Dedicated to preserving America's jazz heritage, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is a key component of New York City's Jazz at Lincoln Center program, serving as the highly versatile house band for a wide variety of concert events. The 15-piece orchestra maintains a heavy touring schedule, devoting around six months annually to appearances around the U.S. and at prominent international venues. Additionally, the LJCO participates in many Jazz at Lincoln Center educational events (for both advanced and younger students), and records occasionally, both as their own entity and as a backing group for artistic director Wynton Marsalis.
The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra was founded in 1988 and in its early years was often conducted by David Berger. Marsalis was hired as the group's artistic director in 1991 and under his influence the group's historical bent blossomed, paying particular attention to the Duke Ellington oeuvre. Indeed, their annual Ellington concerts have become cultural staples for many New Yorkers, and the group's first recording — made under Berger's direction — was 1992's Portraits of Ellington. Still, the LJCO doesn't treat jazz as a museum exhibit; Jazz at Lincoln Center has commissioned a number of new, in-the-tradition works specifically for the group. Over the course of the '90s, the LJCO augmented their regular concert, touring, and educational activities with international television appearances and special collaborative performances with various symphony orchestras. In the late '90s, the group began to appear more frequently on record as Marsalis began using them for ambitiously expansive projects such as 1997's Jump Start and Jazz and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields, and 1999's Sweet Release and Ghost Story and Big Train. Also in 1999, the LJCO released another Ellington-oriented album, Live in Swing City: Swingin' With the Duke.