Ellington is Essential

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This is a quick post today as I am dashing off to Rose Hall (the House of Swing) where I spend much of my time since taking up my post at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Having recently hit the two year mark, now it is hard to remember that there was a time when the labyrinth of our backstage confounded me. But this post isn’t so much a reflection on that as how I will spend my day today. This weekend in May belongs to a competition of fifteen of the finest high school jazz bands the nation has to offer fighting for the title of the best in the US.

Among the somewhat myriad educational programs we run, this one is called Essentially Ellington. Born out of the realization that most of the arrangements for Duke Ellington’s music were lost, Wynton Marsalis began a journey of recreating them (a band member actually does this each year) and distributing them for free to high schools all over the country. Many of these high school jazz bands then compete regionally for the opportunity to be one of the bands chosen to come to Manhattan to show their stuff and compete for the national title which happens over a three day period in May – this year culminating today in the finale of the 24th year of the program.

The first year I attended I thought – man, a whole day of high school jazz bands – I wonder if they are paying me enough? I was very quick to realize how very wrong I was. These kids are amazing – think Olympics of jazz band competition. I’m telling you – people would pay to hear most of these kids play.

Although it is a competition they are generous with their praise for each other – great solos are met with thundering applause and approving cheers, each school’s performance given an enthusiastic standing ovation when it completes its rounds. Last year when a young female trumpet player hit what is sort of the triple crown – winning the composition award, top achiever award and her band taking best in the competition – the approval of her peers just about brought down the house. Additionally, the ovation of the kids for their band directors at the end of the festival went on for seven minutes – there is love to spread around in that hall on Saturday night.

Since I am a fundraiser I know the details and demographics well. Half of the schools that compete nationally are what are called Title 1 schools which is the designation of those which are financially disadvantaged. Understanding the lack of resources at those schools, and even with the assistance we can offer (financial as well as providing some on the ground educators to train band directors and do some clinics with the bands locally at the schools), it is nothing short of a miracle what these chronically under-resourced schools achieved in order to arrive here this weekend.

While all the students are all of a high caliber, there is nothing like the moment when one of them takes a solo and suddenly the judges all sit up a bit and start to smile. As jazz musicians themselves they can’t help responding to the music. Yesterday during a trumpet solo by a young man from Rio Americano high school in Sacramento began his solo, I too found myself sitting forward in my seat and when the group from Snoqualmie, Washington took the stage next we were all blown away by a young woman who took her turn soloing, singing and playing the trumpet. Memorable.

By the end of the weekend new friendships will have been forged among the students – and for some of them, especially those who pursue a career in music, those are the seeds of cohorts that will inform the professional relationships of a lifetime. Many of the band directors will send love from the stage to wives who are chronically deprived of husbands on Mother’s Day again and again over the years. (The competition is webcast on our jazz.org site and many of the competing schools are watching it and cheering their school in auditoriums back home although a variety of parents and teachers travel with the kids as chaperones.) My colleagues from all parts of the organization, from the Chief Financial Officer to assists, will each be responsible for one of the bands throughout the competition. Seeing them in the civvies for long days and evenings in the hall is part of the drill.

It is all as American as apple pie, if also somewhat exhausting. As one fan said of the festival, there’s something about it that is very democratic, and for this and other reasons we will all find ourselves wiping a tear here and there over the course of the three days. So it’s 7:00 AM and I have to get to midtown. Let the finale begin!

Rock ‘n Roll Blues

Pam’s Pictorama Post: The ear splitting sound of electric guitar and flashing, colored lights – fans standing and yelling. Radio City Music Hall on a Wednesday night on a chilly, wet summer night. How on earth did this big band girl end up there?

Pictorama readers know I have occasionally taken to reporting on various aspects of my life, and lately that has mostly taken the form of writing about my new job at Jazz at Lincoln Center. As someone whose interest in music has rarely budged beyond a stubborn point after 1940 or so since discovering early jazz and dance band music in college, it gave me some pause to take a job where, by its very nature, I would be immersed in not only contemporary jazz, but all of the decades between.

I was very upfront about this concern throughout my interview process, often declaiming unwarranted into much of the first months of my job, until I realized that in reality most of the people I work with also have strong preferences and being open to things in a general way is the only musical mandate of the job. Over the intervening months on the march through my first year, I have discovered that I really don’t have to love everything. While my ambivalence about be-bop may be shocking to some (it really is) it is true that I don’t have to love everything. For all of that, there has been very little I didn’t at least find interesting – there was one painful night at Dizzy’s with what I will describe as abstract sax, but for the most part it has been an interesting ride.

Therefore, in the spirit of exploration I will try most things and as a result I have learned a lot. So the recent offer of a ticket to hear Steve Miller, who plays a blues program at our venue annually, resulted in a trip to Radio City Music Hall where I have not been in more than a decade. I met him recently and he seems to be a lovely person. His music is sometimes described as an entry point between rock ‘n roll and blues and with this in mind I accepted the offer of a ticket.

My most recent visit to Radio City was to hear the Dalai Lama. The long line and wait to get in for that was sort of epic, although he was fascinating as always and worth the wait. I had not thought about that particular talk in a long time, but it came back to me when I arrived at Radio City on the Wednesday night of my late June vacation. (The only other time I remember being at Radio City was to hear Frank Sinatra shortly before he died. My then boyfriend Kevin, who had the tickets, had gotten the date wrong and we had to rush to the theater, arriving late with the concert underway.)

The flashing lights and shock of the opening act, Peter Frampton, knocked me back even further, to my childhood. After the initial shock, and admittedly thoughts about running immediately from the room, I was surprised to realize oh-my-gosh, buried deep in my brain were many of these songs, as if planted there by aliens. Not all of it, but about a third of what he played kicked off a sound track in my brain, of long forgotten AM radio. (This coming to mind recently with the death of Dan Ingram. DAN’ Ing-ram, his intro playing from another soundtrack in my brain.)

Popular music blared daily from the radio in our sea green Pontiac station wagon, and from the large brown and gold affair of a radio (a bit out-dated even then) atop of our refrigerator – as soon as my sister was tall enough to change the dial from the constant news radio of the day. (WCBS I believe. My mom favored them as her brother worked for the station at the time. News was a family business.) Music of the ’70’s also blared from my bedside clock radio, (the clock radio which I later, if only briefly, discovered jazz on but about that another time), and of course from a series of small Sony transistor radios I kept with me to the extent the batteries held out. Later, in high school, top 40 music would follow me to parties at the beach at night, and ring in each New Year with a countdown of songs. WABC, top 40 radio. Little did I realize that a small tape recorder was going off in my brain and decades later someone would hit the playback switch.

My co-workers filtered in around me shortly before Steve Miller came on. When Steve Miller started the tape recorder revealed a greater knowledge and memory of his music – albums on my sister’s turntable. Then he and Peter Frampton played some blues together, blues of course being what I really came for after all, and I started to get it – not so bad for a big band girl.