Wynton Marsalis’ Notes From The Road – Recife, Brazil
As soon as we landed at Recife/Guararapes–Gilberto Freyre International Airport, named in honor of their homeboy Gilberto Freyre, I knew that Recife was going to be exceptional and the perfect place for the final leg of our month-long tour. An airport named for an intellectual who encouraged Brazilians to embrace the Afro side of their cultural heritage and nature? Criticisms of Freyre aside, it’s an unusually enlightened posture in the New World. But from the moment we stepped off the plane, this wonderful and welcoming city graced us with warmth and the finest hospitality.
Marcelo Ferreira, Luiz Barbosa, Lilian Pimentel and Mariana Cosseiro, all from Jaraguá Produções, meet us at the airport. They exude a refreshing mixture of absolute professionalism and a genuine curiosity and excitement about the days and events ahead. It is infectious. Although I don’t see Carol Ferreira (our Producer, who has moved mountains to bring us here), once I get to the car I’m introduced to our driver Junior, and Carol’s brother Marcelo, an opera singer whose distinctive speaking voice immediately identifies him as such. Thankfully Junior knows the city by hand, so on the drive into town I get a chance to really converse with and get to know Marcelo. We talk about Verdi and Wagner (who I learn were both born in 1813), opera houses, orchestras and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I try to get Marcelo to sing - but out of respect for Junior (and the volume) he declines. While discussing his education at the University of Indiana and Campbellsville University in Kentucky, I find out that Marcelo was also once a blues guitar player. I ask if he still plays and he says, “No, and now that I know more, I realize that I wasn’t one then.”
Everyone arrives at the hotel feeling happy about the quality of our hosts and ready to attend the dinner and second line parade planned for tonight in Olinda, the city with the first school for training Frevo musicians. As we walk up the cobbled streets to the restaurant, Oficina do Sabor, I can’t help but think about the French Quarters in New Orleans. Similar to traditions in my hometown, Frevo started with bands from the army regiments parading during Carnival time. Before long it became extremely competitive, with different regiments thinking they had the best marching band and musicians playing louder and louder and faster and faster. This competitive environment also featured elements of violence just as the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tradition featured musical and physical confrontations and resolutions.
Frevo has its own characteristic rhythm and melodic formula that includes influences from maxixe, capoeira and polka, and it is accompanied by a very fast and acrobatic dance that spices up elastic Afro-syncopated moves with the kicking squats and flips of the Cossacks from the Russian circus. The dancers dress in colorful clothing inspired by regional folk costumes and use yellow, blue, green and red umbrellas (just like New Orleans), while performing their neck-breaking dance steps at a heart stopping pace. Some say the word “frevo” comes from the Portuguese word “ferver” (to boil) and the tropical heat, loud prestissimo music and frenetic dance will definitely bring any public revelry to a frothy boil. And when you add the tight Olinda streets, mind-numbing beverages, all types of exquisite visual stimulation and a couple of million people, you get a feeling for the type of Bacchanalia I’m talking about.
When we arrive at the restaurant, Spok and some members of the Orquestra are already eating. We salute each other and begin to talk with the help of translation. I first met the incredible SpokFrevo Orquestra and Maestro Spok, their arranger, saxophonist and musical director, some 5 years ago at the Marciac Jazz Festival and I felt an immediate kinship. Earlier this year, they played a concert in the Appel Room in our House of Swing and blew audiences away. We are all eager to work with them, learn about Frevo and check out this cuisine. Afro-Latin musicians say, “Play with ‘sabor'” when they want that umptyumph. Oficina do Sabor is aptly named because everything they put on the table was gone by the time you asked, “What is that?” There is a unique and flavorful shrimp and shellfish stewed in a passion fruit-based sauce and served inside of a pumpkin that occupies everyone at our table’s attention. Damn! Spok and I had to split a third pumpkin. There were also all kinds of coconut sauces and African based Brazilian fusions. This meal was truly tasty and enlightening.
When blessing my food, I had to recognize all the people struggling to feed themselves each day and express gratitude for our good fortune in being treated with such generosity. I thought about my great aunt who could really, really cook (just about anything) but was very poor by American standards. She spoke in a small voice and was not given to a lot of taking, but when putting a great meal on the little table in the back room of her shotgun house she would say, “Just cause we poor don’t mean we cain’t eat good.” And my great uncle, born in 1883 and always prone to arguing with her, would say, “We rich next to where we come from!”
