Wynton Marsalis reaches out to the young

No event in Orchestra Hall’s jazz season generates greater anticipation or larger audiences than a residency by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

And none of this year’s three concerts, starting Friday, will make a bigger impact on the future than the Saturday matinee, a Jazz for Young People program. For during the course of this event, Marsalis won’t just play with his formidable ensemble but also will discuss the music, aiming his commentary at young listeners unfamiliar with jazz, as well as those already smitten.

The Young People sessions are as illuminating as they are entertaining, as in an event Marsalis led in 2012 in Orchestra Hall titled simply “Who Is Duke Ellington?”

With kids and parents listening attentively, Marsalis explained Ellington’s exalted stature among American composers but also humanized the man, discussing his life story and personal obsessions. Amid the commentary, Marsalis and JALC Orchestra played Ellington classics with panache and brio, conjuring radiant tone colors in “Black and Tan Fantasy” and propulsive rhythms in “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

Yet considering the complexity of the music-making and the rigor of the discussion, you didn’t have to be a kid to learn a great deal from the session. Anyone with a pair of ears and a healthy curiosity surely left the auditorium knowing more than when he or she arrived.

This time around, Marsalis and the band will ask a different question: “Who Is Dave Brubeck?” The innovative pianist-bandleader, who died in 2012 at age 91, helped build an enormous audience for jazz in the 1950s with hits such as “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” his music and biography eminently worth studying.

But regardless of any particular theme, the Jazz for Young People concerts surely crystallize JALC’s core mission: to educate the world about a music that’s central to the American identity.

“Our culture, the way it is now … we need to know about our art form,” says Marsalis, who long has seen jazz as a counterbalance to a contemporary pop culture that doesn’t always aspire to the noblest or most intellectually sophisticated goals.

“We need to just bring out jazz for the people,” adds Marsalis. “It’s important for us to interest people in our music and interest them in what our music has to offer.”

Specifically, Marsalis and his colleagues at Jazz at Lincoln Center consider the music a kind of metaphor for American democracy, in which each player has a singular voice, but all come together for the greater good. Freedom and discipline, sophistication and populism, the sacred and the sensual intertwine in jazz, just as they do in everyday life.

That’s the American experiment – a multi-cultural swell of voices ringing out all at once – and no music sums up that sentiment more urgently or eloquently than jazz. In effect, that’s the message that JALC has offered since it was established in New York in 1991, most notably through education. Last year, JALC last year presented nearly 3,000 educational events and distributed more than 24,000 scores to schools coast to coast (for free). Along these lines, JALC presents programs such as the annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival, which draws students from across country to Manhattan, and, of course, the popular Jazz for Young People concerts.

“We actively believe that jazz is uniquely positioned to teach culture,” says Todd Stoll, vice president of education at JALC.

“We’re not just teaching musicianship and the technique of playing music. We’re actually more interested in the content, in that we can illuminate our national identity. And that’s really what we’re trying to teach.

“We think jazz is uniquely positioned among many art forms to do that in a really effective and meaningful way.”

Lest that seem merely like a lot of high-flown verbiage, it’s worth noting that in addition to the aforementioned educational activities, the JALC Orchestra consistently takes its message outside glittering concert venues such as Orchestra Hall and into the neighborhoods. During this year’s residency, for instance, JALC will be sending some of its musicians to coach students at Chicago High School for the Arts on West Augusta Boulevard, Kenwood Academy on South Blackstone Avenue and Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on South Laflin Street. At no charge.

“Every city we roll into, time permitting, we try to send as many folks from the band out to work in the schools,” says Stoll.

“There’s an inspirational aspect to that. Kids that don’t necessarily have access to concerts or concert tickets, and all of a sudden a member of the JALC Orchestra is standing in front of them. They may not know who that person is, but the fact that an adult is taking time to show them that music and that love – that is powerful.”

Similarly, after practically any JALC Orchestra concert you’ll find Marsalis backstage giving impromptu lessons to a few young musicians who happened to bring their horns.

But does all this activity really impact kids’ lives, or is it just a passing diversion for youngsters facing continuous distractions from video games, computer screens and other forms of electronic fun?

“Over the past few years, I’ve met more people who said, ‘Gee, I went to these (Jazz for Young People) concerts when I was 4, and I would be sleeping, or I would be acting the fool, and now I’m into this music,’” says Marsalis, who modeled the program on Leonard Bernstein’s televised Young People’s Concerts.

“You know, whoever comes, it’s just important to reach our kids … in an artistic environment. We try to play like it’s a normal concert, and it’s painless. It’s a good way to get your kids thinking about the arts.”

Perhaps the power of this venture was most tangibly illustrated several years ago in Orchestra Hall, when Marsalis invited kids to come up onstage and join him. One of the youngsters promptly tucked himself inside Marsalis’ coat jacket and clung to him like glue as the afternoon progressed.

If a Jazz for Young People concert can have that kind of effect on a child, the effort seems eminently worth it.

For Saturday afternoon’s session, Marsalis plans to discuss various facets of Brubeck’s art, including the pianist’s unusual time signatures, jazz-meets-classical experiments and extended concert works. But, as always, the lessons will stretch beyond the nuts and bolts of making music.

“We talk about (Brubeck’s) involvement with civil rights, and all of what he did to represent the United States of America around the world,” says Marsalis.

“We talk about his relationship with his wife and his kids, and how he took jazz also into (being) a family affair.”

To Brubeck, in other words, jazz “wasn’t just something that was in nightclubs or just something that was about pure sexuality. It has that element, but it also has a family element. We talk about (Brubeck’s wife) Iola, and the way she got his band to colleges, the impact that had on the whole college scene.”

Indeed, long before Marsalis was born – 53 years ago – Brubeck and his wife in the 1950s were barnstorming college campuses across the country. In so doing, they not only expanded the audience for jazz but accrued for it an academic legitimacy it had long been denied.

In a way, Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center simply are building on Brubeck’s efforts, showing how jazz can resonate in many facets of American life.

“Wynton and I, we’ve known each other for many years, and we’ve always talked about how this music can help raise the consciousness of our combined humanity,” says Stoll, referring to the far-flung cultures, ethnicities, races and social classes that come together in jazz. “And that’s what we’re here to do.

“We feel this music helps us, it heals us, and it allows us a way to deal with who we are.”

Also, it sounds quite good.

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with a Jazz for Young People concert at 1 p.m. Saturday, in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; ticket prices vary; phone 312-294-3000 or visit

by Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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