This Weekend, New York Jazzharmonic Debuts a New Big Band at Symphony Space

"I love jazz because it calms and engages me at the same time, stirring the thoughts of my quieted mind to new heights. I love jazz because it used to keep me company on Tuesday and Thursday nights driving home from soccer practice. I love jazz because it bottles a feeling and offers it to me free of charge. Jazz invites me to participate, and I love that," 22-year-old Noah Schoen told me.

Jazz is making a comeback in New York City. Hipsters tip-tap their toes at joints like the Fat Cat and Iridium, taking in their grandparents' tunes. Nostalgia trends these days, and there's nothing like a wailing saxophone to put you in the mood.

If youngsters listen to Duke Ellington, it's likely some of them play him, too. In fact, students train every day for the rare opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall or Jazz at Lincoln Center. They hide in practice rooms with their drum set, piano, or bass, pushing their limits on the off chance that they'll prove one of the greats. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against them, as jazz lacks the organizational stability of other musical genres in the United States.

"It is ironic that here in America we are very good at creating these kinds of institutions that present European art at a high level, whereas our American art music, jazz, is left to fend for itself," Ron Wasserman said.

Wasserman plays bass for the New York City Ballet orchestra, where he's strummed over 900 "Nutcracker" suites. He studied at Juilliard, but while most of his career has been devoted to the likes of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, he has a soft spot for Scott Joplin and Benny Goodman. This year, he founded the New York Jazzharmonic, a platform for up-and-coming musicians to grab a professional gig and play new commissions for a live audience. He's recruited a band of 17, some of whom are fresh out of conservatory and craving the immediacy of performance. Meanwhile, a handful of composers are pumping out new scores -- everything from classical to Brazilian to Argentinian styles. Sure, it's great to shimmy to "Sing, Sing, Sing," but why not try something different for a group of 21st-century artists?

"It's almost like a repertory band, but all of the repertoire is being newly written for us," alto saxophonist and clarinetist Jay Rattman explained. "Some of the music the band plays is very traditional, and some is more experimental, but hopefully the ensemble's identity comes through in every piece."

For its inaugural year, the New York Jazzharmonic will host four concerts at Symphony Space's Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater, with its dark violet décor. Booming numbers by Jim McNeely, JP Jofre, and Rufus Reid (to name a few) will work their way through the 150-seat venue as listeners fight the urge to jump up and sway to an ever-changing beat.

"Because of the variety in the music we play, while it is certainly possible for someone in the audience to like everything on the program, it is nearly impossible for someone in the audience to like nothing," Rattman said.

The Jazzharmonic's first show on November 1 presents a world premiere of Wasserman's "The Four Seasons of New York Jazz." Summer happens in Harlem, autumn on 52nd, and winter in Greenwich Village. Spring meanders through a mish mosh of every avenue and cross street. Based on Vivaldi, the evening-length concerto runs two hours.

"Ron Wasserman, being an established master of his instrument, exposes another side to him that is a wholly personal, unique, and original musical statement on this city's vibrant music scene," bassist Eddy Khaimovich said. "This could only happen in this city -- that an ace bassist, who leads the City Ballet Orchestra and has played with New York Philharmonic for many years, has a whole jazz side to him. And not only through bass, but as an accomplished and ultimately gifted composer with a lot to share with us."

This weekend, Galician bagpiper Cristina Pato joins the troupe; other guest artists include oboist Randall Wolfgang in January and violinist Lara St. John in March.

"Rooted in tradition, yet adventurous, it'll be an honor and a pleasure for me to play with them next spring," St. John said. "For a violinist to play with a great big band is already quite awesome. We don't have that sort of situation generally. So this is very special. I've been a big band and brass band fan my whole life, since I was a wee person. And so that's why it'll be a pleasure, because it's a lifelong dream."

As Wasserman tries to establish a financially stable big band for aspiring jazz musicians, he realizes it might not catch on. In Manhattan, every artist itches to get noticed. Even Wasserman -- who stops New York City Ballet Artistic Director Peter Martins on the sidewalk to chat and seems to know nearly everyone at Lincoln Center -- swims in new territory as he forms his first nonprofit. He's green. Some of his band is green. As Kermit the Frog says, it's not easy being green, but sometimes that's a good thing. A century ago, jazz was green. That's what this city and its country are supposed to be -- a land of innovation. And as Wasserman jams with his friends, he preserves American music one song at a time.

"Only in New York!" Khaimovich shot off, before presumably wandering back to his instrument.