NEW YORK - When tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman launched his new double-CD "Spirit of the Moment," he boldly went where no jazz musician had gone before - into the glitzy fashion world.
At New York's Fashion Cafe, supermodel Elle MacPherson was on hand to accept Redman's horn and his stylish Donna Karan suit for the cafe's permanent display. At one point, MacPherson turned to Redman and cooed, "What do jazz and fashion have in common? Don't you think it's sex?"
MacPherson may be on to something.
Suddenly, jazz is once again hip, cool, fashionable, even sexy - rejuvenated by a generation of twenty-something musicians. With fashion tie-ins and hip coffee blends and a high-profile movie release, the image of these young guns in the jazz world seems to be taking on the patina of high-gloss celebrity.
"It was a trip," Redman said of the Fashion Cafe event. "Maybe as close as jazz gets to the pop world."
Redman, 27, became the first jazz musician to be sponsored by a fashion company when Donna Karan's DKNY Men's division outfitted members of his quartet for their fall tour. Karan's people were savvy to attach themselves to Redman, whose self-titled debut album sold more than 100,000 copies, phenomenal for a jazz artist.
Starbucks Coffee introduced its Blue Note Blend along with a complimentary CD of jazz classics from the Blue Note label. And rival Timothy's has its own CD with jazz from RCA Records and affiliated labels.
This summer, Redman and other young jazz stars will be featured in Robert Altman's new film "Kansas City," a paean to the wide-open Depression-era city of the director's youth. The story line is counterpointed by a nonstop jam session featuring Redman as Lester "Pres" Young, trumpeter Nicholas Payton as "Hot Lips" Page, pianist Cyrus Chestnut playing Count Basie and bassist Christian McBride as Walter Page, among others.
Redman, now considered the crown prince of the tenor saxophone, graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, and was accepted at Yale Law School. But he took a year off, blew the jurors away at the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and decided to play bars rather than pass the bar.
As the son of tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, a protege of free jazz-pioneer Ornette Coleman, jazz might be in his blood.
"One of the main differences between my generation of jazz musicians and my father's generation is that jazz today has made more inroads into the commercial mainstream," Redman says.
If acoustic jazz is enjoying a renaissance today, much of the credit goes to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who became a huge success both commercially and musically in the early '80s.
"When I was in high school in Philadelphia, Wynton was everybody's mentor," says the 24-year-old bass virtuoso McBride, who has appeared on more than 100 recordings, two as a leader. "We all knew about Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, but we only knew them on the legend level. Wynton was someone who was right there ... always reaching out to youngsters."
"I don't look at it really as a responsibility. It just seems like a natural thing to do," the 34-year-old Marsalis says of his efforts to encourage young musicians. "They play because they want to play. They're playing against tremendous odds."
Marsalis has a reputation as a jazz purist, opposed to diluting the music with non-jazz influences. But many of the young musicians are stepping out of their mentor's shadow and discovering their own voices, reflecting their diverse roots.
On his new album, "Gumbo Nouveau" (Verve), the 21-year-old Payton updates from a modern jazz perspective traditional New Orleans tunes, such as "St. James Infirmary," he played as a child accompanying his musician father on gigs with marching brass bands in the Big Easy.
"I didn't want to do an album where it was just some rehashing of the older music," Payton says. "The music is classic, but I think the album is forward looking."
The 33-year-old Chestnut, whose piano playing has a bouncy gospel feel, grew up playing music in church in his hometown Baltimore. His new album, "Earth Stories" (Atlantic), closes with a traditional hymn, "In the Garden."
McBride's roots are more secular - his father played bass in R&B bands. The title tune of his debut album, "Gettin' To It" (Verve), pays tribute to his biggest influence, James Brown.
What these young musicians share is a healthy respect for the jazz tradition and the openness to fuse it with their own experiences. And their approach is anything but academic.
"I think jazz is a music that does take great intelligence to play," Redman says. "But for me, ultimately, what jazz is about is speaking from the heart and from the soul."
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