‘Our music was born in hard times’: How Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra keeps playing

When the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra played its last concert in front of an audience in late February 2020, its members thought they had a bright and busy future ahead of them.

“We left with the expectation of going out for another long tour and to have all this new music and new shows and stuff that we’re doing — and everything got cut off,” said orchestra saxophonist Sherman Irby of Warren.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic scuttled those plans, resulting in what Irby described as the first time that probably all of the orchestra have “spent not playing with other people for almost a year. It’s a definite change in what we have been dealing with, for those of us my age, for the last 40 years, basically playing in front of people and playing with others.”

An Alabama native who first joined the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 1995 and whose current tenure with the orchestra began in 2005, Irby said the last year-plus has been by far his longest time off the road during his decades-long career.

“As my wife put it, this is the first time I’ve slept in my bed every night for a year,” Irby said. “It’s something I haven’t done since college.”

Irby is part of the reunited, 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s comeback performance for the virtual gala “Innovation + Soul,” debuting online Thursday, April 15.

The gala features a performance by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis recorded in March at Rose Theater in Manhattan’s Frederick P. Rose Hall.

Hosted by singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, the gala will feature appearances by President Bill Clinton, conguero and vocalist Pedrito Martinez, dancer Lil Buck, vocalist Veronica Swift, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez and pianist Sean Mason.

Jazz at Lincoln Center board member Charles Phillips and his wife Karen will be honored with the Ed Bradley Award for Leadership in Jazz, while pianist Jon Batiste will receive the Jazz at Lincoln Center Award for Artistic Excellence.

Bringing the full complement of the orchestra together for the first time in a year required those traveling from out of town to isolate for a few days. Once all involved tested negative for COVID, the rehearsals began, explained Jason Olaine of Maplewood, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s vice president of concerts and touring.

“We can sort of see the light at the end of the tunnel, in a way,” said Olaine. “We’re not out of it yet, of course, but just to be able to see the full band, even if they’re 6 feet apart, playing together, was something special.”

‘We all come together’

In a year when the pandemic caused arts organizations to hit the pause button across the country, Marsalis and the orchestra found ways to keep the music going.

The orchestra released seven albums and four singles in 2020, followed in January by the recorded version of The Democracy! Suite, which Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet brought on tour last fall.

“It’s what our mission is, to bring people together through the spirit of our music,” said Marsalis, the nine-time Grammy-winning managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

“And our music was born in hard times, so we all come together,” said Marsalis. “And we all have built up a trust with each other over these years, and this is a collective decision we came to, we’re gonna manage through it.”

This year’s gala, with its theme of “Innovation + Soul,” stands as a celebration of the orchestra’s members, folks Olaine described as “the heartbeat of our organization.”

“The first thing that came to mind was, I think, let’s highlight our orchestra, the heartbeat of our institution, as they show who we are as institution both here and around the world,” said Olaine. “They are actively touring and teaching and performing and recording, and one of the things that Wynton and all of us are so proud of is up and down the lineup it’s filled with not only incredible players of their instruments but writers and arrangers. … The soulful part, I think, speaks for itself — that it’s just not a technical exercise, it’s imbued with the highest form of musicality and soul.”

Among the featured numbers of “Innovation + Soul” is Irby’s arrangement of “Yes, Sir! That’s My Baby,” composed Lou Donaldson and Gus Kahn. Irby discussed how jazz, an artform always growing and evolving with improvisation in its DNA, can respond to our current climate.

“When we think about improvisation, some people may think you’re creating something or making something by yourself, but in jazz you’re doing it with others, you’re making conversation and spending a moment building and creating with others,” he said. “So basically what this is doing is showing that jazz music represents what we are as a people, what we need as a people: to be around others, to communicate with others, to coexist with others, to respond to others (and) not just ourselves.”

“Innovation + Soul,” Jazz at Lincoln Center’s gala concert, premieres 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 15, and will be available on-demand through April 25, $30,

by Alex Biese
Source: Asbury Park Press

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