The Marsalis Brothers Reunited in St. Louis and It Was Magical

Thursday was an historic night in St. Louis, as jazz giants Wynton and Branford Marsalis, playing together for the first time in many years, performed to a capacity audience at the Chase Park Plaza. The previous evening, the Marsalis brothers played to a more intimate crowd at the Harold & Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz, home of Jazz St. Louis, in Grand Center. The two-night event, Swing for Tomorrow’s Stars, was a fundraising gala benefiting Jazz St. Louis and its educational programs.

Both nights featured a set by the Marsalises as part of a six-piece combo of jazz all-stars, plus a warmup set by stand-up comedian and St. Louis native Joe Torry (not to be confused with former Cardinals manager Joe Torre) and a ceremonial presentation of the Steward Center Lifetime Achievement Award of Excellence to saxophone legend David Sanborn.

At the Chase, the hotel’s legendary Khorassan Ballroom was transformed into a concert venue complete with stage-flanking video screens to capture up-close shots for those in the cheap seats in back, which were not at all cheap, as guests paid hundreds and in some cases thousands to be in attendance. It was a dressy affair, as well-heeled jazz aficionados mingled at cash bars waiting for the event to start, and the place was crawling with the town’s jazz musicians — Kendrick Smith, Pops Jackson, Bennett Wood, Bernard Terry, Dustin Shrum, Danny Campbell, Bernard Long, Jr., Charlie Cerpa, Bob Bennett, John Covelli, Evan Palmer, Miles Cole and many others.

The show opened with Jazz St. Louis president and CEO Victor Goines pitching the organization’s jazz academy and community engagement programs for middle and high school students. Goines, himself a celebrated saxophonist, grew up as childhood friends and lifelong musical collaborators with the Marsalis brothers, and it was Wynton who originally urged Goines to take the top job at Jazz St. Louis in 2022.

Torry, during his brief standup set, talked about the St. Louis tradition of fried rice, going to high school at Soldan, and kids these days expecting money transfers immediately: “I had to wait two weeks for a $35 money order!” he said. He also led a singalong, assigning dueling scatting parts for men and women, much to the chagrin of the musicians in the crowd who bristled that Torry was snapping on the one and the three.

Kirkwood native David Sanborn took the stage to accept his lifetime achievement award, saying, “I’m so glad I’m alive to receive this!” Sanborn did not perform as part of the event, but talked about sneaking into jazz clubs in the city’s Gaslight Square when he was a kid, describing an unmarked bar called the Other Side as “literally a hole in the wall” where he started sitting in with the band at age 15. “I wouldn’t trade my life for anything in the world,” Sanborn told the crowd. “The great thing about music, you never get to the end of it.”

Once the Marsalises took the stage, a star-struck audience was held in the legends’ sway for a scintillating hour-long set backed by Goines on saxophone, Dan Zimmer on piano, Carlos Henriquez on bass, and Obed Calvaire on drums, all members of Wynton’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

They opened with a Wynton original, “Free to Be,” and for his solo, Wynton immediately wandered into the crowd, playing off-mic, strolling among the front rows improvising with expressive, playful phrasing.

When introducing the Duke Ellington standard “Caravan,” Wynton said, “I want to evoke the memory of the great St. Louis Pied Piper of Jazz, Mr. Clark Terry,” recalling receiving tutelage from Terry as a 13-year-old and later playing with him in New York at 17 when Terry introduced him to the plunger mute. Wynton worked that mute on “Caravan” before his brother Branford took over the song on soprano sax, cracking his brother up with gonzo phrasing and melodic leaps.

“This music is the classic dimension of our way of life,” Wynton told the audience, mentioning how Wynton, Branford and Goines were students of the Marsalises’ father, Ellis Marsalis, Jr. “We saw him teaching anywhere he could, and we’re so honored to be here in his name and in recognition of what he knew the music was capable of doing.”

A soundcheck song sung by Wynton’s daughter did not materialize during the actual show, but the men continued shifting moods and tempos, mixing swing with hard bop, at times playing with incredible velocity, and when the three old childhood companions locked in together, the chemistry and communication were unmistakable. Wynton even sang a little on the slow-blues of “Baby, It’s All Right,” which he said was a reaction to the crowd’s mood. “I was afraid to sing some blues for y’all,” he said, “but y’all are so enthusiastic, you’re giving me the confidence to stand up here and make a fool out of myself!”

St. Louis mayor Tishaura Jones popped out to officially declare the occasion to be Wynton and Branford Marsalis Day in St. Louis, complete with plaques and photos on stage, as she reminded everyone that St. Louis has the second biggest Mardi Gras celebration outside of the Marsalises’ and Goines’ hometown of New Orleans. (Another mayor, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, was in attendance the night before at Jazz St. Louis.)

For a show-stopping finale, the band marched off the stage and down the center aisle of the crowd followed by St. Louis’s own Saint Boogie Brass Band, forming a second line parade as a surprised crowd clapped along. The parade ended out in the lobby where the group formed a circle of New Orleans-style jazz, with Wynton leading a call-and-response of blats, using his hand as a wah-wah mute, while as much of the crowd that could fit into the space danced around the perimeter. It was all over much too quickly as Branford and the rest of the band vanished into the wings.

But Wynton, ever the great jazz ambassador, stuck around to shake hands with the beaming Saint Boogie players, capping a great evening for Jazz St. Louis and an amazing night to remember for everyone else.

by Steve Leftridge
Source: Riverfront Times

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