Higher Ground!

 

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  Jazz at Lincoln Center Celebrates New Orleans

 

Over the years I have had a unique relationship with the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which is arguably the greatest performance venue in the world.  I was first attracted to the place because it was the home of the New York Philharmonic, and I was captivated by it’s dynamic, brilliant and theatrical conductor, Maestro Leonard  Bernstein, whom I had become a fan of when he presented my Philly homeboy, pianist Andre Watts, in one of his famous “Young People’s Concerts.” More than a decade later I would play there with my own band, backing the great singer Jean Carn in a sold out concert at Avery Fisher Hall –the home of the Philharmonic. 

 Then one night in the early eighties, I heard a nattily dressed brilliant young trumpeter from New Orleans playing in Alice Tully Hall with Herbie Hancock’s VSOP orchestra, a confederation of virtuosos that included bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams, and Saxophonist Wayne Shorter – or at least I think it was Wayne, because I was so mesmerized by the young trumpeter, who looked like the milk had just dried around his mouth but was wailing his ass off, I forgot who was playing sax.  His name was Wynton Marsalis, the name caught my ear because it reminded me of the great pianist Wynton Kelly, whom I had heard with Miles and would later learn is his namesake, and I knew from jump street that the boy was gonna blow up big.  Having failed at playing the trumpet at an early age, and then having listened with great attention and admiration to every trumpeter from “Pops” Armstrong to Harry “Sweets” Edison, Roy “Little Jazz” Eldridge, “Dizzy” Gillespie, “Fats” Navarro, “Sweet” Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Booker Little and Lee Morgan it was obvious that this new kid on the block was something special.  You had to be tone deaf not to hear it, and even Ray Charles could see it.  

 A few years later I met the young man and became a militant defender of the fledgling Jazz at Lincoln Center program, where he was the artistic director, when it was under siege from the naysayers in the New York media.  And on that memorable day in 2004, when the brand new Jazz at Lincoln Center opened in Columbus Circle with a Rambunctious New Orleans style street march down Broadway, I chronicled it with the longest and most thorough account in the New York media – except for the excellent extended coverage provided by Channel Thirteen of the Public Broadcasting System, which is in a class by itself when it comes to covering what really matters in art and politics.  

 Thus it was no surprise to that the first person I encountered in the corridors back stage on a summery September evening in 2005 was an elegantly attired graceful lady whom, to my horror and vexation, I momentarily mistook to be Lynn Cheney – the wicked witch who tried to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts – but to my delight turned out to be Pat Mitchell, the CEO of Channel 13.  It was in the nature of things that Ms. Mitchell should be there because her station was broadcasting the musical magic show in real time. And as a longtime champion of the program it was also true to the logic and legacy of Jazz at Lincoln Center that I should get to stand in the wings – the $10, 000 ticket price being too rich for my blood, although it was well justified because the treasure gathered there was going to the survivors of Katrina– and witness one of the greatest concerts in history.  And this historic happening was properly dubbed, “Higher Ground.”

Mood Indigo

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Trumpeter Terrance Blanchard Plays The Blues

 

Although it took a hurricane the size of Katrina – a devastating phenomenon that I believe is a manifestation of Mother Nature’s revenge for the years of flagrant abuse by egocentric men – to bring them together, there were many magical moments once these Eulipians took the stage: The poets, the singers, the thespians, and the master musicians swinging their axes.  They had gathered together to anoint the nation with their gifts and raise money to assist our battered brethren in the Crescent City who had watched their dreams sink in the floods.

 Many of the musicians, along their family and friends, had suffered unspeakable losses.  But you couldn’t tell that from the music they made; glorious sounds which soared into the astral plane and buoyed our spirits.  And at no point in the evening was this truer than when the superbly gifted trumpeter and music educator Ervin Mayfield, who told the shocked audience that his father was still missing, performed a solo rendition of a spiritual that was a favorite of his father’s and dedicated his performance to him.  I have never seen a more inspired and compelling demonstration of the fine art of the trumpet!

