Back from South Africa, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra gears up for Chicago

It practically has become a cultural rite in Chicago: Every year or so, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis returns here, often performing two nights in Orchestra Hall and fanning out across the city by day to teach young people.

The public concerts typically are packed, giving them a heightened sense of occasion. The school performances introduce uncounted students to a great American art form they likely won’t encounter on TV or other pop-culture platforms.

All of which make these JLCO visits a valued addition to Chicago’s already intense jazz life.

Scheduling conflicts prevented the musicians from participating in last season’s 25th anniversary of the Symphony Center Presents Jazz series, but they’re headed back for a pair of concerts, each with a distinct theme.

The first, on Nov. 15, will explore music of the “Jazz Ambassadors”: revered musicians who more than half a century ago brought America’s indigenous art form to listeners far from here.

“It’s just to recognize that we were sent around (the world­), that our music represented the best of what our country had to offer,” says Marsalis, managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the country’s leading jazz institution.

These jazz ambassadors, who organized their own tours and also were dispatched by U.S. State Department, “were from all regions of the country, like (Dave) Brubeck from the West, Dizzy (Gillespie) from the South, Duke Ellington from the Eastern seaboard and Louis Armstrong, of course, from the Deep South,” adds Marsalis. “It was the important work of cultural ambassadorship, so we just play songs from their canon.”

But why did jazz take on that signifying role around the globe?

“Because it’s the definitive fine art of the country,” says Marsalis. “That means that, for some reason, it was able to encapsulate our fundamentals into its fundamentals.”

Meaning that jazz intrinsically reflected this country’s founding values – specifically democracy and individual freedom. Unlike classical music, in which musicians mostly are bound to play what’s in the score, jazz since its inception more than a century ago encouraged individuals to invent deeply personalized music on the spot – albeit within the context of a given composition.

In jazz, “individuality comes with improvisation,” says Marsalis. “But there’s also the freedom that comes with swing. So the bass part is not a slave part – it’s not just the same thing repeated over and over again. The bass part moves around, and it is forced to balance with the cymbal, which is the highest pitch. So the highest is forced to play on every beat with the lowest pitch. … It requires interaction. … We have to work with each other in a common space.”

Which surely defines democracy, when it’s working as intended.

“And then the blues aesthetic gives us the type of optimism that survives, that’s deeper than hope,” adds Marsalis. “So no matter how bad things get, there’s still a thing inside of us that says, ‘Well, we have a belief that when we strip everything away, that belief will allow us to transcend the moment we’re in.’”

The African-American culture that invented jazz – through the groundbreaking work of innovators such as pianist-composer Jelly Roll Morton and trumpeters Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong – clearly was transcending a bleak chapter in American life: slavery.

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s second Chicago concert, on Nov. 16, will explore the “South African Songbook,” with guest vocalists Melanie Scholtz and Vuyo Sotashe. The program holds particular significance for the ensemble, which last month completed its first tour South African tour.

“It was great – a lot more people knew the music of the cats in the band than we thought,” says Marsalis of a visit that was billed as honoring “the 25th anniversary of South African democracy.”

“The people were very (socially) conscious, because of their struggles … and also very playful,” observes Marsalis. “Even though they have the same urban problems everybody has, they didn’t have the same type of hostility we have toward each other, and it was palpable. You could feel it even when you got into the airport.”

Marsalis and colleagues also were struck by the level of virtuosity and jazz erudition among their South African counterparts, citing above all pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, who, as it happens, will release his Blue Note Records debut next year.

“Man, this guy can play,” says Marsalis, who also was impressed by the work of composer Thandi Ntuli and saxophonist McCoy Mrubata.

Above all, though, it was “the spirit of the people” that left the deepest impression.

“Everybody in the band was saying, ‘Damn – the spirit!’ It was a spiritual thing. It’s interesting how their jazz is connected to the freedom aspect of our jazz.”

Looking ahead, Marsalis sees Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Blue Engine Records label as critically important to the organization, with plans to “put out 100 records in five years,” he says.

To date its discography includes “Big Band Holidays II,” “Jazz and Art,” “Wynton Marsalis’ Swing Symphony” (with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra), “Bolden: The Original Soundtrack to the Major Motion Picture,” “Betty Carter: The Music Never Stops,” “Una Noche Con Ruben Blades,” “Handful of Keys: The Music of John Lewis,” “The Abyssinian Mass,” “Live in Cuba” and “Carlos Henriquez: The Bronx Pyramid.”

Upcoming recordings will feature compositions by JLCO members Victor Goines, Ted Nash, Sherman Irby and others.

“This is going to be the highlight of everything I ever tried to do,” says Marsalis.

Quite a statement from the man who co-founded Jazz at Lincoln Center and penned the first jazz composition to win a Pulitzer Prize, “Blood on the Fields” (I served on the jury).

Did Jazz at Lincoln Center create Blue Engine Records in order to break free of record industry control?

“No, not really,” says Marsalis. “It’s our in-house label. It’s not like we are a (free-standing) record label – we’re still what we are.

“It’s just that we’re interested in these resources being put to people. … We want people to hear the music, because we’re advocates.

“At the end of the day,” adds Marsalis, “we are a social help organization.”

But in this case, the help comes in a form you can tap your foot to.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis performs “Jazz Ambassadors” at 8 p.m. Nov. 15 and “South African Songbook” at 8 p.m. Nov. 16 in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; ticket prices vary; 312-294-3000 or

by Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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