Over dinner Spok tells me all about his history and the history and tradition of Frevo, about how the carnival and the small streets affect playing parades, about when musicians stated improvising in Frevo, and about the relative strengths of different alcohols. All the cats are exchanging information about what dish to eat and where to get it, and there is a muted excitement about the culture, the atmosphere, and the tour being nearly over and about tonight’s second line. A month is a long time to be away from your family and loved ones, especially when you have small children who grow daily and can be transformed over four weeks. The Oficina is on a hill from which you can see the city of Recife shimmering and shining below. It looks like a postcard picture of nighttime possibilities. After eating, we sit up there and joke about things too silly or ignorant to write about. Then it’s time to visit the Grêmio Musical Henrique Dias. Founded in 1954, it is led today by Maestro Ivan do Espirito Santo. We enter the room while the orchestra is rehearsing and it is thoroughly neighborhood and strictly downhome. Every musician in here plays with a diehard sensibility. Our entire orchestra integrates the room, intently listening. We can hear many similarities between Frevo and Jazz and also with the 19th century style of band music we grew up playing. When they break, we start to play a New Orleans song “Lil Liza Jane” and they join in singing the refrain. Just musicians in a band room late at night, it always feels great.
Then we spill out into the open air playing the Frevo classic, “Vassourinhas”. As we slowly move down the crowded streets, both groups alternate - one Frevo song then one New Orleans tune - sometimes separate and at other times all together. The commotion causes the people, whose homes line the street, to lean out and participate in the excitement. But the paraders all around us make it very hard to play and walk without blowing in someone’s ears. Spok stops at Quatro Cantos (four corners). It’s the place that all the groups meet when they’re parading during Carnival, like the Municipal Auditorium was for us in New Orleans. There, we make our final stand with a couple of songs.
Though definitely unruly, there was so much enthusiasm that it felt good to be out there playing in the heat, in the street and surrounded by people at 11pm.
The next day we have an early 11am soundcheck. As a finale for tonight’s show we rehearse Spok’s “Moraes é Frevo” with both orchestras. Whew! The sax parts are flying all over the place, but the trumpet parts are really hard with all kinds of double tonguing starting on the off syllable. We struggle, but the SpokFrevo Orquestra trumpet players have no problem with it. It’s instructional to hear them play it, but I think it would take a year of practicing (no exaggeration) to actually play my part well. After a good hour, we leave it up to the Lord.
For lunch, Carol Ferreira treats us to another epicurean repast at Bistrô & Boteco in old Recife. She is very much behind-the-scenes and quiet, but she and partner Luiz of Jaraguá were showing us another level of welcome. After the meal I was given a tour of the Paço do Frevo, which literally means the Frevo Palace. It is a museum, school, performance space, media center and studio, created specifically to preserve the memory of frevo traditions. https://www.facebook.com/pacodofrevo
Eduardo Sarmento is the Director and he is a visionary. It’s inspiring to see how the people have inhabited all six or so floors of the space, using it to enrich their lives with their own culture. And to see the history of Frevo clearly laid out in a year by year photo exhibit, to see a group of school kids sprawled across the floor learning about it, and to see the library, the studio, the colorful umbrellas and the proudly embroidered club banners was truly uplifting. No pursuit could be more meaningful or worthy. I can’t help but envision this type of facility for New Orleans school kids and communities.
Then Spok and I met on the top floor for a public conversation about the relationship between the traditions of Frevo and New Orleans music. The room was filled with musicians, concerned citizens and a few masters who were seated in the front rows. Spok referred to their expertise and achievements at various times throughout the talk. Before the discussion began, I was introduced to Maestro Duda, one of the most important living Frevo composers, who gifted me with an original composition for trumpet. Marcelo functioned as translator with that sturdy baritone and opera singer’s linguistic sophistication.
