Hollywood is built on illusion. So it's no surprise that much of CityWalk, the new non-gated entertainment attraction at Universal Studios Escape that is anchored by Hard Rock Live, is as artificial as the movies that financed the creation of the entire tourist-trampled theme park.
Pat O'Brien's, a replica of the French Quarter watering hole, isn't nearly as worn-down or hedonistic as the famous New Orleans night spot, and the Hurricanes are noticeably watered down. Bob Marley -- A Tribute to Freedom won't be mistaken for its namesake's home and garden, unless imagined with eyes closed and under the influence of Jamaica's most famous homegrown product, obviously frowned on in family-friendly land. And Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville is about as reminiscent of Key West as Epcot is of Europe. One imagines the same might be said about the Motown Cafe and the Latin Quarter, when they open.
It's a pleasure to report that CityJazz, a $7.5 million attraction housing the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame and a state-of-the-art concert space, by most measures is the real thing. The two-story, 10,500-square-foot building is a repository of more than 500 pieces of memorabilia representing ragtime, Dixieland, swing, bebop and modern jazz.
The walls of the airy, comfortable, upscale venue, with booths and tables designed to accommodate 350 people, are filled with oversized graphic murals, Herman Leonard black-and-white photographs, various Grammy and Down Beat awards and a variety of other items torn from the pages of jazz history and preserved behind glass.
Bud Powell's battered upright piano, with several keys permanently depressed, is one item likely to fascinate jazz fans. So, too, will Monk's checkered vest and hat; a 1921 document granting Jelly Roll Morton admission to Mexico; Lionel Hampton's vibraphone mallets; Ella Fitzgerald's long black gloves and glasses; and a weekly paysheet, from 1948, for the Woody Herman band, detailing a salary of $140 for Stan Getz. Behind the long, wood-topped bar at the rear of the hall are a row of horns belonging to Clifford Brown, Woody Shaw, Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Lee Morgan and other trumpeters, saxophonists and trombonists.
"This joint is classy," said drummer T.S. Monk, whose Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, named for his late father, the composer and pianist, was a partner in the creation of the club. "(It's) a shrine," Monk said. "We're going to try to ensure that this is the mecca of jazz that we planned it to be."
Theme parks, like movie studios, most often are driven by the market-tested bottom line, when it comes to entertaining the masses. Thus, it's refreshing to discover a facility that relies on style AND substance to celebrate vital art music. What's more, it's accessible, not stodgy. Jazz, despite its lack of commercial success, is a vital, living art, and it's presented that way here. Let's hope the concert programming follows suit. It will be an utter betrayal if CityJazz bookers ignore its unstated mission and give in to the popularity of "smooth jazz" pap.
Down Beat magazine, the jazz bible born 65 years ago in Chicago, for a long while had sought a permanent home for a presentation linked to its Hall of Fame, a roster of about 90 jazz greats as selected annually since 1952. "We were approached by Universal Studios," said Kevin Maher, Down Beat publisher, on hand recently to examine the club in person. "They didn't know anything about jazz."
New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Kansas City (home of a group that has unsuccessfully attempted to put a jazz hall of fame in Florida) might make more obvious locations for a museum celebrating the work of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Charlie Parker, among others. But opportunity knocked at Universal, where as many as five million visitors are expected to visit the venue every year. CityJazz also will be utilized for educational seminars and workshops for high-school and college students. "It might seem an odd match at first," said Ed Enright, editor of Down Beat. "Why Florida? Why a theme park? But you have to consider the extremely high traffic. You're guaranteed to have customers here. It's a port of entry for a lot of people."
CityJazz celebrated its grand opening in early February with the help of artists whose presence offered implied blessings. Trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, drummer Elvin Jones, clarinetist Artie Shaw, and pianists Horace Silver and Cecil Taylor, five of only 14 living members of the venerable jazz magazine's Hall of Fame, crowded on stage during a brief opening ceremony.
The Rippingtons, oddly enough, were chosen to christen the stage. The band, who later played a free show nearby on the CityWalk property, turned in a routine show marked by tepid jazz-rock and funk, cranked up loud. Roy Hargrove, the acclaimed young post-bop trumpeter, next led his sextet -- with alto-saxophone firebrand Sherman Irby and pianist Larry Willis -- through a subtly shaded set more in keeping with the spirit of the place. Ferguson joined the band for a funny, old-fashioned cutting contest on a blues tune, and Hargrove pulled out his flugelhorn for a gorgeous reading of the standard "Never Let Me Go."
Hall of Famers, four of whom walked through the facility during the afternoon prior to the grand opening, were mostly enthusiastic about what they saw. "It (the Hall of Fame) is in a beautiful place," said Silver, 70. "Thank God we have it." Noted the reticent Taylor, who turns 70 in March: "I like the ambience. The sound should be wonderful. It should have happened many years ago."
Shaw, 88, typically irreverent, initially offered praise: "It's a hell of a room." Later, he flew another view. "I don't know how you can put jazz into a museum," he said. "Jazz is music. It's sound. It's not to be looked at. So if people want to look at the memorabilia and pictures, that's up to them. It doesn't interest me particularly."