The importance of bringing feeling and integrity to every performance
Last night we played in Norfolk, Virginia. We were presented by the Virginia Arts Festival whose Artistic Director, Rob Cross, played in the Eastern Music Festival Orchestra when I was a high school student attending camp at the Festival. We laughed about me showing up with an E-flat trumpet to play the Hummel trumpet concerto but all of the orchestra parts were in E-natural! [Who had even heard of an E trumpet then?]
Rob is dedicated to lifting the community with great art and an even better time. Two of our favorite singers, Carla Cook and Rene Marie, were also part of the Festival’s Gospel & Jazz Celebration Weekend and Rene blessed us with her presence last night. The hall was about half full, but we were grateful to perform for those who came.
Seeing my father play for so many years in clubs for 10, 7, 5 people, taught me the importance of bringing feeling and integrity to every performance. He used to say, “Even if it’s only for one person, play like it’s your last gig. That one person out there might be you.” Since so many of our orchestra members are the offspring of jazz musicians, we all feel that way and try to live by it.
Today, we will hear from another JLCO member and from the gospel artist who is visiting many of the Abyssinian tour stops leading our educational initiatives, Karla Scott. First, a man who’s singing, teaching, arranging and singing style on the trombone is of the highest quality and depth, Mr. Vincent Gardner:
For me, the short 3-hour bus ride from Chapel Hill, NC to Norfolk, VA was not the best part of the day (although I might not be saying that after 2 more weeks on the bus), but rather having the opportunity to play in the area where I grew up (only 15 minutes or so from where my mother still lives, and is still Minister of Music at our church, a position she has held for nearly 30 years). Ironically, she can’t be here because she’s attending a Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir Concert in Brooklyn, to prepare for presenting a program of their music with her own choir later in the year.
During my growing years, there was never any indication from the community that it was possible, or even practical, to pursue music as a profession. So I always feel a certain tickle in my stomach about being able to fulfill JALC’s mission on my home turf.
The church holds a strong position in this community, so I expected this piece to resonate strongly with the audience. Although they may have been somewhat familiar with the sound and musical direction of the JLCO, I doubt that they could have anticipated the power of our integration with Damien Sneed’s stellar Chorale Le Chateau. They are doing an amazing job singing with the Mass’ myriad nuances and unconventional harmonies. My sister Roslyn, who has been singing in one of my mother’s choirs practically her entire life, said “I don’t know how much y’all are paying them, but they need a raise!”
Tonight, I thought, the choir felt relaxed and free enough to take more liberty with their parts, and to also make a few mistakes. For me, this signals that our performances will to soon transcend what’s written.
I have experienced the power of collective creativity. When the 15 members of the JLCO use the music as merely a guide, a performance becomes a living, breathing musical statement capable of unimagined change in real time. I can only imagine how it will feel when over 80 people achieve that with this piece. We’re just starting and that will surely happen many times before this tour is over.
Highlighting the educational impact this project is having on the road, let’s hear from gospel artist and educator, Karla Scott:
On October 4, 2013, I was privileged to introduce Processional, Doxology and Gloria Patri from the Abyssinian Mass at Hampton University. In attendance were seventy-five student singers, members of the Voice faculty and representatives from the Virginia Arts Festival. The group’s director is well known choral arranger Omar Dickenson.
The choir sang their school alma mater to begin the session. This is a very, very special group. From the beginning of the session, they were engaged, open and eager to learn. The choir is beautifully balanced. Their sound is at once robust, warm, elegant and exciting to hear – it was my pleasure to tell them so. Based on what I heard, we looked first at Doxology.
We began by laying a brief foundation about Mr. Marsalis as an award winning performer and composer, then talking through some of the musical elements and ideas found throughout the mass as a whole. I then played an mp3 recording of Doxology for the choir. Due to the strong sight-reading and retention abilities of the choir, we were able to sing through Doxology and shape it a bit – very impressive and beautiful to say the least. The choir is eager to perfect and add it to their current repertoire.
We listened to a recording of Gloria Patri next, spoke it in rhythm, and then sang through the first four pages as a way to introduce the thematic material of the piece. This choir continued to impress. Their astute observations about what was happening musically and rhythmically with regard to texture made for a very lively and engaging discussion.
Finally, we looked at two sections of Processional, the beginning and the “to the house of the Lord” vamp. The choir grasped the themes quickly, sang well past our end time, and then begged to sing more of the music!
I absolutely love having an opportunity to introduce this work to students. My brief time with Hampton’s choir yesterday only served to solidify my opinion that the Abyssinian Mass should be taught and sung everywhere.
Tonight, we will perform at the Kennedy Center, presented by our long time partners at the Washington Performing Arts Society. In addition to being presented by WPAS every year for well over the last decade, we’ve also established a strong educational partnership with them. WPAS is a wonderful artistic partner and commissioned the Suite for Human Nature, which premiered there in 2004. This performance will certainly be special as 80 members of the WPAS Gospel Choir will be joining us for portions of the performance. Damien Sneed rehearsed with them on September 18 and 25.
The government shutdown has created a unique climate this past week in Washington, D.C. To that end, WPAS has made “Furlough Tickets” available at a price of $10 to all Federal employees. In the same spirit, Jazz at Lincoln Center also agreed to purchase 100 tickets to be distributed for free to community groups, students and underserved communities as a gift from WPAS and JALC. We sincerely hope audiences tonight and throughout the whole tour will be uplifted by our performances!