It was deep, when I looked around the room I saw so many common cultural touch points: I saw my father, and clarinet master and teacher Alvin Batiste, artist John Scott and band director John Fernandez at sparsely attended musical lectures and symposiums at Xavier University and other institutions during the '60s and 70’s. I was reminded of their lifelong struggle to insist on the seriousness and importance of the local Art in a New Orleans community that at the time was much more interested in the New Orleans Saints (and we were LOSING all the time then). Through the conversation I came to understand the uphill struggle for Spok and so many of the advocates for Frevo culture and music. Yes, we discussed parades and banners, blocos, social aid and pleasure clubs, marches, parading, the tradition of violence that ties the Mardi Gras Indians to the capoeira dancers, swing rhythms, tradition and innovation, improvisations and chord progressions, and the past and future. The conversation was well received, but the subtext was not discussed because it just was.
Spok is an embodiment of the art and a charismatic ambassador of the style. Every now and then an artist arrives with the magnetism AND the desire to enrich some aspects of the artistic quality and the substance of the art. He or she is a blessing for the style, but with every blessing there also a curse. The substantive challenge of rising to the artistic level of the masters is a concern that vanishes if you give way to the popular musical trend of the moment. Popularity is of course, is its own standard, and presents challenges unrelated to any musical masters or in some cases any music period. Then, should you choose the less popular route, there is always the old guard that defends the quality of those masters’ work. Many times the charismatic figure is one of the few people who even knows who the masters are, let alone the old guard, and often the ENTIRE tradition is presented to the public through the popularity of this artist, regardless of his or her desire or intention. It’s impossible for someone with a spotlight on them to redirect that light onto someone the light is not on. And, the elders are naturally and sometimes even justifiably resentful of this dynamic, creating an unresolvable tension that requires the younger artist to have a very subtle understanding and a feathery touch at all times.
Then there is the pressure on that artist to develop and innovate aspects of the style (that are considered sacred by some) while also being true to its essence, while also dealing with the commercialism that fans the flames of fame. Of course the fame consistently pulls you away from the essence that you are supposed to embody, while learning how to play, and cultivating a group and a group concept, while also dealing with the fact that the art you embody has very little support from the very people that created it (because ultimately they want whatever is most commercial). This is the New Orleans conundrum. The name Jazz is great, claiming its origins and traditions is even better, just as long as we don’t have to actually check out the music or teach it to our kids. That’s why my answer for what’s new in Jazz is now and forever: people are going to start listening to it.
I love Spok and everyone at the Paço do Frevo because they are engaged in that long uphill battle to raise the consciousness of the culture with its own art despite a tradition of neglect that says, “it’s only something from the street and not serious, let it be whatever.” They are for real, and that entire building stands as a testament to their belief. And all those kids inside learning the substance of their culture offer the possibility for an educated continuum.
After the talk was over, a group of trumpeters (three from SpokFrevo Orquestra) performed Maestro Duda’s “Fantasia Brasileira para Trompete”. There were four movements and each was rich with counterpoint and drama, and each employed a different style and rhythm. The trumpeters played it to a fare thee well, with sophistication and sauce. I loved it.
The concert that night was at Parque Dona Lindu, in Boa Viagem beach. It was an indoor/outdoor venue; similar to the one we played in São Paulo. Spok and the Orquestra opened up and played with their characteristic passion, virtuosity and fire. At one point our own Elliot Mason sat in with them on Maestro Duda’s “Nino, o Pernambuquinho” along with trumpeter Fabio Costa. If you can’t play and tongue with some serious velocity, stay home. Elliot can, and he was AT home and welcomed as such.
Spok’s set was energetic and electrifying and on their last song they played an extended blistering brass line that made us all look in disbelief and want to inspect their instruments after the gig. It reminded me of a photo of the trumpeters in the London Philharmonic examining Louis Armstrong’s trumpet in the early 1930’s. The SpokFrevo Orquestra’s virtuosity and precision speaks to hours and hours of practicing and also to the quality of their leadership.
We went on stage playing and swinging hard, determined to finish the night and the tour right. The audience was very lively and active and they absorbed the range of music we played with no hesitation or judgment of the various styles. I always have to remind myself that our listeners have definitely not heard the original music we play (mostly because almost all of it is unreleased) and that many of them have also never heard any of the traditional arrangements, and if they have, it was on a recording and not live. That’s why we always say ‘play the music of all periods just like you wrote it yesterday.’ This group of listeners loved both Spok’s set and ours.