 Song for his Father

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Ervin Mayfield Wailing A Hymm

 

While forging great art out of tragedy is an old story, the Higher Ground concert, coming as it did while we are still in the grips of the tragedy, represents a unique triumph of the human spirit.  It was clear to everyone who witnessed it that the spirit of New Orleans was alive and well.  You could hear it in the music of the first band, composed of New Orleans musicians and conducted by the brilliant singer/songwriter/pianist Alvin Toussaint.  When I peeped Toussaint on the gig, I immediately thought of his immortal songs “Southern Nights” and “Lady Marmalade,”  and I knew it was about to get funky up in there.  When they backed singer Aaron Neville, who looked like a dock worker amid parlor pimps, his near falsetto tenor voice conjured up all the joy and pain of the human condition in New Orleans at this moment of profound crisis.

 The Jordan family is a splendid example of this triumph of the spirit in the face of tragedy.  The four siblings – trumpeter Marlon, Flutist Kent, violinist Rachel and  Songstress Stephanie – who were taught the art of music making by their father, a professor of music at Southern University, gave a moving performance of beautiful a Jazz standard. To listen to the lovely relaxed sound of trumpeter Marlon Jordan, one of the younger crop of jazz virtuosi to emerge from the Crescent City, you would never guess that only a few days earlier he had been rescued from a roof top as raging flood waters swirled around him.   And while you could hear the pathos and pain of the tragedy wrought by Katrina in the soulful sound of Stephanie’s voice, Rachel’s joy at having a chance to play her 200 year old violin for music lovers in Jazz’s second city was irrepressible. 

 I first encountered Rachel in the corridor, a beautiful woman with milk chocolate skin standing alone warming up her fiddle with sensitive strokes. Sensing my surprise at finding a violin amidst the gaggle of reeds and brass and bull fiddles, she offered to play me a tune.  As she coaxed the pristine polished blues tinted sound from her fiddle, I wondered once more how anyone ever figured out that you could produce such beauty from a little wooden box with cat gut strings stroked by a horse hair bow. Together the Jordans produced music that was too beautiful for words, so I shall simply say that it was heavenly.

 As the evening wore on a steady stream of top shelf talents paraded on and off the stage, each offering their gifts for the listening pleasure of the audience.  As talented as the artists were, they were aided by the marvelous acoustics in Rose Hall, the first concert hall in the world that was specifically engineered for the sound of jazz.  There were young lions like Tenor Saxophonist Walter Blanding and the pianist Cyrus Chestnut, and old masters like Ellis Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Joe Lavano. For the young musicians it was like being in a master class. 

 It was clear that all the jazz cats had taken the Duke’s dictum to heart: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” especially the drummers.  To the surprise of those who know him only as a funk drummer, Idriss Muhammad conducted a clinic in the elements of swing and rocked the house, first with Herbie and the young bass virtuoso Reginal Veal, and then behind Joe Lavano, where he hipped us to how to swing outside.  Aside from his unique palette of rhythmic colors and consistent swing, Idriss embodied the essence of the jazz esthetic in his personal style; with his white tam O’Shanter cocked duce tray, he was a picture of the personal freedom and unique style that has marked the great jazz men ever since  Willie “The Lion” rakishly cocked his derby while striding at the piano, Diz sported his horn rimmed glasses and berets as he pondered whether to be or not to bop, and Cab Calloway danced “The Mooche” in his fly zoot suits.

 The hard swinging Herlan Riley, New Orleans born and bred, was ubiquitous.  One minute he was driving the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, a full fledged big band who are masters at performance of what the jazz critic/historian and cultural theorist Albert Murray calls “the fully orchestrated blues statement.”  Other times you could see Herlan firing up the small ensemble, time traveling between the funky butt rhythms of old New Orleans, or swinging at the speed of thought in the modernist mode.  And before the night was over he hitched on a bass drum and wiggled and writhed around the room as the pulse of the “second line” dance that snaked around the auditorium.  Herlin is the kind of drummer who inspires me to start patting my feet upon the mention of his name.

