Wynton Marsalis takes democracy from ballot box to stage with Sonoma State online series

Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has long championed jazz as an art form that embodies democratic ideals, and during an interview with The Chronicle in the midst of Inauguration Day festivities, he often evoked some of the same soaring tropes that poet Amanda Gorman threaded through “The Hill We Climb.”

“We’re not trying to describe chaos,” he said when asked about “The Democracy! Suite’s” subtly calibrated arrangements and inviting melodic lines. “We’re trying to acknowledge it and provide antidotes. I believe art is ultimately optimistic. It’s always more satisfying to go up than down.”

Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet filmed a performance of “The Democracy! Suite” in Lincoln Center’s Appel Room in September, and on Saturday, Jan. 30, Sonoma State University’s Green Music plans to stream the concert to kick off the center’s 2021 season of its online series the Green Room.

The Green Room season includes two new episodes of Sierra Leone-born vocalist, activist and bandleader Michael Mwenso’s Black Music Series with a Feb. 4 session focusing on his original music and an April 8 roundtable discussion on Black artists and LGBTQ+ identity with South African jazz vocalist Vuyo Sotashe and actor Jules Latimer. Kronos Quartet also performs works from its 50 for the Future project on Feb. 20, and the Bay Area’s irrepressible social justice hip-hop group Alphabet Rockers present a family show on Feb. 27.

From its early 20th century origins as an expression of African American culture, jazz has been a force in the struggle for civil rights. In tapping into the music’s long legacy of activism, Marsalis cited musicians Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who fought for justice on- and offstage.

Surprisingly, that emphatic exclamation point in “The Democracy! Suite” wasn’t a conscious hat tip to one of jazz’s most renowned statements, Max Roach’s 1960 album “We Insist!” featuring his “Freedom Now Suite,” which connected anti-colonial struggles in Africa to the raging fight against segregation in the South.

“When I put that exclamation point in, I didn’t think about ‘We Insist!’ at all, but I was trying to get to the language of 1960s freedom music,” Marsalis said. “I wanted something that sounded like what you had heard, but you haven’t heard it.”

Rather than renewing Roach’s and Mingus’ caustic, rip-snorting eviscerations of racist demagogues, Marsalis employs a supple Ellingtonian palette that evokes an array of emotional shades. The album opens with “Be Present,” a graceful tune that echoes tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine’s 1970 hit “Sugar.” On “Sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize (Black Lives Matters),” a forceful tenor sax solo by Walter Blanding captures the resolve and unmovable sense of mission that unites various chapters in the struggle.

In addition to Marsalis and Blanding, the septet features Ted Nash on alto sax and flute, trombonist Elliot Mason, pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez, and drummer Obed Calvaire (whose eight-year run with the SFJazz Collective concluded in October). With arrangements that often pair two horns in intertwined conversation, the suite is designed around the exquisitely balanced ensemble’s particular instrumental voices.

“What Wynton was able to convey is there’s always some type of dialogue going between the soloists,” Calvaire said. “We were keeping our ears open, really being sensitive to what the piano player is saying, what the saxophonist is saying. If we’re going to move forward as a nation, we have to be willing to listen to all sides.”

For Marsalis, democracy doesn’t stop at the ballot box. He includes the mournful, aching COVID requiem “Deeper Than Dreams” and the insistently joyful “Out Amongst the People (For J Bat),” a tambourine-driven shout-out to pianist Jon Batiste, who created his own response to Black Lives Matter with last year’s album and concert series “We Are.”

He wanted to capture the spirit of a recent photo of Batiste playing with Stay Human drummer Joe Saylor, bringing their music to the street. “I still think of him as a kid,” Marsalis said, “like all my students who I’ve encouraged to be part of this process, to understand the Constitution and achieve your highest aspirations as a citizen.”

Jazz may have been excluded from the Tom Hanks-hosted “Celebrating America” inaugural concert special, but the music contains powerful wisdom that seems particularly relevant. A foundational dialectic between tradition and innovation allows for radical evolution and the integration of far-flung influences. “The Democracy! Suite” isn’t about starting a new story. It’s music that makes sense of the current moment by paying close attention to past crossroads.

“If you think about the art, art is recreation and creativity made physical,” he said. “If you take the inauguration, they’re creating and also re-creating a ritual. It teaches us how to think, how to proceed symbolically, to consecrate things. The unity message is all right, but they’ve got to determine accountability for the attack on the Capitol.”

The Green Room Spring 2021 Series presents Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet with Wynton Marsalis “The Democracy! Suite”: 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30. Available to stream through Monday, Feb. 1. $10.

by Andrew Gilbert
Source: San Francisco Chronicle

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