Jazz is the one area of American social life that embraced freedom, equality and excellence through diversity and integration throughout the 20th century.
Thanks to the pioneering efforts of so many people (on the stage and in the audience or in the dance floor) culminating in the triumphs of Benny Goodman with the assistance of Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, and Lionel Hampton, the world of Jazz provided the first example of open social integration in our country. Goodman courageously defeated racist traditions by providing opportunities that led to acceptance and integration in American public life ELEVEN YEARS before baseball.
If my memory serves me, one of his tuxedos auctioned in 2005 for only $800 (give or take a few hundred) a few years ago. I was suprised by the lack of recognition of his importance to our culture.
That a simple observation on the unusually robust attendance of black people in a given audience could provoke so much controversy and diversity of passionate feelings lets me know that this issue and all of us are still very much alive. My father was always against all forms of segregation and hated any type of reducing people to a given tribe or physical characteristic. In no way did my comment imply any dissatisfaction with the audience we do have or attack black folks or anyone for not supporting this music. I am always grateful to play for WHOEVER WANTS TO LISTEN. We all are. Every night.
Since I began playing Jazz music publicly, I have been asked many of the same questions over and over by the boldest members of a given audience such as:
“Can you play something with a singer?”
“Can you play something we know, like on the radio?”
“Can you play something we can dance to like on the radio?”
“Can you play a really short fast one?”
“Can you play something really slow and soft?”
“Can you play something we can talk over?”
There has been a tendency, in our industry and culture, to view Jazz musicians as traveling circus performers who are required to have a new trick every time you see them. As high school students we were given to understand that you have to play something new like Charlie Parker to be any good. This all-consuming and incessant search for the exotic permeated every discussion on Jazz. It defined whether you were valued or dismissed. And many musicians fell prey to the pressure by trying to create or incorporate some new fad into their music every few years, while others sustained a dedication to steady development with a focus on quality and creativity.
I remember reading an interview Leonard Feather did with Monk that demonstrated this insatiable hunger for the next thing before the last thing had been tasted let alone digested. As the interview went on Mr. Feather arrived at and asked the inevitable question “What about something new?” And in classic Monk style he replied “Let somebody else create something new.”
All through the 1980s, I was hell-bent on trying to create new things and demonstrate them on recordings: a new modern collective horn improvisation with my brother Branford on “Hesitation”, new types of group interactions based on quick cues and open harmony on “Knozz Moe King”, contemporary ways to play traditional harmonies while playing in superimposed meters on “April in Paris”, playing all types of complex rhythms while keeping strict harmonic forms with Marcus Roberts and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts on “Live at Blues Alley” and new ways of interpreting the sweep of the music from the New Orleans funeral to a 6/4 groove, with modulations before each solo, and a shifting improvised groove on each improvisation on “The Majesty of the Blues” with Herlin and Reginald Veal.
In the 1990s I focused on creating a new way of developing long-form composition for small group, utilizing short themes and a variety of emotions related to rhythmic setting on “Blue Interlude”, a whole new concept of form and motivic development across three long movements on “Citi-Movement”, a new concept of long-form related to the structure of a Mass with “In This House” and even a new way of interpreting the history, form and 10-piece orchestration on “Six Syncopated Movements”. In 1997, we performed “Blood on the Fields” and in 1999 put out 13 single CDs and a 7-CD box set of music of live music from the Village Vanguard. Into the 2000s we released “All Rise” that showcased new ways to bring a symphonic orchestra and jazz band together. We presented it to enthusiastic audiences all over the world and sold about 57 CDs to family and friends.
I won’t tell you about all the new music and arrangements that come out of the orchestra now from Ted and Victor’s recent commissions, to Sherman’s “Inferno” and Chris’ “God’s Trombones”, to everything Vincent Gardner touches, and on and on throughout the orchestra.
Over the years and through all that music, Still…..“Can you play something really, really loud and energetic, like with real electricity and a lot of anger?” “Can you play without all of those horns?”
“Can you play something new, I mean new, new, new?”
This past weekend the JLCO played a concert that showcased a small sampling of Ellington’s most avant garde compositions. Just before Saturday night’s concert, Chris Christian, a very intelligent and engaged 26-year old asked me, “What is the next new thing in Jazz?” Before answering, I reflected on the fact that very few people had ever heard any of this great Ellington music we were about to play, and that even though it was about 60 years old, it was still as fresh and modern as tomorrow. I replied, “The next new thing will be that people will listen to it.”
Whenever we played at UC Berkeley, California, we would always stay at the Claremont Hotel. It is a magnificent 300 room hotel and spa set up on a hill with landscaped gardens and tennis courts. We didn’t want to know about any tennis however; it was always the basketball courts at the University or somewhere in Oakland.
The Claremont is turn of the century elegant, so you always felt uncomfortable walking through the lobby all funky after playing ball for a few hours. But since it was Berkeley, you could just keep it moving and no one even looked your way.
One afternoon, it had to be in 1992, we were rushing through the lobby late for sound check after playing (and arguing over every foul for too long) and we ran right into some type of very well dressed and festive wedding party. Trying to unobtrusively snake through the crowd, I ended up in front of Dave Brubeck. With his signature smile he says, “It’s Iola and my 50th anniversary, come in and meet everyone.”
“Not looking like this.”
“You look like yourself. How is your father?” (Musicians who play the same instrument always ask about each other).
“I’ll tell him you asked.” (My father always enjoyed hearing from the great musicians he loved, especially pianists).
The party was glowing with a deep rich feeling, the hum of an important familial event, and all kinds of musicians were swinging. Dave took me around to different friends and family and introduced me with his style of natural gracefulness and warmth. 40 minutes later, much richer in experience and really late for sound check, I thought, 50 years! When I congratulated Dave and Iola on that milestone she just smiled, but he said, “Passed in the blink of an eye, man. The blink of an eye.”