As the night wore on, I was cognizant of the time and of our hard curfew. Spok came out and we played his “Moraes é Frevo”, which we had rehearsed earlier. I have to ask his forgiveness because I don’t think I played one complete measure properly and definitely messed up the double-tonguing part that I had been going over in my mind all day. Luckily, the Orquestra trumpets were covering me up. After a string of improvisation we took it out and Ali played his difficult drum break correctly. The audience loved it, and so did we. It is always special to come together over something meaningful and difficult, and we were definitely trying our best to get with Spok and the cats. We then played “Vassourinhas”, the most popular and highly played song during Carnival, the equivalent in Recife to Joe Avery’s “Second Line” in New Orleans. Once again the response from the crowd merited another song. Because this night was the 200th anniversary of the US consulate in Recife (it’s one of the oldest in the world) and our Ambassador Liliana Ayalde was in the house, both groups saluted our mutual 200th by playing a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ in the alternating languages of Frevo and New Orleans Jazz. Everyone went home happy and satisfied. It was a diverse and full night of music.
After the concert we met so many interesting people. I had the opportunity to fellowship with Ms. Lêda Alves, the Secretary of Culture of Recife, who sponsored this visit and made it possible. She was so relaxed and dignified that I had to hug on her. Then I signed a number of things and took a pile of pictures with new friends and suddenly, our tour was over.
As the proverbial 'icing on the cake’, we were invited to a jazz-themed club/restaurant called ‘Mingus’ whose owner, Nicola Sultanum, has one of the most distinctive goatees in the world. Ironically, he was the singer in that blues band that Marcelo played guitar with years ago. Nicola, his restaurant, club, his goatee and his vibration all belong in the “soul” hall of fame. HE TOOK CARE OF US.
As we sat and talked and drank and ate, the overwhelming generosity of our hosts brought us right back to the incredible roll call of positive experiences and people we have encountered in this last month. From every promoter, Ambassador, fan, hotel worker, restaurant owner, musician, student, teacher, ticket buyer, driver, guide, pilot, translator, to old friends and new ones, we have been blessed over the course of these four weeks. And our community of supporters, loved ones, photographers, road crew, sound and production gurus, staff on the road and the staff back at home, kept us safe and of sound mind and body and always in pursuit of the swing. In the words of Frank Stewart “It was glorious.”
As Ted and I walked 6 blocks back to the hotel at around 1:30 am, we talked about the changes we would like to see in the world and other such light subjects. We passed a group of kids playing soccer and speculated on how long our old asses could last in a game with them. After laughing at the thought, I wanted to ask him if he remembered a time about 15 years ago after a gig in Australia, long after everyone had gone home, that he and I went back to get our horns and decided to play ‘Epistrophy’. We didn’t stop until about 20 minutes later and afterwards, we laughed (in the same way that we just did) dapped each other and put our horns away. We caught a ride with someone in a vintage car or something like that…. but I decided not to ask him about that memory, there was too much to talk about that had just happened. Like all that horn Spok played, or that hard double-tonguing that Ted said “reduced him to playing shapes, but Sherman played the hell out of.” (This made me feel better about butchering my part because Ted can play everything). These two days were full!
Ain’t no sense in belaboring it. In the words of Marcos Portinari, Hamilton de Holanda’s manager, “After ‘love’ there is nowhere else to go but down.”
Department get-together can be summed up as “got drunk on half a Solo cup of prosecco, nearly got into a fight with That Guy on three different Star Wars points.” It started with “voice actors aren’t real actors” (re: Ashley Eckstein), graduated to “the prequels suck”, tried to switch topics to TFA (“boy, that crossguard ‘saber looks dumb”), and then someone else stepped in because I probably looked like I was going to murder him. Then I started drinking.
It is always exciting to fly into Mexico City at night. We arrived shortly after midnight. Just the endless tapestry of lighted homes and streets stretching to the horizon further than the eye can see gives you a jolt of super energy. We are being presented by DeQuinta Producciones, which means Eugenio Artistic Director and Maribel General Director.
