x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Wynton Marsalis bringing jazz centre to Qatar

The Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter is on a mission to bring his music to young ears in Doha through an outpost of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

U.S. musician Wynton Marsalis. AP Photo / Javier Galeano
U.S. musician Wynton Marsalis. AP Photo / Javier Galeano

It has been a long time since Wynton Marsalis, the charismatic Grammy Award-winning jazz maestro, last played to a handful of listeners.

His following here in Doha is not far removed from that, although the wide-eyed rapture of his young proteges in Qatar Music Academy's brightly-lit auditorium is new. Indeed, neither the children - all of whom are under 10 years old - nor most of their parents, were born when Marsalis, now 50, first picked up a trumpet.

But Marsalis hopes to sow the seeds for Qatar to produce its own crop of world-class musicians when he launches Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), at the newly opened St Regis Hotel in Doha in early June.

"Jazz," says Marsalis, "is a profound and a great music and produced some of the greatest artists in history. It is going to be the same here in Doha as it was for all the people who first discovered it."

JALC Doha will operate as a year-round venue, and will import top-quality musicians from around the world. But much more than that, it hopes to incorporate the ethos of the original JALC in New York - that of inspiring a love of jazz in those who have never come across it.

At its home in Columbus Circle overlooking Central Park, the not-for-profit JALC - which Marsalis co-founded 25 years ago - stages nearly 3,000 performances and educational events every year. His Jazz for Young People series drew thousands of students to his venue and he regularly visits schools to encourage pupils to experiment further.

In a nation that first gave birth to jazz more than a century ago, Marsalis is considered a national treasure.

Indeed, the roots of early jazz were shaped in New Orleans, the city of his birth, which produced some of the jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton is still synonymous with the musical form today.

Its heritage and musical influences are a world away from Qatar, but is it really possible to foster a love of jazz in a society where it is still relatively novel for it to be appreciated?

It is uncharted territory, admits JALC's executive director Adrian Ellis, but he is convinced there is an audience: "We have a very simple mission, which is to develop and inspire audiences for jazz," he says. "Clearly, we hope it is a success financially, but for us it is a success if great music is being recognised and we build new audiences.

"I believe there is a jazz audience in Doha... I think the permanent, continuous presence is what will make this a success; we are looking to be part of Qatari culture. This is not a fly-by-night thing, we are here to stay."

The idea was first hatched more than a year ago together with Omar Alfardan, the Qatari president of Resort Development Company, which holds the franchise for St Regis Doha.

A jazz enthusiast, his father brought him up listening to Louis Armstrong. Alfardan invited Marsalis to Doha as "part of a long-cherished dream to bring some of the best in world culture to Qatar".

Alfardan maintains this is not a vanity exercise but part of a movement to create an appreciation of the arts.

"It will be a pre-eminent centre for jazz in the Middle East," he says, "and an attraction for anyone who is passionate about this unique art form. It is my wish that we will also be able to inspire people in Qatar to understand jazz and that one day, a young person from this nation will share the stage with our guest of honour."

Ellis says JALC's educational approach will help nurture a love of jazz without being didactic: "We will not turn our jazz club into a seminar but be very accessible and just tell enough about the music as it is played to make sure people see connections, have some idea what is going on and understand the interplay between the band and the history of the music."

JALC Doha is the first of five international outposts. Others will follow in the next five years in Kuala Lumpur, Buenos Aires and two in China.

Finance is, of course, an issue. Of the US$40 million (Dh147m) it takes to run JALC New York annually, two-thirds comes from ticket sales and promotions and sponsorship makes up the rest, with the United States government contributing just $250,000 to the venture.

But Ellis says funds are not the sole driving force behind expanding: "It gives us an opportunity to reach new audiences and hopefully there will be a surplus [of funds] generated back to help all our educational activities. What it gives Doha is a wonderful opportunity to have the highest-quality jazz with a great brand uniquely associated with it."

The JALC team had an opportunity to test the water with a concert in Muscat's newly opened Royal Opera House last November. Strains of haunting, soulful melodies from the Lincoln Center Orchestra filled the ornate mahogany chamber and wafted up to the arabesque domed roof; the concert was sold out weeks in advance.

"It was a very mixed and extremely enthusiastic audience," says Ellis. "That gave me a great deal of optimism that the Gulf is a rich potential territory with sophisticated music."

Marsalis, who was the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his oratorio Blood on the Fields in 1997, is as comfortable in front of a class of schoolchildren as he is on stage.

In Doha, he has already visited two schools and calls in on Qatar Music Academy, which opened in January 2011 to offer free music lessons to Qataris and heavily subsidised tuition to expatriates.

Anne-Marie Pignéguy, the academy's head of western music, says: "We are hoping in 20 years' time there will be Qataris becoming professional musicians ... It is not about importing culture but about education."

The school offers after-school lessons to pupils ranging from five to 17 years old. Of the 520 students, only 68 are Qatari - two-thirds of them girls.

Pignéguy says persuading Qatari parents of the value of music tuition is still a challenge: "A lot of the population still views it as haram. It is still a new development to have women playing. That is one of our challenges here. We have a strong Arab team of staff who go into schools to explain music is part of the cultural heritage."

Samer Goussou, 42, a Jordanian engineer, thinks learning to play an instrument will help his 13-year-old daughter Andrina to develop socially and professionally.

"Before, the only respectable careers were to become a doctor or lawyer but perhaps music will guarantee her a good future," he says.

Venezuelan Fabiola Vanrell, 45, agrees: "These are skills which are good for life."

But Qatari Hamad Al Sattar, 34, is struggling to see the long-term benefits for his son Majed, eight, and daughter Zainab, nine.

"I would perhaps let them become classical singers but not pop singers," he says.

Marsalis says jazz has the power to transform the world: "That we are here says this country is progressive ... [now] it is time for us to come together culturally in a meaningful way."

Tahira Yaqoob is a Dubai-based freelance writer who contributes to the Daily Mail, The Independent, the Sunday Telegraph and The National.