On this tour, we have played 19 concerts of various sizes and shapes; 104 different compositions by over 33 different composers. Finally, we get to play the new SFJazz Center, five concerts (Ellington, Basie, Mingus, Monk, Traditional New Orleans Music and Recent Arrangements and Compositions by our members) in four days.
It is a rare and welcome treat to sit down for such a long time, and we thank Dan Pritzker for sponsoring this residency. SFJazz were welcoming and gracious hosts. Every night was sold out with a very attentive and appreciative Bay Area audience.
As Jason Olaine and I held our own programming meeting at the SFJazz Center, we couldn’t help but be proud of Randall and the entire organization for what they have achieved. From the omnipresent Artistic Producer Lilly Schwarz (who threw a great party for us on Saturday) to Marketing Director Patricia Gessner, Development Director Barrett Shaver, Stage Manager Tony Wilson and Sound Engineer Masa Tutu, from Production Manager Greg Kuhn and Director of Production Cecilia Engelhart, to the backstage crew of Joshua Badura and Christian Vela Porque, they took complete and absolute care of us. Carlos Henriquez stayed on us to make a Saturday afternoon JALC/SFJazz softball game happen, and Jeff Umetsu made it all possible from the SFJazz side. It provided much needed camaraderie and warm fellowship. Even the great Bobby Hutcherson came out.
Friday afternoon, composer Jeremy Walker, his wife Marsha, Lilly and I were eating in the SFJazz cafe to the swinging sounds of Bobby Hutcherson, Lee Morgan and Stan Getz. The food was great and the environment soaked in swing. Because we all had struggled to celebrate this music and live in its spirit, the experience was transcendent.
Sunday afternoon most of our orchestra showed up an hour and a half early to further clarify our Mingus roadmaps (Ali had been there studying the scores for much longer). We went from room to room verifying cues with each other, trying to figure out how to do better job of playing Mingus’ music. Sherman and I laughed when we saw how many of us were early and Carlos said, “Cats have pride.”
The quantity, diversity and quality of the compositions and arrangements we played the last 4 days speak for themselves. Here’s a listing:
Thursday Night: Ellington
1)The Mooche (1928)
2) Old Man Blues (1930)
3) Concerto for Cootie (1940)
4) Shout ‘em Aunt Tillie (1930)
5) Bragging in Brass (1938)
6) Mood Indigo (1930)
7) Echoes of Harlem (1936)
8) Happy Go Lucky Local (1946)
9) Jam a Ditty (1946)
10) Ahmad (1966)
11) Lady of the Lavender Mist (1947)
12) Island Virgin (1965)
13 Paris Stairs (1961)
14) Portrait of Wellman Braud (1970)
15) Self Portrait of the Bean (1963)
16) Chinoiserie (1970)
17) Isfahan (1966) —Billy Strayhorn comp.
Friday Night: New Orleans Traditional
18) Lawd Lawd Lawd (1895)— Buddy Bolden
19) Smokehouse Blues (1926)— Charles Luke comp., Jelly Roll Morton arr.
20) Dead Man Blues (1926) — Jelly Roll
21) Snake Rag (1923)— Joe “King” Oliver
22) Petite Fleur (1952)— Sidney Bechet
23) Muskrat Ramble (1926)— Louis Armstrong/ Kid Ory
Saturday Afternoon: JLCO
24) Wingspan (1987)— Mulgrew Miller comp., arr. Chris Crenshaw (2014)
25) Insatiable Hunger from “Inferno” (2012)— Sherman Irby
26) LBJ (The American Promise) from the Presidential Suite (2014)— Ted Nash
27) Peace (1959)— Horace Silver comp., arr. David Berger (2007)
28) Down by the Bayou from “Crescent City” (2014)— Victor Goines
29) Buddy Bolden (1890s)— Buddy Bolden
Saturday Night: Basie
30) I Left My Baby (1938)
—Andy Gibson, Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing,
31) Tickle Toe (1940)— Lester Young
32) Blue and Sentimental (1938)— Count Basie
33) Jumping at the Woodside (1938)— Eddie Durham
34) I Left My Heart in San Francisco (1963)— arr. Billy Byers for Count Basie
35) Sleepwalkers Serenade (1958)— Jimmy Mundy
36) It’s Awfully Nice to be With You (1958)— Neal Hefti
37) Blues in Hoss’ Flat (1959)— Frank Foster
38) Sixteen Men Swinging—(1954) Ernie Wilkins
39) Wiggle Walk (1960)— Benny Carter
40) Goin’ to Chicago (1939)— Count Basie and Jimmie Rushing
41) Moten Swing (1932)— Bennie and Buster Moten, arr. Ernie Wilkins (1959)
42) Texas Shuffle (1938)—Edgar Battle and Herschel Evans
43) The Blue Room (1932)—arr. Eddie Durham
44) Sent for You Yesterday (1938)— Eddie Durham/Jimmy Rushing
Sunday Afternoon: Mingus
45) Dizzy Moods
46) Isabel’s Table Dance
47) Tijuana Gift Shop
48) Los Mariachis (The Street Musicians)
All compositions Charles Mingus (1957), arr. Ron Westray (2002)
49) Self Portrait in Three Colors (1959)— Mingus
50) Meditations on Integration (1964)— Mingus comp, arr. Ron Westray (2002)
51) Goodbye Porkpie Hat (1959)— Mingus comp., arr. Marsalis (2006)
52) Moanin’ (1960)—Mingus comp., arr. Cy Johnson (1993)
53) Tom Cat Blues (1924)— Jelly Roll Morton
Sunday Night: Thelonious Monk
54) We See (1954)— arr. Sherman Irby (2008)
55) Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues Are (1957)— arr. Walter Blanding (2008)
56) Four in One (1951)— arr. Chuck Israels
57) Ugly Beauty (1968)—arr. Marsalis (2008)
58) Bye-ya (1953)—arr. Carlos Henriquez (2008)
59) Light Blue (1958)—arr. Vincent Gardner (2008)
60) Epistrophy (1942)—arr. Chris Crenshaw (2008)
61) Blue Monk (1954)
It is now 4:15 on Monday morning. We are well into our 30 something hour drive to Iowa. Having passed through mountains, deserts and casinos, we now go down into the heartland. Somewhere in Utah we stop to get gas. Damn! It’s 16 degrees and falling. California is a sweet memory.