All In The Family

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The Master Teacher and Sons

 

When Ellis Marsalis and his brood took the stage everybody acknowledged that the first family of New Orleans music was in the house.  There was Wynton on trumpet, Delfeyo on trombone, Jason, the baby of the family who had appeared earlier with the blind piano genius Marcus Roberts’ trio, on drums and the paterfamilias of the clan, Ellis Marsalis, running the show from the piano keyboard.  However the question on everybody’s lips was “Where is Branford?” Back stage speculation about the possibility of a rift in the family abounded, because given his stature on the Tenor and soprano Saxes, anyone would want Branford in the band, especially on such an auspicious occasion, so there must be something wrong, said the  signifying monkeys!   In any case, even without Branford they were a swinging bunch.  And we later learned that Branford was off playing another fund raiser with his home boy the singer, actor, pianist Harry Connick Jr. – another one of Ellis’ protégées.

 While the instrumentalists were the toast of the evening, garnering the lion’s share of the time and applause, which is as it should be in the world’s most important jazz emporium, the singers graced the evening with their polyphonic voices.  Buckwheat Zodiac was as rambunctious as a Louisiana yard dance, his accordion flaring as he sang and cut a country step. And the prolific songwriter/singer Jim Taylor accompanied himself on the acoustic guitar and sang his heart out rendering his composition “Never Die Young.”  Bette Midler was both charming and moving as she took the stage with her accompanist, the fine pianist Bette Susssman, who was decked out in a wicked form fitting black dress and looked more the star than the fabulous miss M.  Then Diane Reeves electrified the audience with her superior pipes, powerful passion and multicolored voice.

Oh Diana!

DSC_0146 Diane Reeves Swinging Hard

 

 Abbey Lincoln – her voice a whisper ofDiane Reeves Swingh Hard what it once was – evoked the pathos that lay just beneath the surface of the laughter.  Cassandra Wilson’s full throated deep contralto voice seemed to plumb the depths of her Mississippi soul as she sang for the supper of her folks down home.  And Diana Krall looking like she had just stepped from the pages of a glamour magazine, added a touch of sin and soul as he sat on a stool revealing generous proportions of her finely formed alabaster calves crooning about the birth of the blues.  And the gorgeous Nora Jones, continuing a tradition pioneered by virtuoso pianist/singers such as Hazel Scott and Nina Simone, played and sang like an angel. If you adore good singers and songs the way I do, the whole thing was like a continuous eargasm.

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Cassandra: Conjuring Up Her Mississippi Roots 

 

Since the message is always more powerful when it contains the right proportions of words and music, each adding potency to the communicative  power of the other, the thespians and poets who anointed the audience with eloquent words of encouragement and hope were an important element in the success of the evening.  The list was impressive and ranged from the Nobel laureate Tony Morrison, who gave a moving reading from her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Jazz, and other brilliant humanist who routinely speak out on matters of war and peace, freedom and oppression, such as Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover, and loquacious comics like Robin Williams and Bill Cosby. Lawrence Fishburne was wonderful as the Master of Ceremonies weaving a narrative of New Orleans that gave coherence and context to the evening’s the performances.  Each in their-own way sought to keep hope alive.

 And it’s a good thing too; because as my grandfather, who was an active member of the Odd Fellows Lodge, used to tell me: Hope is the most powerful of the three links of the chain that symbolized their secret order because it holds faith and charity together.  At the end of the day hope was resurrected and given new life through the alchemy of art.  I was there, I witnessed it, and these are my impressions of what went down on that enchanted evening when the Eulipians congregated at the Lincoln Center and celebrated the gifts of the Crescent City to the world. 

 

Playthell Benjamin

New York City 

September 22, 2005 

 * Photos By: Frank Stewart

 

 

 

 

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