Many of the performing-arts organizations based in New York City’s philanthropically supported Lincoln Center perform outside the metropolitan area during the summer. To help fill the gap in concerts, Lincoln Center managers launched a new program in 1987 to stage a series of jazz performances at the Center in the warm-weather months. By 1991, Jazz at Lincoln Center had become an official department devoted to year-round support and performance of America’s original music. Under the direction of Wynton Marsalis, a resident orchestra was assembled and sent on regular national tours. The program received generous support from a range of donors, foundations, and companies, including a $20 million gift from investor Robert Appel in 2014.
Donor support also allowed numerous jazz-education initiatives to be created. These include not only instruction for local school children, but also a remarkable national festival that supports jazz in high school bands around America. The “Essentially Ellington” program sends full sets of classic jazz music, specially selected for each year, to any interested high-school music program in the U.S. Additional training materials, recordings, workshops, and on-site coaching are also offered to teachers and students who delve into the music. Up to a dozen regional festivals are held around the country, giving local high-school ensembles access to expert critiques and instruction. Toward the end of the year, jazz bands that have prepared that year’s selected songs for concert are invited to send recordings to the “Essentially Ellington” staff, and the top entrants are invited to Lincoln Center. There they get additional workshops and mentoring from jazz masters, and then play in a climactic concert, along with Wynton Marsalis. Competition winners and runners-up are honored. Repeated every year since 1996, the “Essentially Ellington” festival has engrained the great jazz standards and techniques in a whole new generation of American youngsters.