I met Eugenio in Buenos Aires in ‘91 through the great trumpeter Fats Fernandez. We then had the privilege of working with DeQuinta on a 2004 residency that included performing in the Main City Square of Mexico Zocalo with vocalist Lila Downs for 50,000 people, in the Bellas Artes Opera House and in the Auditorio Nacional for 7,000 with the Mexico City Phil. They produced the Antonio Sanchez performances in Dizzy’s in 2004 just after the inauguration of Rose Hall. In 2010, they brought us to Guanajuato, Guadalajara and Mexico City to participate in a production called ‘Celebremos the Americas’ with Paquito D'Rivera, Chano Dominguez, Jared Grimes, Antonio Sanchez, Edmar Castaneda and Blas Cordoba. DeQuinta now presents an annual concert series in partnership with JALC called ‘New York Jazz All Stars’. It’s in its 3rd year, and is the only international concert series in Mexico and takes place March thru November. So far they’ve brought Helen Sung, Eric Reed, Wycliffe Gordon, John Ellis, Melissa Alana, Warren Wolf, Matt Wilson and many other great musicians. So, they are family.
The next morning, we held a press conference in the Salon de Los Murales in front of a beautiful Diego Rivera mural at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes. I went over with Maribel and just being in her presence is like entering the classroom of life. She is warm, thoroughly cultured and loves sharing information in a very inviting and conversational way. In describing the hall she tells me, “Clemente Orozco, Rodriguez Lozano and Rufino Tamayo and Rivera all have murals in this hall. It was built for the 100th Anniversary of Mexico, but the construction was halted to make way for a Revolution. Afterwards, it was finished.”
I am always moved by the depth and breadth of culture in Mexico City. The conference was to announce our arrival and it was well attended by some 42 media outlets including TV, print and radio. There were many good questions, but people seemed particularly interested in knowing what was the central reason for us coming to Latin America and the Caribbean. I say, “It is to participate in the Afro-Latin traditions that join all of us in this part of the Americas. It’s like a family reunion. You could Skype but why? You have to be there.”
We go on a 2-hour drive to teach a class in Cuernavaca. It’s where Mingus came to heal for the last 6 months of his life. Maribel wanted to come here because it’s in Guerrero near where 40 school kids were killed 5 months ago. Guerrero is one of the most violent states in Mexico and she felt that a permanent infusion of Jazz and the Arts could bring optimism and hope to young people here and help with the healing process. She and Eugenio believe in regular classes and concerts not the customary festival one-offs.
Maribel has 3 children and 6, soon to be 7, grandkids. She was joking about receiving photos from Frank from a young people’s concert the last time we were here. “My grandkids were babies when I asked you for these photos, now they’re teenagers.” We were talking about family and kids and she talked about dealing with the early death of her husband 9 years ago and said, “My 45th anniversary is tomorrow. You know, some time passes fast, but that same time can also take an eternity to pass. Time itself doesn’t cure anything, only your attitude can make things change.”
She said her father was 97 years old and had been orphaned at 14 months. He fought in the Spanish Civil War at 19, and after two years on the front lines, having lost all of his friends, he escaped to Portugal dressed as a gypsy woman and a relative paid for his passage to Mexico. She said they grew up loving his fantastic stories, but he was also a great listener. He would say, “You have two ears and one mouth. Listen twice.”
We are hosted in high style in Cuernavaca by Cristina Faesler, Secretaria de Cultura del Estado de Morelos, with a delicious repast, before heading to the Teatro Ocampo to teach a class for about 500 attentive students. A beautiful quintet of youngsters- Roberto Martinez Miñon on tenor sax, Cesar Guadarrama on piano, Hector “Paris” Delgado on bass, Victor Perez “Toral” on drums and Aaron Gonzalez Montiel on guitar played ‘Doxy’ for Carlos, Ali, Dan and me. We went through all the basics: the quest for balance between bass and drums, to play with intensity instead of over loud volume, we demonstrated the derivation of the shuffle pattern from the African 6/8, Carlos stressed the need for empathy and proper technical skills, Ali talked about swing as a concept of balance, the need for commitment and belief to improve, Dan demonstrated how to play on harmonic progressions, I talked about developing a personal sound, securing gigs no matter how bad, acknowledging the audience you’re playing for and expressing gratitude.
The students were wonderful, very attentive and receptive. It was uplifting and remains so. Two hours back home.
Notes From The Road (Reflection) - Wynton Marsalis:
Tonight, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and guest Cecile McLorin Salvant make their return to Rose Hall after being out on the road for Big Band Holidays - a 10 city run. Wynton spoke with us about the first 5 days of tour and what it’s like to be out on the road. Enjoy!