For about one and a half hours after the gig in San Diego on Saturday night, I stood on the sidewalk outside the backstage area with about sixty high school age students, their band directors and chaperones, signing autographs, taking pictures and fielding questions about everything from, “Should I whip my younger brother’s behind for x, y and z?” to “How many hours did you practice when you were my age?”
As the group wound down and I got into the car to leave, there were three sixteen year-old kids (they looked about that age) that asked for a picture. There was one who was very deeply engaged and he asked, “What does it take to be a really good musician?” I thought for a little while before answering, giving him the impression that I would provide some unknown and highly valuable key and said “You have to WANT to be.”
He searched my eyes for a second as if to say, “Man, are you messing with me?” Sensing his skepticism I said “No, lil’ brother. If you really want to be that good, you will figure out whatever you have to, to be what you want to be.” In the moment I tried to think of some analogy or story to help make the point more simply, but I couldn’t find a good one.
Little did I know that the next day as we pulled into the hotel in Northridge we would be greeted in the lobby by DJ Riley.
DJ is an intellectual of the first order. He is a connoisseur of culture, has been a good friend of JALC from the very beginning and is a purveyor of deep-rooted soul. He suffers from Morquio Syndrome, and has been in a wheelchair with very little limb movement since childhood. You wouldn’t know it by how much smack he talks, but I know it was a challenge for DJ to be here today. He lives in LA, and it takes a lot of planning for him to get around.
He is a broad and long-term thinker, who gives unerring and aggressively positive advice. Any opportunity to hang with him is to be cherished. So far, he has outlived his life expectancy by about 25 years.
I start out by saying to him, “Man, I wish you would have told me you were coming.” And he asks “Why? So you could convince me not to come?”
We talk about everything from the hood to Putin to education reform. He is a true blues man: “Yes, stuff is messed up out here but: Everything gon’ be alright this mornin’. Everything gon’ be alright.”
I’m reminded of a dance the LCJO played in the late 90’s out here in California. It was well attended and well under way, but still the people were just standing around being too shy to get out on the floor. Suddenly, DJ breaks out there scooting around with his electric wheelchair, doing his thing. It was the damnedest sight. Truly poetic. He actually got people out on the floor from a wheelchair.
After the gig as we all laughed and teased him about his dancing style, we asked him, “Why did you do it?” He said, “Man, I came here to dance. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I did. Y’all was swingin’. Herlin man! He was playing those drums.”
Yeah, DJ and I laughed thinking back on it. And I remembered that teenager from the night before who was looking for more out of my answer. I should have told him about DJ.
It’s now 4:00 pm and time for DJ to leave and for us to go to sound check. He only speaks in a whisper, so he signals for me to get close enough to hear. “When y’all come around Los Angeles, just assume I’m coming.”
That’s what I should have told the youngster.
On Sunday, we travelled a few hours from Grass Valley to Santa Rosa. This was the 5th straight gig, not necessarily difficult on paper, but when connected to 4 or 5 hour drives that become 7 due to the unforeseen, and you drive through lunch, and your room is not ready until whenever someone says, and the soundcheck is at 5, and you have 5 tunes to review, and…whew! The execution can be much rougher than the dream.
Yes, we played the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts. It’s always great to play here because the audience is enthusiastic and informed. I remember us, maybe ten years ago, playing Chico O’Farrill’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite here to people dancing on the balcony. And the hospitality and the meal are always first class. Once again, this venue did not disappoint.
We have been on tour for 11 days. In that time, we have played 8 concerts, 71 different compositions by 30 different composers from Traditional to Buddy Bolden, to Jelly Roll and King Oliver, to Basie and Lester Young to Ellington and Mary Lou Williams, to Ernie Wilkins and Neal Hefti, to Mingus and Coltrane, to Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Redd and Woody Shaw, to Rodgers and Hammerstein and Gordon Jenkins to Joe Raposo and Mulgrew Miller to Ted Nash and Victor Goines.
So, what do we have the day after our 5th gig? All Day Rehearsal. If ever there was a day to not rehearse, this was it. Monday. But cats had a surprise for me this day. Everyone was on time, ready to rehearse and be done. We prepared Mingus’ “Dizzy Moods,” “Ysabel’s Table Dance,” “Tijuana Gift Shop,” “Los Mariachis,” “Moanin,” “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” and a couple of his involved extended compositions, “Meditations on Integration,” and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Clown.” And if that wasn’t enough, we then prepared 3 of Thad Jones’ compositions including “Little Pixie,” Coltrane’s “Alabama” and Chris Crenshaw’s arrangement of Monk’s “Epistrophy.”
Everyone was serious and urgent. In rehearsal, the different sections are all working on the music all the time. Sometimes it seems like pandemonium, but when the sections come together and focus, it’s a thing of democratic beauty. All of that talent, intelligence and soul willfully lavished on the greatest jazz compositions with a singularity of purpose—-swinging.
Monday’s rehearsal reminded me of something that happened on the March 2010 tour featuring Ted Nash’s Portrait in Seven Shades. We were scheduled to play three consecutive nights in Dallas’ magnificent Meyerson Hall. Because we were playing Ted’s composition most nights, we had only rehearsed enough for two different nights of programming. Because soundcheck (where we go over music) preceded the first night’s concert and there was no need for further checks, we hadn’t prepared for that third concert. We had planned to just repeat the first night’s program, but, the day of that final concert, cats started calling me saying, “We can’t go out there like this. Let’s go over some music and play a different show.” THEY called the rehearsal.
