Got them low-down Lincoln Center blues

THE PROGRAM for “What Is the Blues?,” latest concert in Lincoln Center’s “Jazz for Young People” series, contained a full-page advertisement for the home video version of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts.

Even without the ad, the comparison would have been inevitable. Anyone who gives a concert for children at Lincoln Center is bound to be compared with Bernstein and Wynton Marsalis’ Saturday morning performance at Alice Tully Hall was up to the mark.
Not that the two men have much in common. Bernstein’s carefully scripted TV appearances were delivered with lapel-grabbing enthusiasm. Marsalis, who spoke from notes, is both looser and cooler. But Marsalis, like Bernstein, understands that the key to teaching children about music (or anything else, for that matter) is to treat them without a trace of condescension.

This is trickier than it sounds, and most adult musicians fall on their faces whenever they try it. Not Wynton Marsalis. Every point in his hour-long presentation came across clearly, and the nearly full house paid close attention to what he had to say. I’ve never seen, and can’t imagine, a more effective introduction to the rudiments of jazz.

Marsalis and his septet opened the concert with Horace Silver’s funky “Señor Blues,” which they played in order to show not all blues are depressing: “Having the blues is sad, but playing the blues is like the medicine you take to feel better. It’s like a vaccination. The doctor gives you smallpox to keep you from getting smallpox.”

A ripple of appreciative laughter made it clear the children had gotten the point – and that Marsalis had them in the palm of his hand.

With that, the trumpeter launched into a straightforward discussion of the 12-bar blues form, making shrewd use of audience participation at every step of the way. To illustrate the classic blues stanza, for example, he taught the children a couplet (“Get up, get up, get up, sleepyhead I No more resting schooltime no more bed”) which they then sang with obvious glee to the accompaniment of a simple riff blues played by the band.

The great strength of Marsalis’ presentation was its unswerving emphasis on the blues as a musical structure. Having explained the emotional basis of the idiom (“Life might be hard, but you can still play you some blues”), he concentrated on its formal aspects, letting the music speak for itself without any pretentious historical or sociological overlay. The success of this approach was in part a tribute to the excellence of his current group.
Though the occasion did little to challenge the players – the solos, wisely, were kept short – Marsalis’ wide-ranging program (which also included Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jungle Blues,” Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove” and John Coltrane’s “Mr. Day”) gave every man a chance to shine. (Teachout writes about music and dance for The News.)

by Terry Teachout
Source: New York Daily News

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