December 1, 2014 - MONDAY
Our first concert on the Big Band Holiday tour was at the Marcus Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin. Milwaukee is Dan Nimmer’s hometown. His parents were in attendance and he showed off for them by tearing through ‘Santa Claus’ with Carlos and Ali. The first gig of a tour is always tricky because we’re trying to work out who is going to solo on what songs, how to order each song so the concert flows smoothly, how to balance talking with playing and generally seeing how the gig plays out. You don’t know if the show is effective until it is over. Sometimes gigs earlier in the week consist of one 90-minute set instead of two halves. Tonight was a 90. They are always more difficult to program because you have to conceive of the impact of different tunes across a longer time. Though I was apprehensive, the gig was well received and Cecile was an absolute star.
After the concert we saw some old friends that love to recount the times we’ve played here. They always have some remembrance that I struggle to recall (sometimes with more success than others). Some of the cats hung with the touring company of The Lion King choreographed by our close friend and genius, Garth Fagan while Dan hung with his parents and others of us attended a reception held by the Black Arts Think Tank of Milwaukee. There isn’t always so much activity after shows early in the week.
The Think Tank services The Ko-Thi Dance Company, African American Children’s Theatre and the Hansberry-Sands Theatre Company with board leadership and administrative support. They came together to cultivate more community wide support for their dedicated organizations and Afro-American art in general. During the reception I spoke about the need for a revolution in cultural consciousness in this country. Culture through the Arts is never on the agenda in times of reform. The change that we are seeking has to, in some way, come out of our own identity. We Americans tend to look at ourselves demographically and don’t even consider the cultural solutions to our polarity.
December 2, 2014 - TUESDAY
On the drive to Minneapolis I checked out the violin concertos of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Sibelius, and Benjamin Britten. I am working on a concerto for Scottish virtuoso Nicola Benedetti and critical listening to concertos is educational and essential for me to form the identity of this work. It is also just fun.
We played in one of my favorite halls, the Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. As we took the stage, I looked up and spotted Manny Laureano in the audience. Manny is principal trumpet with the Minnesota Orchestra and conducts the Minnesota Youth Orchestra. At 15, I attended the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro North Carolina for summer camp. Counselors and teachers always comparing me to Manny because he was playing classical trumpet and was also a minority (which was extremely rare, I haven’t been back to the camp in years so I don’t know if it still is). He is one of the world’s finest trumpeters and musicians and is an even greater person. I am always uplifted by seeing and speaking with him. We spoke about the ochre steal voice in different Concertos among other things. I left hoping to hear his youth orchestra soon, I know they can play and he is very very proud of them.
From October 2012 to January 2014 The Minnesota Orchestra was locked out. They are now back to work under new management, doing well and even more committed to their craft. The music world watched these proceedings with great interest. We know that major American cities need Symphonic Orchestras and listening halls. If communities lose the desire and ability to listen together in concentrated silence and experience profound music, throw-away music products which feature extra musical distractions like light shows, pre-recorded tracks and repetitive loops will pretty much be the only alternative.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights can be challenging for ticket sales but this Tuesday the audience was robust and attentive. After the concert I stopped by the atrium of Orchestra Hall in order to hear pianist Jeremy Walker. He is curating a new collaborative jazz series with the Hall. Our own Marcus Printup, Vincent Gardner and Ted Nash joined Jeremy’s trio in a program of his compositions as well as some standards. The room was intimate and full of good feeling. By the time the hall had cleared out this evening, people had enjoyed a full night of jazz music.
Every time we go to the Minneapolis /St. Paul area I always think about the Dakota, a classic jazz club with great food that’s been functioning for many years. Over the years, I’ve seen great musicians there, from Esperanza Spalding to Joe Henderson, but we didn’t get a chance to check it out this time around. Next time.
December 3, 2014 - WEDNESDAY
Green Bay reminds me of my cousin Charles Harris. When we were growing up everything was always about the Green Bay Packers. Being a Raiders and Saints fan, Green Bay was never on my list of favorite destination. Green Bay is the Packers. That’s all to that. Whenever anyone hears the name Green Bay, they think Packers and Vince Lombardi.