We handled our business and were ready for the gig. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. They are for real and that’s what we are about. I am absolutely grateful for this glorious opportunity to play with them wherever and however we are in the world.
We are all trapped in the unresolved battles of our ancestors, limited by our inability to conceive beyond the boundaries of our culture and education. From primal,‘survival of the fittest’ instincts to the refined segregations developed by the most sophisticated amongst us, we have a deep tradition of degrading ‘other’ human beings in the frenzy to control resources, to amass wealth and to confer status through arbitrary social constructs.The repetition of these constructs across generations produces conventions and ‘isms’ that we confuse with reality. Of the many ‘isms’ that prevent us from realizing our true global identity, racism is one of the most irrational and deeply rooted.
The exploitation of serf, peon and slave labor has undergirded the economic success of civilizations since the beginning of commerce. In recent centuries, however, with Africans being exported throughout the New World as slaves, the historically unfair treatment of less fortunate people, regardless of color, gradually morphed into an international custom of social and cultural degradation of those with darker skin tones and more Negroid features.
In the Louisiana of my youth, this was a well-known refrain, “If you’re white, you’re alright. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re black, get back.” I knew this schoolyard saying to be much more than street corner foolishness, because we all lived it. But, I misperceived it to be a local problem, endemic to the American South. On a high school band trip to Mexico, however, I noticed great social and economic disparity by color. Upon moving to New York, I soon learned that a similar equation, though much more elegantly calibrated, was in place. A few years later, as a young man traveling around the world, I observed the same inequalities in Brazil, France, and England to name a few countries. Even in Japan, a good friend felt no shame in telling me that darker skin and Negroid features were not considered desirable or beautiful.
Being ignorant of world affairs at the time, I felt it was poetic irony to discover that even in South Africa, home of the mighty Zulu Nation, many Africans themselves were subject to and accepted the same irrational hatred for Negro physiology and culture. Painfully, I understood that the childish rhyme of my youth was an unacknowledged credo for much of the globe.
Though most conflict in our world is over the ownership of natural and man-made assets, the most heated and heartfelt battles are about identity. For the vanquished there is seldom pity, but there is often the solace of slogans: “This is God’s Will,” or “It’s Nature’s way, don’t worry too much about it.” The misunderstood laws of natural selection are quoted, “The strongest survive,” and “The top of the food chain eats, but everything below is food.” All types of atrocities are excused as examples of human nature. Curious, because human beings are just as naturally given to insight, to compassion and even to sacrifice for the benefit of strangers. We are often capable of rising above bad education and ignorant traditions. As individuals, we do so every day. As members of some identifiable subset, we need the guiding hand of quality leadership.
From the front lines of a most violent struggle over the identity of his nation, Mr. Rolihlahla ‘Nelson’ Mandela emerged as a powerful, charismatic force for change. Incarcerated through the sweetest years of his life, he paid a deep deep price for his authority and position of command in this bitterly contested war. Mr. Mandela would wield the divine and pragmatic healing power of reason and of deep empathy to halt the grinding gears of murder, injustice and revenge that defined the physical and psychological borders of his country.
For himself, his family, his nation and for all of us, he tore away the chain-mail shroud of imposed and accepted misconceptions about race, class, religion and gender to reveal something deeper than our genetic disposition to conquer, deeper than the egoistic satisfaction of dominating ‘inferiors’, even deeper than the nationalization of our violent and tribal past that is often sanitized and mistaken for heritage.
Through his actions, he revealed a transcending vision that embraced the potential in every other person and viewed interactions with every other group of people as the opportunity to achieve harmony through integration. He renounced competition and conquest as the modes through which we should conduct our affairs, and instead, embodied those essentials that make us most human: compassion, generosity, cooperation and love. Because he reached, we reached. But he was not alone, as we also are not alone.
From William Wilberforce to Frederick Douglass to Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela was the latest in an international roll call of soul stirring torchbearers who successfully used humanist principles to undermine the enculturation of abject peonage on the basis of pigmentation. Along with thousands of Afro-Americans who insisted on exporting the victorious legal and economic tactics of the American Civil Rights movement, and with Americans of all hues, and with people from all walks of life from all over the world, Dr. Mandela and South African freedom fighters were supported by a swelling chorus of international voices raised in affirmation. The deafening crescendo of this choir helped overthrow apartheid and, with Madiba’s ascendance to his nation’s Presidency, signaled a stunning political victory for universal humanism.
As President, his vision of unity through sacrifice mobilized South Africans to reach for the boundless potential in their collective creativity. He spoke fundamental wisdom in the language of action, and his insights made healing a possibility for a land seemingly broken beyond repair. The success of Madiba’s journey provided an inspirational narrative for a world that seems too fragmented and complicated to ever come together.
Public voices that have the power to heal are often sacrificed too soon, while preachers of divisiveness and hatred live on. In the 1960’s, the assassinations of America’s most progressive young leadership left a void that has remained unfilled. These egregious acts left our nation with the nagging feeling that to be truthful in public, to powerfully attack positions endorsed by those in control of such things, is to welcome danger and destruction.
Perhaps we can find some measure of relief that this time, one of the world’s most impactful healers was not silenced by violence, but was increasingly celebrated into his10th decade.
Nelson Mandela has passed on. As is customary, we will grieve for a measure, and then go on as we have always gone on. Some of us will stand, and some will sit after a long time of standing. Some will run, or be crushed where we stand. But, many more of us will fall back in stony silence as present and coming leaders are slandered or bribed into the shadows, or imprisoned or outright slaughtered. That’s how it goes with public leaders.
