The A-Train Rolls In With The Lincoln Center Jazz Band, Paying Homage To The Duke.
By Brendan Doherty
MARCH 22, 1999: TRUMPETER MARCUS PRINTUP and a few of his Lincoln Center bandmates are playing an exclusive afternoon concert in honor of Duke Ellington's 100th birthday. It's one of the hottest seats in town, and the only way to get in is with a middle-school student I.D. (or else be their teacher).
This is perhaps the first time anyone over the age of 20 would wish to be back in middle school. The visiting Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO) hopes this Tucson performance will offer more than just a hot performance, though; they aim to scatter a few seeds among the public school kids they see as a wellspring of future jazz performers.
The band will take the stage twice in Tucson as part of its jazz education crusade. Educators, jazz fans and performers alike hope that when the LCJO rolls through town, it will leave more than ticket stub souvenirs and the memorable strains of "Take the A Train." The non-profit, Grammy-nominated band is on a crusade to elevate jazz through performances nationwide, an extension of a broader commitment to jazz education and presentation that's become the standard-bearer for education programs.
"Jazz at Lincoln Center enables us to provide the highest quality of performing arts for these children," says Benita Silvyn of UApresents. "Compared to many organizations, the Lincoln Center is geared for this. If, as a student, you haven't had many encounters with jazz or dance, then you certainly want to provide that level of performance. If the teachers do the ground work of discussing Ellington in the classroom, or the history of jazz, or black culture, then the students can have the context for this genius' music."
For all, it is a rare glimpse into arguably the greatest jazz band of this era. For UApresents and the Tucson Unified School District, it's an opportunity to use highly accomplished musicians to fill in where music and cultural programs have been cut. A septet version of the Lincoln Center band will perform an hour-long program for 2,500 students during the UA and TUSD co-sponsored "School-time Matinee" program. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is touring the nation as part of an educational crusade to reacquaint jazz fans and students with the mastery and depth of Ellington's work. The local program culminates with a longer performance, for all ages, at Centennial Hall.
"The Lincoln Center is so wonderfully organized," says Silvyn. "They sent teacher guides and 2,500 student guides in advance. That's a wonderful way for teachers to prep their students for the performance. As a part of our regular program with local artists, the touring acts mean a lot to the program."
A performance by the LJCO is always something special. Not only is the concert narrated, but the performance itself is by one of the few bands with the skill to treat the work with the emotional sensitivity and complexity Ellington intended. And if all goes according to plan, the audience will include a young lady or young man like Marcus Printup, who had never heard live jazz until he met famed pianist Marcus Roberts. The pianist took Printup to hear another young jazz performer, Wynton Marsalis. The interaction was something that Printup never forgot.
"I first saw Wynton Marsalis at a performance in South Florida," says Printup, now a 32-year-old trumpeter with the Marsalis-led LCJO (whose own quartet recently released the album Nocturnal Traces on Blue Note Records). "They played a blues number and asked me to sit in with them. I'll never forget that feeling. We played some blues number, I have no idea what it was. I felt like I had come home." Printup says that the opportunity for students to be exposed to jazz and arts is essential for everyone, not just budding artists.
"Jazz is the only purely American art form," says Printup. "It teaches them how to be free. If you've never heard jazz before--and I've met a lot of people like this--they don't understand that a lot of jazz is improvisation. But when they hear it, they know that you can't script playing like that. It's like painters who paint images from in their head. If you can't do it, you can appreciate it. And if you can't do it on a horn, maybe it's something else that you can do it on."
Ellington is the perfect vehicle for the LJCO. The orchestra has included Ellington's work in its repertoire since its inception. The band recorded LCJO: Portraits by Ellington (Columbia) in 1992, and just released Live in Swing City--Swinging with the Duke (Columbia). On it are perhaps the fruit of the band's long-standing love affair with Ellington and his elegant compositions. The band's lineup has stayed the same for the past several tours, and to hear the ease and humor in tandem with the intensity of "Black and Tan Fantasy" is to hear what many believe Ellington wanted from his own band.
"There is a playfulness," says Printup. "We as a band play basketball and genuinely enjoy each other's company. When you hear (Ellington's) old recordings, you can hear them cheer each other on, and they are having fun. Ellington covered the whole of emotions, and we just try our best to interpret that. The fun, though, that comes after the hard work."
The hard work comes in studying and interpreting Ellington's catalog of music, nearly 2,000 written pieces. They are, arguably, the sound of America. Ellington's career spans the late 1920s Harlem Renaissance, through the Big Band eras, to the plugged-in late 1960s. Part of Ellington's genius was his ability to push jazz to the level of refined artistry associated, during his lifetime, only with classical music.
"Duke captured life," says Printup. "He wrote for the people of the world, for churches. He captured the scope of life that Americans and the world lived by. Listen to the Soundtrack for Paris Blues--it sounds like Paris. Every experience he had he could turn into music."
On this tour, Printup and the band will perform Ellington's Peer Gynt Suite at some dates, one of dozens of his suites, side-by-side with philharmonic orchestras playing Edvard Grieg's classical version. Ellington wrote a number of other suites, including the Liberian Suite, an Afro-Eurasian suite, and others. Seeing the 16-piece orchestra course through the legendary music is nothing short of epiphany. The Lincoln Center has followed through on the Ellington Centennial with a paperback publication called Jump for Joy, a 160-page journal commemorating Ellington's life and work, including a rare essay on jazz by the man himself, along with remembrances by Maya Angelou, Lionel Hampton and Tony Bennett. But words fall away when "Take the A Train" begins to play. There's a graceful complexity in its chugging, infectious rhythm. To hear it is to feel the train in notes.
"Playing to an audience is the best way to help people understand jazz," Printup attests. "It was wonderful to play the Grammys a couple of weeks ago, not from an individual standpoint, but because they had a special program. They put a picture of Duke Ellington up while we played his music. I know somewhere there is a little kid who saw us in tuxedos playing this rare and excellent music, and that will lead him to investigate the music."
Printup and his bandmates are pleased to meet and play for students. They hope it touches the youngsters, and revives memories for fans.
"I never had anyone come to my school to tell me about Duke Ellington or tell me about how to practice or the importance of it," says Printup. "I got that information late, in college when I met Marcus Roberts. He told me that my playing wasn't going to amount to anything. He told me it was chaotic. It was a rude awakening, and it was the best thing that anyone could've said."
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