We played the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay and it was a great opportunity to reach audiences we don’t usually get to see. The audience was small but enthusiastic. Our way of playing is not affected by the size of the audience. The engagement of whoever is there is what motivates us. Jazz needs participants and we love you in all shapes and sizes.
On this tour we have the pleasure of playing with James Chirillo. He plays great fills, rhythms and solos. He is a complete guitarist and we are happy to have the fourth voice to form the classic rhythm section. Because many of us grew up in jazz households, we know that every opportunity to play this music for people is a sacred opportunity. Every concert is significant, whether it's the third, the fifth or the twelfth day on tour, it doesn’t matter.
December 4, 2014 - THURSDAY
A day off in Green Bay and the Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy gave the cats in the band a tour of Lambeau Field. Some of us spend days off relaxing; others work on music and other projects, and still others go out to see things and participate in the life of the community. In the midst of catching up on the emails and written obligations for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Juilliard I had a moment to reflect on the recent happenings in our country.
Last year around this time we were touring and the government was on strike. That strike was the culminating achievement of intense partisan politics. It should have been a wake up call for us, but it wasn’t. Whenever a group of elected people can’t even agree on how they’re going to misappropriate, mistakenly take and misspend a big pot of your money, you know there’s a profound dysfunction.
This year the grand jury cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, after a spate of public abuses of power against black folks, have deepened the feeling of separatism through partisan style tribalism in this country… The presence of our orchestra, without saying a word, is clearly an opposition to that feeling. It’s in the music that we play. Jazz is a cultural counter statement to tribalism and provinciality. It was always an agent for integration, not assimilation, but true integration. The music has always been in the forefront of American diversity in a meaningful and real way, not as a media response to demographics or a response to market demand for the illusion of diversity. Whether it is Louis Armstrong’s profound influence on everyone in the 20’s, Benny Goodman’s pioneering efforts in the 1930’s, Dizzy Gillespie and Cu-bop of the 40’s, Dave Brubeck’s band in the 1950’s, or John Coltrane’s bands and world music of the 1960’s, the music has been on the front lines. It goes on and on… Duke Ellington and all that he embraced from Django Reinhardt to Toshiko Akioshi. It’s not integration if there is no recognition and no acceptance of the ‘other’s’ point of view or achievement. Jazz has always achieved victories without sacrificing quality.
These police cases as well the issues of domestic violence and crimes against women – the revelation that we torture people is added to our knowledge that our financial industries prey on the general public and that our campaign finance model needs to be reformed – are creating a heavy undertone across this country. With the need for sensational news to fill the agenda and wide open social media channels, we are being forced to confront the types of injustice that corrupt our way of life, and we are called to battle with the close mindedness that casts a blind eye on injustice. The obvious traditional and systemic inequality in jobs, education and criminal justice that counter state our national mission has forced us to question who we are and who we want to be. Jazz music itself has a clearly stated take on the American identity, but the nation has yet to become enraged enough with our failure to honestly engage these issues. Truth be told, we are slowly coming to it and will.
December 5, 2014 - FRIDAY
We left Green Bay at 7:00 am for Carmel, Indiana. You have to always take Chicago Rush hour into account. Although sound check was scheduled to start at 6:00 pm, with 390 miles to drive and at least one stop for food, the day is packed tight. Whenever we drive by Chicago, Frank Stewart and Andre Bragg always – rain, sleet, snow, hail – stop at Lem's Bar-B-Q on the South Side for some hot links. This trip is no exception. We’ve been on 48-hour rides across the country and they’ll go 3 hours out of the way after 30 hours in the seat, just to sniff some 'stinky links’. 11:30 am… There is no food served until 1. We will go south from Carmel so no Lem’s on this tour.
The drive was longer than planned and we were behind. I need at least 2 hours to get together and iron and think about the set before the gig. Thankfully, sound check was scheduled 1 ½ hours later than normal. This puts great pleasure on our sound Engineer David Robinson. We tease him by calling him the Celebrity Sound Man but he works non-stop. He had to work from the time our buses arrived until the night was over. We are truly lucky to have him. David has a very complicated job and he works it everyday. He is a stalwart out here.
We played at The Palladium at The Center for the Performing Arts. Michael Feinstein is the Artistic Director of the Center and the hall has all types of interesting memorabilia like the history of the American Popular Songbook (probably from Michael’s fantastic collection). Michael has more interesting things than anyone and is such a great ambassador for our song tradition. Of the Performance venues we play around the world, The Center has the most hospitable and well-managed backstage crew and production teams. Ellen Kingston, our presenter, deserves a shout out.