However, for his family, his country and for all of us, Dr. Mandela staked his life on the transformative power of our indivisible human value. He traversed blood soaked minefields of inbred divisiveness, self-evident entitlement and righteous hate. On death ground, where even the greatest citizens are struck down, Madiba danced for 95 years. Let us salute his life by remembering his legacy, speaking his name at the appropriate times, and reflecting his example in our daily actions.
And so this caravan of troubadours journey to a final jubilee in Boston’s historic Symphony Hall. We left New York at 9:15am on Sunday having scorched the stage of Rose Theater Saturday night with the intention of calling out and upon the Holy Spirit. And that Spirit was evoked with an openhearted urgency by the Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III who summoned his mastery of meaning and impeccable sense of timing to illuminate the purpose of our Mass.
The heavy hitters were in the House over this past Thursday through Saturday during our performances in Frederick P. Rose Hall. Jimmy and Mona Heath celebrated his 87th birthday with us, Jessye Norman, Laurence Fishburne, Cicely Tyson, Kimberly Steward and so many JALC board members and staff, our dedicated subscribers, Abyssinian Church members and young aspiring jazz musicians and singers as well as grizzled veterans, spouses, children, significant others, mommas and daddies, siblings, uncles and cousins. It was Old Home Week in the truest sense, and the great Joe Temperley came out and blessed us with his presence. And Christian McBride’s Trio held forth in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with their excellent brand of a good time.
The House of Swing was in full effect, and it felt like community, because it was. Doug Hosney and his team had the facility in tip-top shape and it was humming. Our YouTube team was filming interviews to produce impactful segments for our channel, and we were webcasting these concerts all over the world. Knowing that family AND people from any and everywhere could gather to check us out, we really, really wanted to sound better than our best. And at 8pm each night, we set about the business of doing just that.
There was a whole lot of feeling in that Saturday night performance, giving way to the exuberant fatigue that follows two and a half intense hours of concentration. I suspect it prevented many of us from sleeping until well into the morning. I received several affirming messages from orchestra members saying “Yeah man. That was the one. The choir was bringing it.”
Too soon, we were on buses en route to the home of the Red Sox who that very night would be locked in game 4 of the World Series with the Cardinals, and would prevail before night’s end, tying the Series 2-2.
At 2pm we reached one of our country’s greatest venues, and searched the neighborhood for lunch before the customary 4 o’clock sound check. Backstage, a few of the cats’ computers were struggling to keep us connected to football games, invariably freezing right before the most crucial plays. While above the epithets and choice exclamations, someone gives a radio play by play.
The fourth night in-a-row of performing this piece is tough because the parts are very demanding. The night before, Ryan Kisor had taken a couple of Excedrin on the bandstand to bring the swelling in his lips down. Marcus, Kenny and I empathize with our section leader. Even playing much easier parts, our chops are barking. The great young violinist Eli Bishop attends our sound check and sits with the trumpet section.
After sound check it starts to sink in: this is it. But any contemplation of a letdown was answered by the informal joy of the choir during sound check. We played through the same two movements we always do, except today, we enjoyed just being with each other. There was a natural spark and joy in the playing around informally with phrases that have been rehearsed and formally performed so many times. It was easy and glowing with the light of unforced enjoyment.
We begin taking pictures with each other and exchanging salutations and embraces during and after dinner. We sense that this may be the last moments we have to say our goodbyes. It’s time to take the stage and Symphony Hall is packed with listeners and a warm reception.
As usual, the choir is full of spirit, and Damien is handling his business. The orchestra is enjoying being enveloped in the feeling of the Chorale and laughing at Damien’s challenging improvised interpretations. And then it’s over.
There are too many high points to recall.
Out we go into the brisk New England autumn night to three buses bound for the Big Apple. 6 or 7 of us from the orchestra go to each of the two choir buses and we thank everyone for how they handled the pressures of this tour and how they treated us. They cheer each guy that introduces himself and quote things from the Mass associated with that person. We all feel a deep, deep empathy that has been forged in the intense fire of finding and expressing innermost emotions and cementing mutual objectives under the pressure of public performance. Each orchestra member has a different observation on what we learned and loved about working with the Chorale and Damien. Our comments end with a joint exclamation: let’s stay a part of each other’s lives, let’s do something together again.
Damien has been a revelation to us. He is inspired and dedicated to excellence. We loved his improvisatory spirit and his absolute authority with the music. I could not be more proud of him and the choir. My brothers? What can I say? They are absolutely for real…..all the time.
I return to the hall and greet our great guests, from a 9-year old trumpeter named Emmanuel, to the former principal trumpeter in the Boston Symphony, Charlie Schleuter and his wife Martha. Glenn Close and David Shaw add aesthetic charisma to the evening, and our Harvard family, Drew Faust and her husband Charles Rosenberg, and Lori Gross and Rohit Deshpande all make me feel as if I am returning home. Akili Jamal Haynes, who was a high school student in a band I directed that included Christian McBride, Walter Blanding, Lil’ John Roberts and Farid Baron when they were kids in 1987, is also there and so is one of America’s most soulful citizens, Lutye Willis.
Who comes in but the legendary Gunther Schuller. Gunther auditioned me for Tanglewood in 1979, when I was 17. Even though I was a year under the requisite age, he accepted me into the Fellowship program. This experience changed my life. How could I possibly thank him? And now here we are, me 52, him 88, and he starts telling me all of what he heard in the Mass. Then he starts talking about music from Abyssinia, then long form pieces and harmony. He commends the high quality of the orchestra, talks about the merits of individual players and speaks on Ryan’s latest records he has heard adding, “A soloist that great playing lead? You’re quite fortunate.” He goes on to recommend a favorite disc jockey he’s listening to and we discuss him writing a piece for the orchestra. He’s 88!!! And it’s almost 11:15pm and he had listened intently to a 2 1/2 hour concert that started at 7pm and is now recalling, in detail, specific moments in several of the 17 movements.
