extension of the Lincoln Center campus, Mr. Gordon explains, but not its property. JALC receives an appropriation from the center, but the amount is not a major percentage of his budget.

He is optimism incarnate in proclaiming the specialness of the facility and his good fortune of the moment. “Gosh, it is an embarrassment of riches being here in Manhattan, an abundance of quality events,” he gushes, naming attendance at seasonal opening-night performances of both the New York Philharmonic and the New York City Opera.

“We have the best of both worlds because as part of Lincoln Center, we therefore welcome all traditional Lincoln Center audiences, and at the same time, we are a little apart and different, perhaps slightly more engaging to new audiences,” Mr. Gordon says. “I like to think anything we do here will challenge other communities — be that D.C. or other places — to do more with jazz and give jazz the sort of recognition and status it deserves as a major American art form.”

In addition to the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, JALC has a second touring group called the Afro Latin Orchestra with Arturo Farrell and a third called Jazz at Lincoln Center Presents.

Programming at the complex to date has been notably eclectic: cross-disciplinary engagements between dancers and musicians; avant-garde Brazilian percussion; commissions and outlets for both younger and established artists; an education component; late-night ad-hoc jam sessions. Tickets cost $10 to $150.

Mr. Gordon takes issue with critics who have raised questions about JALC being too much an extension of Mr. Marsalis’ personality. “There is a window of opportunity … [and] someone has to step into it,” he says. “Wynton Marsalis has stepped through that window for jazz in much the way Louis Armstrong for a long time was a sort of ambassador of the music. Or Duke Ellington. They don’t come along every day.”

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