This audience is always listening and great, and they loved Cecile who was in great form. Carlos played an inventive and virtuosic solo on ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ and the rhythm section demonstrated their range and flexibility on Vincent’s arrangement of ‘What Child is This.’
After the show we had to make a quick turn around. The buses left for Arkansas at 1am. Frank, Bragg and I don’t do too much talking in the car. To add insult to injury, our XM Radio is not working because the car rental service didn’t renew their subscription. Now we can’t argue about the two stories passing for news that are repeated ad nauseum. Well, I can continue with my hobby, tweaking ‘Blues Symphony’ to see if I can figure out how to make it sound like music.
Stayed tuned for more 'Notes From The Road’ featuring Ali Jackson, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Elliot Mason, Paul Nedzela, Victor Goines, Walter Blanding and more.
Watch a free live webcast of Big Band Holidays December 18-20, 2014 at 8PM EST. jazz.org/live
People like to ask what its like being on the road. The obvious answer (which also happens to be the truth) is that its a hell of a lot of fun (peppered with bouts severe boredom).
I’m twenty five years old and have been doing this since I was sixteen. I don’t think I’d still be here almost a decade later if I did’t love it. Its gotten a little more comfortable since then, and we’re a better band now than we were back then; but at the core touring is the same for the band living out of a van on ramen noodles, and the band who has a fleet of coach buses and a chef that travels with them.
Balance is key.
A balance that can be hard to maintain when you’re galavanting around the world as a travelling circus flying down the lonely gypsy highway.
Imagine you were trying to walk a tight rope 100 ft. up in the air and someone was right in your face yelling at you the whole time trying to throw off your balance. The rope is balance, and the person yelling is temptation. Balance is key if you’re going to do this for any extended period of time.
We had a tour manager years ago who told me the three things you have to fight for when living on the road:
- Quality sleep - Quality food - and Exercise.
These things are much easier to maintain at home. With a kitchen, a warm familiar bed, and a schedule that doesn’t involve “going into work” at 1am.
But we try. We shop for groceries, some of us do push ups, and with a bus its actually easy to oversleep if you’re not careful. Its hilarious and entertaining falling asleep in one city, and waking up in another.
I often find myself checking the GPS on my phone when I wake up to triangulate exactly where we are and wrap my head around how far we’ve travelled overnight.
Time seems to be measured by cities and less by hours or days. When was the last time I showered? Kamloops I think…
The lack of responsibility can be intoxicating. The bulk of our responsibilities while were bouncing around this country of ours is to simply put on a good show every night. That’s it.
That lack of responsibility coupled with temptation is enough to make plenty of people lose themselves. But we don’t, at least not yet. Check in with us when we’ve got that fleet of tour busses and we’re playing the Enormodome.
It could happen to anyone, but like my drum teacher told me: you have to remember to keep your ego in check and beat it with wisdom from time to time.
My band will have been out for just over a month by the time we’re done on this tour. A short haul for some, a long haul for others. Another link in the chain for now.
I dreamt I was on a plane watching the ground arrive, its patchwork cover of gray and black and green grow larger and focused. When we landed and I walked through the terminal I was confused. I did not remember where I was, not in a dream way but in a traveling too much way, when time and space curve after you can’t pronounce the street signs for awhile. There’s this piece of being gone, the mystery of being aware of where you are and where you aren’t simultaneously, that isn’t reconcilable with our understanding of home. It’s worse when you don’t understand that, either, and so I emerged from a strange airport into the early evening rain. Taxis circled and the city loomed, like every city from Paris to Kyoto to Vancouver to Baltimore, which is to say it called without commitment. I realized I was in Stockholm, but could not remember why, so I told the driver to take me to the hotel and then a bar, where I might find my bearings and shake my memories loose.
Sitting in class, missing nice, logical Attic Greek (which I never thought I’d say), and thinking about how to further ruin my characters’ lives. I love them, really, I do. I like causing them emotional anguish. I like it when they cry. What if Vader makes Kanan murder four other prospective Inquisitors? I really need to repaint my nails tonight. This is what my train of thought looks like in class.