I look at him and Akili Jamal Haynes and laugh. It’s a big cycle. Gunther asks me about my father’s health. I say “yeah” and reflect on my old man’s love of music and of musicians. I reflect on young bass player Daniel Winshall, a high school junior. He came tonight and I could see him watching Carlos playing a great solo on Meditation. Another bassist, Jonathan Kelly, who copied all the music of this Mass in three weeks, sent me a text message, “Look out for Daniel tonight. He’s the truth.”
From 16 year old Daniel to 88 year old Gunther and all of us in between, Lutye, this music brings us in intimate and meaningful contact with each other. It’s deeper than the notes. It’s how we feel about life and being alive, and about being alive with each other.
At our last rehearsal before going on tour, Rev. Butts prayed for our safe travels. Well, close to 100 people traveled across the country with no major problems and very few glitches. Besides being a testament to our office and road team, it was truly a blessing….. And we give thanks. From our sponsors the Steward Family Foundation, to our Concerts and Touring Department, Derek Kwan and his entire team including Raymond “Boss” Murphy, Jean Lee, Jason Olaine, Christi English, Kay Niewood, Eric Wright, Alex Knowlton, Jay Sgroi, Frank Stewart, Ernie Gregory, and Charles Bratton to the one and only celebrity sound man David Robinson, people worked their tails off to make this tour happen. Actually, the whole of JALC, from Executive Director Greg Scholl, to everyone in our extended family, we all came together to touch and elevate people through a difficult period in our nation’s understanding of itself. One of our choir members asked me, “Do you have any idea of how many people’s lives we have changed for the better out here?”
I have no idea.
When Chris Crenshaw started to sing the Benediction tonight, the choir began co-signing him, “Come On Deacon, Preach brother! Make it plain.” He sang these words with a powerful depth and clarity:
“Lord, from you all things. Though we are many in life and death, we are truly one. Just the calling of your Holy name releases us to perceive the oneness in all, of all. You have given us, through your word, the divine thought. And the divine thought IS the divine manifestation IS holy action.”
For me, that is the power of prayer in whatever religion, or none at all.
It is now 2:37am. Frank and I have been on the road for almost 3 hours. The radio is repeating today’s sports scores ad nauseam with theme music just loud enough for the announcer to appear to be shouting over it. Normally, I try to keep him up with forced conversation. But tonight, I’m writing this.
“How you think the tour was Frank?”
“What are you talking about man, it was glorious…….We almost home. We have about 20 minutes to go.”
(But it’s really more like an hour.)
Tuesday night we played Woolsey Hall on the campus of Yale University. Colleges, with the concentration of intellectual pursuit and the heightened intensity of male/female interchanges, have always been fantastic sites for Jazz concerts. However, we did not play for an audience of college age students. It was an older, more patient group. They sat in the Hall with the weightiness of deep listeners. This Mass is two hours in total and, as with any long music, after a combined hour and twenty minutes, people get restless—not last night. Their attitude affected our pacing. Where we would normally feel the need to rush, they gave us the sense that it was ok to take our time.
Though they were not overly demonstrative, we had the sense that they were always with us. I could see them following all the words in the program, and we were given a most heartfelt and rich applause at the end. It was a gratifying performance and we are grateful to Reverend Bonita Grubbs and Christian Community Action for having welcomed us to New Haven.
We will be in our home, Frederick P. Rose Hall, for the next three days and then on to a final concert in Boston on Sunday. So, this is the last night of actual touring. After the concert, the choir and band go to various watering holes around the hotel and begin to assemble for 12:30 and 1am call times. There is, of course, a euphoric excitement about returning home to see loved ones and sleep in your own bed. But there is also a feeling of loss. This extended family is winding down and will never be exactly the same again. We linger for a moment with each other in unspoken recognition that the landscape of our lives has been altered forever.
For road manager Raymond Murphy, this is his last night of tour. He’s going home to Maryland. We call him Boss and the choir calls him Uncle Ray. He has done a fantastic job managing a very large group. This has been a well organized and well run tour. Congratulations to him and to our bus drivers. Band drivers Paul Pryor and Tim McWilliams, and choir drivers Greg Miller and Monty Walls carried us safely for these last weeks, many times driving through the night. They were dependable, hospitable and soulful. Thank you all.
Let’s hear from Damien Sneed, the leader of Chorale Le Chateau:
I met Clinton Ingram earlier this year while conducting the opera HARRIET TUBMAN by Nkeiru Okoye. He played the role of Harriet’s father and I immediately knew he would be a perfect fit for Chorale Le Chateau and the Abyssinian Mass. Clinton Ingram:
Wow! We had such a wonderful and uplifting performance of “Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration!” last night at Yale University. Forty-four years ago (1969) I graduated from the Yale School of Music with a Master of Music degree in Voice. During the two wonderful years I spent there (1967-1969) I had the privilege of attending and performing in concerts at Woolsey Hall. Never in my wildest imagination would I have believed that 44 years later I would again have the privilege of performing there, and, especially with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis and as a member of Chorale Le Chateau under the direction of the musically gifted Damien Sneed. It not only brought back memories of my time at Yale, but also gave me pause to reflect upon what a blessing it was to be a part of such a glorious experience and full-circle journey.
“All Glory Be…!”
Clinton Ingram, Tenor
We look forward to our three performances in Rose Theater on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Please be sure to check in to our live webcasts of the performances.
“Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration”, will be on tour on October 3-23, and will be webcast live on October 24th, 25th and 26th at 8PM ET on http://wyntonmarsalis.org/live
We participated in the inaugural season of Parmer Hall at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania last night. This is a College with the spirit of music all around it. Here’s a photo of the blackboard in the Orchestra’s dressing room; a beautiful, warm hall with acoustics that allowed us to take down the band’s microphones for the second half. A great hall is very difficult to build. This one will serve the College well. Congratulations.
