In this interview, we talked with Jason Olaine, Vice President of Programming at Jazz at Lincoln Center. With a rich background in music industry, Olaine oversees the programming for the institution’s performance spaces, including the Rose Theater, Appel Room, and Dizzy’s Club.
He is responsible for selecting artists for the lineup, and collaborating with performers to create unique and meaningful experiences for audiences. Olaine discusses the challenges of promoting jazz, his criteria for selecting artists, and the importance of artists collaborating with promoters on marketing and content.
The interview delves into how the season theme guides the programming and how criteria are used to select the artists. Olaine also talks about the main obstacles when promoting jazz and how artists can collaborate better with promoters in terms of marketing and content.
Lastly, he shares his insight on the skills that jazz musicians should have from the business world to build their career.
What are the very first steps in building a new edition of a jazz programme?
Jazz at Lincoln Center is a non-profit jazz institution in New York City that is comprised of three performance spaces: Rose Theater (capacity 1200), the Appel Room (500) and Dizzy’s Club (120). Our season runs from late September through early June, with Dizzy’s Club active 7 nights/week, for 51 weeks.
We (our programming team, led by our Artistic and Managing Director, Wynton Marsalis) come up with a season theme, and season themes for the next 2-5 years. These can – and do – change but for the most part, we know our theme well in advance.
We have a resident jazz orchestra of 15 members (a big band) called the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), that perform approximately 10 programs a year in Rose Theater, and spend another 15-18 weeks touring the U.S. and internationally.
Our season themes – such as “Jazz: The International Language” (2022-23) – serves as a guide for the majority of our season programming, including that of the JLCO.
For instance, we commissioned the Iraqi master oud player/composer Naseer Shamma to perform with us and write music that members of our orchestra then arranged for big band.
We rehearsed in New York for three days, performed two concerts, then went on tour together in the U.S. for two weeks. It was a meaningful and soulful three weeks, instigated and driven by our theme of jazz being a global bridge between cultures and people, beyond politics.
Sometimes new collaborations are inspired by our theme, such as a first-ever meeting of Brazilian bandolin-player/composer, Hamilton de Hollanda, and South African pianist/composer Nduduzo Makhatini, who performed in the Appel Room for 4 shows, with special guests Richard Bona and Somi.
Their collaboration was partially inspired by our theme and Wynton introduced them to each other. Not every concert will necessarily be tied to the season theme but it’s a starting point as we develop our season.
What are your criterias while you were selecting the programming for Lincoln Center?
Sometimes we have a specific artist in mind that we want to work with – some come back every year, such as Dianne Reeves for Valentine’s weekend. We believe in fostering the growth of younger artists so we always have a space for them, be it as special guests with our orchestra, or in a curated ensemble or as bandleaders.
The artists in our season share a common trait – they are exceptional – as leaders, composers, arrangers, soloists, visionaries, or sidemen(women).
Once you’ve booked your headline artists, what sort of things do you look for in the artists that will fill the smaller slots?
When I booked the Newport Jazz Festival, this question would be more relevant, as at JALC all of the artists are ‘headline’ artists, as we are not a festival with one big stage and smaller stages to fill.
But in a basic sense, bigger names that can sell higher priced tickets will likely perform in Rose Theater, the next level artists will play in the Appel Room, and more developing artists in the club.
That’s not always the case as we have plenty of bigger names and important, curated collaborations perform in the club, such as the recent group we put together for 5 nights with Gonzalo Rubalcaba-Chris Potter-Larry Grenadier-Eric Harland. That band could have played either Rose Theater or the Appel Room. The timing of it happened to coincide with availability in the club so that’s where they performed.
What are your main obstacles when promoting Jazz?
There are plenty of amazing artists – established and developing – so it’s not about the quality or quantity or diversity of talent. The challenge is to consistently sell tickets to audiences that have a wealth of entertainment options at their fingertips.
How do you price your tickets so you don’t only appeal to wealthy patrons but have inexpensive seats. So it’s about fundraising and sponsorship as well; those two partners help any promoter to survive.
How can artists collaborate better with promoters in terms of marketing & content?
Chances are artists know who their fans are and have access to them. Presenters should be able to provide assets to artists to promote their gig, and artists should help promoters spread the word to broader/new audiences that are not already fans of the artist.
Part of a presenter’s job is to help their audiences find new artists – to act as a tastemaker to help them discover new music. Artists need to provide promoters with compelling, engaging content to help them get press and attention.
What skills have you learnt from the business world that are applicable to jazz musicians today?
Jazz musicians should realize that you get out what you put in, from a business, marketing and publicity standpoint. The artists have put in countless hours honing their craft, but they need to spend energy on these other aspects of the business to build a career.
Basic principles apply as well: Supply and Demand. In order to make yourself in demand in a market, you may need to stay out of that market. The more you play in town (more supply) the less people will be inclined to go to one of those gigs (less demand). If there is scarcity, there’s more demand. So, sometimes it’s better to turn down work in order to get better work.
Do you consider a gig at the Winter Jazz Festival as a career booster in a jazz band’s life?
Yes. It may not pay much in terms of an artist fee, but you’re (potentially) able to get exposure, and you never know who may be watching and listening that could turn out to be an ally down the road.
How has the New York Jazz scene changed over time, in your opinion?
The best jazz musicians come to New York City and it has the most jazz clubs than anywhere else. In that respect, the scene hasn’t changed that much over time. There are likely more incredibly talented musicians now than any time in the past.
How would you advise other jazz musicians who are currently managing most of their career alone?
All musicians must manage their careers alone, at least to start out, and likely, do so forever. The more you can do on your own, the more you can grow your career, book the gigs and set up tours, raise money through grants, make strategic choices, know how to hustle and deliver on your promises, the more you’ll be able to gauge whether your new manager is doing a good job. You’ll have already done it.
About Jason Olaine
Jason Olaine is Vice President of Programming for Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) where he manages the institution’s season artistic concepts and concert performances in all major rooms at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, including Rose Theater (1200 capacity), The Appel Room (500 cap.) and Dizzy’s Club (120 cap.) as well as Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai (130 cap.), the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival, and the Caribbean Music Festival, reporting directly to Wynton Marsalis.
He also oversees the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s domestic and international touring strategy, having taken the 15-person orchestra’s booking in-house and expanded its residencies around the world.
He has more than 25 years of experience in jazz club and festival programming, record label and artist management, and is a GRAMMY® -winning record producer (“Directions in Music”) with more than 25 albums to his credit, from Roy Hargrove, Michael Brecker and Herbie Hancock to Joey Alexander, Elio Villafranca to the Verve Remixed series and Chris Potter.
From 2008-12, he served as Artistic Director at Newport Jazz Festival, JVC Jazz Festivals for George Wein, and Yoshi’s in San Francisco (2009-11) and Oakland (1993-99). From 2006-10, Mr. Olaine was General Manager of Monterey Jazz Festival Records and oversaw digitization and monetization of the storied festival’s 50-year archive, including producing first-ever releases by Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Shirley Horn, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk, Tito Puente and many more.