Well, I struggled mightily with my horn for the first hour or so and got a wakeup call about staying on top of it, but that didn’t stop everyone else from playing on their normal high-level. After the concert, I met with students and friends and even later had the opportunity to share a meal in the home of Bishop Nathan Baxter and his most gracious and hospitable wife, Mary Ellen.
Some 20 years ago we met and kindled a friendship which led to our septet playing “In This House on This Morning” in the National Cathedral (I still remember Victor Goines was on fire that night). Just the prayer before the meal would have been worth an admission price, but the one after the meal, produced a fullness that had Mary Ellen and me thanking the Bishop as well as The Lord.
It’s now midnight and the three of us have had a spirited conversation about politics, community and the meaning of change. Bishop Baxter, whose grandfather was a sharecropper and AME preacher, and whose father was a tent making pastor, responds to my questions about the Bible and women, and tribalism vs. universal humanism, with scripture. From Mark 7:24 and Matthew 15:21-28 to John 4:7-24, each passage received a memory, identification and explanation. On the drive back to my hotel, The Bishop and I speak with the easy intimacy of family about growth and the purpose of tradition. He agrees to write a post for today. At 3:30am, he sent it.
The Right Reverend Nathan D. Baxter, Bishop of Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania and former Dean of the Washington National Cathedral:
One of the great spiritual moments of my life was 7 years ago on this very day October 21, 2006. On this day I was consecrated 10th Bishop of Central Pennsylvania. There was a 400 voice choir with brass orchestra and an African Drum ensemble. There were not only Episcopalians present but 20+ different denominations gathered to pray and celebrate together. On that day we sat rapt as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Laureate, preached to me and the thousands gathered about the power of God’s love to break down the walls which separate us from one another and from God. His words were inspired and inspiring. But more than his words, was the spirit of his manner. The sound of his voice, the essence of his very being—-his soul, seemed to reach out and embrace us all across our great diversity of color, race, politics and denominations. There came from that inspiration a spirit of oneness in our singing, praying and even the great solemn moments in the ceremony.
Tonight, on my 7th anniversary, I was equally blessed by the inspired genius of Wynton Marsalis’ Abyssinian 200: A Gospel Celebration. It was not just a celebration of Gospel as a genre, but more a celebration of the Gospel as good news. The Spirit was present in the great concert hall of Messiah College as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and an incredible 70 voice chorale exuded the good news of joy, hope and spiritual beauty. The chorale was directed by Damien Sneed.
This young man in his conducting and choral choreography is indeed the next Dr. Nathan Carter (legendary late director of famed Morgan University Choir). Damien’s ability to channel the Spirit as well as the letter of the music through the choristers and musicians was inspired. He is a maestro! This was difficult music, requiring soul and discipline. But through these musicians the audience of that great hall became a congregation—-clapping, swaying, cheering and moaning; interspersed with powerful moments of enraptured stillness. Those latter moments made me think of God’s call in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God”. We knew God was in that place in the many ecstatic joyful moments and the moments which called us into a reflective reverent stillness.
All great music is a gift and thus an instrument of God. The human tendency is to divide it in to sacred and secular, classical and folk, or prejudice it by limiting its efficacy to ethnicity or culture. But I think great music inspires and comforts, it challenges and disturbs, and most of all it transcends the limits of our circumstances. A definitive essence of great music is that it articulates most effectively without or beyond words (it’s a language of the soul, not of culture or tribe). Whether love of neighbor, love of the ethereal, or the love that sets my body on fire, these are spiritual realties and gifts of God. Great music speaks of the soul grieving loss (Requiems or Blues); the hunger for freedom and the hope which keeps that hunger alive against all odds.
As African-Americans we often forget that the rich array of music which has kept us a people able to “articulate” our pain and our painful realities, and also articulate a hopefulness and often joy is a divine gift. It is a language of the soul—whether blues or slave work-songs; whether the Spirituals or traditional Gospel—- all of this is a gift given us, a gift of Divine love to cherish and nurture and share. For, the proof of great music is its ability to touch the souls of those beyond the ethnicity through which it was birthed.
Tonight the confluence of Spirituals, Gospels, blues, New Orleans Swing, and yes, some serious Be-bop stirred our souls. As the old Sunday school song goes, “Yellow, Red, Black and White, all were precious in God’s sight” on this night. So, thanks to the genius of Wynton’s composition and orchestration, the commanding conducting of maestro Damien, and the artistically disciplined but spirit-filled performance of orchestra and chorale for liberating the Spirit tonight. For tonight I celebrated my consecration as a bishop, once again surrounded by an audience gloriously transformed into a congregation of celebration.
Now we will hear from a man that the entire orchestra loves beyond any reasonable measure. He is nimble and steadfast as a person and a musician. Incorruptible and absolutely thorough, he has met some of the toughest musical challenges with absolute dedication and an unwavering positivity. He is a lover of 4/4 swing and deserves a “Zen of” book. Mr. Dan Nimmer:
I’ve been asked the same questions over and over for many years now on the road. These questions come from taxi drivers, bar tenders, someone sitting on the airplane next to me, or just anyone trying to strike up a little conversation. The questions usually start off with “Where are you from?” “What brings you here?” When I explain that I’m with a band performing in town, they usually ask, “What kind of music is it?” And when I say Jazz music the response is sometimes, not always, but sometimes, “What type or what style of Jazz is it?”
I love explaining to them about what the JALC Orchestra is all about. I tell them that what we play is not restricted to any era or sub-genre of the music and that we embrace everything that is good from all musics. It’s pretty much like what Duke Ellington said. There are only two types of music: the good kind and the other kind. I’m proud to be part of this thing that Wynton has created especially in the current time period and scene where we desperately need more quality leadership.
Last night’s concert in Mechanicsburg at Messiah College was the second to last gig before we go back to play in New York City. Parmer Hall was a beautiful venue. This was the 14th concert we’ve played. These shows are maybe the best example of how our music isn’t defined by one style or era because the Abyssinian Mass encompasses a very wide spectrum of music. Tonight’s concert was another great one (just like the rest). You have the choir singing their butts off and bringing such an amazing energy to the stage, and you have the guys in the Orchestra playing with such fire, virtuosity and creativity. Both the choir and the band feed off of each other making every performance unique and uplifting. And it only gets better and better every night. Bravo to everyone!
On the road, most of the guys in the band know that I’m a self-diagnosed “foodie”, meaning that I take pleasure in researching and going out of my way to find some great food. Some of the guys lovingly joke with me and say: “You aren’t taking me to one of those healthy places again are you?” or “Dan only likes those fancy fine dining places”. In reality, I’m on the hunt for anything great whether it be a $1.50 carnitas taco or a 15 course tasting menu that does not cost a dollar fifty.
Here a few of the highlights from this tour:
Kansas City, MO
Everyone knows, or has heard of Gates, Arthur Bryant’s, Oklahoma Joe’s, or Jack Stack in Kansas City. Those are the popular places and now have become chains with multiple locations. I’ve tried Gates and Arthur Bryant’s and both were good but not anything special to me. So this time I decided to dig deep and do some serious research. I came up with this spot named LC’s BBQ.
I phoned Vincent Gardner, who is one of multiple barbecue experts in the band. He in turn phoned Chris Crenshaw and on our way out of the hotel we spotted Alex Knowlton and convinced him to join us. All four of us crammed into a small taxi. With the three of them being over 6’3”, that is a lot of height for one cab. It was about a 20 minute ride from the hotel. As we approached the driver said that it was coming up on the right. Vince said, “No, that’s gotta be it up on the left,” pointing at a small rundown looking building with an enormous amount smoke billowing from it.
We walk in and are immediately in sensory overload. The first thing we see when we open the door is that the whole room is cloudy with BBQ smoke. We can barely see the counter to order. Between that and the smell we all knew that this was the real deal before we even let the door close behind us. Behind the counter there were two men handling the smoker with all kinds of meat in it. We placed our orders to go and hopped back in that not so spacious taxi because it was almost time for the sound check. We had to eat, get ready for the gig back at the hotel and depart in a short amount of time. When Vincent, Chris and Alex and I met on the bus to sound check, we just looked at each other, laughed, nodded and said, “Yes”. We didn’t need any other words. That food was better than correct.
New Orleans, LA
I’m always excited to come to New Orleans for many reasons but one of the most important reasons is that I know that I will get in a good meal at some point. On a previous visit I was on a hunt for the best shrimp po’boy in town. I came up with Domilise’s Po-Boy on Annunciation Street in Uptown. I got Jay Sgroi to come with me on the journey this time. It was a 20 minute cab from our hotel and our driver was unfamiliar with the spot. I can see why since it’s a ways out of the way and in a primarily residential neighborhood. It’s on the corner of a row of small houses and the only thing that distinguishes it from the other houses is a small handmade sign: “Domilise’s Po-boy and Bar”.
This a classic neighborhood joint with all kinds of local flavor and character. There are three women who very much resemble each other constructing sandwiches of fried shrimp and oysters dressed on Leidenheimer classic New Orleans French bread. These are the kind of sandwiches that will make you shed a few tears. I found out that this family run business has been there for 75 years and that the menu has never changed.
Victor Goines, from New Orleans, attended Loyola University about a mile from Domilise’s, told me that he used to eat there and spoke highly of their Po-boys. I felt even more successful about my find after it was authenticated by a native.
You gotta eat, so why not eat good?!
One of our greatest honors is to interface with musicians, teachers and families who go through all kinds of changes to attend our shows. I love greeting everyone and being the last person to leave the hall every night.
We now hear from someone who has attended concerts since early teenhood. A young man who is always searching for a way to make a difference in this world.
This is Mr. Jesse Markowitz:
I write from a bench outside the Calvin and Janet High Center within the beautiful campus of Messiah College. The show ended about an hour ago, and my ride will be a few minutes, which gives me a chance to breathe and hopefully make sense of what just happened, though my initial assessment is that an ensemble of 85 people, most of whom I have never met, just guided me on a path of exploration towards the depths of my own humanity.
Last night I hopped on an extremely uncomfortable overnight Greyhound bus from my home in Toronto to Philadelphia, followed by a morning bus to Harrisburg, and then an expensive cab ride to Mechanicsburg. In short, wild horses could not drag me away from the performance of a new work by Wynton Marsalis composed for jazz orchestra and 70-piece gospel choir.
From the time my teenaged self first met Wynton Marsalis, I can trace nearly every tangible stage of my development into a man back to some nugget of wisdom I gleaned from his example, whether it was laid out with remarkable clarity in his (earth-shattering) book “Moving To Higher Ground”, or I was hearing in his music what it means to be an individual working within a democracy. I am still astounded by his extreme generosity when indulging me during those 3 a.m. phone calls, years ago, in which I would approach him with yet another thinly-veiled variation on “What does it all mean?” I have just entered a new chapter of my life, and while I am brimming with pride from newly minted professional relationships with my boyhood jazz heroes, I anticipate that just around the bend await new obstacles.
I take solace in knowing that this music and these musicians will always be there to light my way.
Tonight we look forward to performing in Woolsey Hall in New Haven, CT., the home of Yale University. The Reverend Bonita Grubbs, Executive Director of Christian Community Action — an ecumenical social service organization that expresses faithful witness by providing help, housing and hope to those who are poor in New Haven — has worked tirelessly and with much spirit to promote our appearance, having reached out to more than 900 churches throughout the state, including African American congregations in the Fairfield County area. This list of churches came via the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, the major sponsor of our concert, and we are grateful for all of the helping hands that have made our appearance possible.
“Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration”, will be on tour on October 3-23, and will be webcast live on October 24th, 25th and 26th at 8PM ET on http://wyntonmarsalis.org/live