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Music magic: Marsalis, students and symphony

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 23, 2012 - This year's Red Velvet Ball — the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s biggest fundraiser of the season — attracted a capacity crowd to Powell Hall, one more diverse crowd than those who came to hear Yo-Yo Ma in 2009, Renee Fleming in 2010 and Itzhak Perlman last year.

That diversity was seen onstage as well. Seventy members of the Symphony surrounded this year’s headliner, the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by famed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

The members of the jazz orchestra sat directly center stage, wearing suits and ties — a visual contrast with the symphony's tuxedos, though many women orchestra members wore brightly colored gowns rather than the usual black. Together they performed Marsalis’ composition, “Swing Symphony.”

Appropriately, among those enjoying this performance that brought jazz and classical styles together at Powell Hall were the students who make up the East St. Louis High School Jazz Band and the band’s director, Delano Redmond.

The day before the Red Velvet Ball, at Washington University’s 560 Music Center in University City, these young musicians from East St. Louis had shared the stage with Marsalis and the JLCO.

The students first participated on Friday in an intensive workshop with musicians Marcus Printup (trumpet), Ali Jackson (drums) and Walter Blanding Jr. (saxophones).

Then the East St. Louis High students rehearsed with Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for a side-by-side performance to be held later that day. It was attended by 600 high school jazz band students from around the area, music students from Washington University, staff from Jazz St. Louis SLSO and Washington University and special guests.

This day of musical interaction took the concept of jazz musical education to a new level in the St. Louis area, as Philip Dunlap, director of education for Jazz St. Louis, noted as we waited in the 560 Center lobby for the arrival of the students and professional musicians.

"Jazz St. Louis tries to get as many of our visiting artists at the Bistro as we can out into the schools for educational workshops and performances,” he said. “In fact, just yesterday we brought Christian Scott (the New Orleans-born trumpeter who played jazz at the Bistro Oct. 10-13) over to East St. Louis High for a workshop. But this event today is definitely special. The symphony, Washington U and we have all collaborated to get high school music students from all over the area here today. And it’s especially gratifying that the East St. Louis High band is such a big part of this."

Under the direction of Ron Carter in the 1980s through the mid ‘90s, East St. Louis' Lincoln High School jazz program gained national and international acclaim for the quality of its program — and the talented musicians who went on to make names for themselves as professional musicians.

But when Carter left Lincoln High in 1995 to become director of jazz studies at Northern Illinois University, the program fell on hard times. In fact, Lincoln High soon closed, and the jazz program moved to East St. Louis High School.

The program began to come out of its doldrums six years ago when Delano Redmond, who had studied under Carter at Lincoln High, began to teach at East St. Louis High. Redmond, worked with John Barnes to build the reputation of the jazz band. And when Jazz St. Louis made East St. Louis High a partner in its Adopt-A-School program, things shifted into a higher gear.

"We were able to bring renowned musicians like Terence Blanchard, Greg Osby, Rodney Whitaker, Terell Stafford, Mulgrew Miller and Christian Scott to the school to work directly with the students, and I know that has inspired the students."

Last year, East St. Louis High’s jazz band was one of 15 bands from across the country invited to come to Manhattan and participate in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington high school jazz band festival.

“Over a hundred schools competed to be chosen, and East St. Louis High made it,” Dunlap said. “It was very gratifying to see that.”

JLCO musicians Printup, Jackson and Blanding arrived in the lobby, and while we waited for the students, Jackson talked about working with high school music students – especially the young musicians from East St. Louis.

"I actually went over to East St. Louis High last year," recalls Jackson. "I was at the Bistro playing with Sherman Irby’s Trio (saxophonist Irby is also a member of JLCO). I know that a lot of kids who were in the band last year were seniors, so I’m looking forward to seeing what Delano has to work with this year."

Printup also said how interested he was to work with the East St. Louis students.

"I remember them from the Ellington Festival when they came to Lincoln Center," says the Georgia-born trumpeter and longtime member of JLCO. "They really impressed me at the time, and I’m looking forward to working with them."

How?

To start the workshop session, Redmond led the students through a number. When it was over, Jackson, Printup and Blanding each stood up to address the students.

Jackson was first, beginning his comments with praise for the way the young musicians kept time.

"That’s the hardest thing for young musicians to do," he told them before offering advice to the rhythm section to position each other to keep eye contact while playing.

Blanding stressed the importance of contrast and dynamics in playing, telling the students, "That’s how you express emotion, and build interest among both audiences and the members of the band."

Printup’s advice built on Blanding’s comments: "When you play the notes, think about putting emotion in there," he said. "Think about how you would play this if you were in church. Put some hot sauce on it!"

At this point, the rest of the musicians in the JLCO came onto the stage for a quick rehearsal of the afternoon pieces the two groups would play together for the students coming from other schools. As the rehearsal got rolling, Marsalis took on the role of teacher with the students, talking them through some difficult passages and at a certain point walking over to stand with the high school band’s trumpet section and play with them.

Working with young musicians is clearly a passion for Marsalis — as well as the other JLCO musicians. His words were direct and to the point, spoken with obvious sincerity.

"When you play, be for real," he said at one point. "Be inventive. Remember, every moment is important. You have to be hungry when you start playing."

Those words — as well as the advice by Jackson, Blanding and Printup - clearly had an effect on the students. They responded quickly in rehearsal, doing their best to put those words to use in fine-tuning their parts.

After the event, Band Director Redmond said the workshop couldn’t have come at a better time — especially for a high school band that was made up primarily of sophomores and freshmen.

"It was just what the doctor ordered," he said in a phone interview after the workshop. "It was something that really kick started what we're trying to do with these younger musicians. They were on the same stage with musicians they only knew as famous names — and they saw those musicians as real people who cared about reaching out to them."

When the two groups returned to the stage for the concert, the performance went off with seemingly effortless ease — belying all the hard work that had gone into rehearsal.

After the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra opened the performance with two compositions, the East St. Louis High band joined them for collaborative performances of Sonny Rollins' "Sonnymoon for Two" and a finale of "Stolen Moments," a jazz classic written by St. Louisan Oliver Nelson.

The performance drew rapt attention and smiles of appreciation from the students in the audience, who peppered Marsalis with questions afterward.

Why?

The final question to Marsalis was, "Why did you play jazz?"

"Because I love the music," Marsalis said initially. Then he paused, and began to talk about his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and going to hear him play at small clubs while he and his brothers were still growing up.

"Sometimes I’d be sitting there looking at my father playing for five or six or ten people — which included me," he recalls. "And I would think, he’s playing and giving it everything as if he were playing at Carnegie Hall. That’s the hardest part of being a musician. But watching him do that was really my inspiration."

Plenty of musical inspiration was on tap Friday at the 560 Music Center and Saturday night at Powell Hall.

After multiple standing ovations for the “Swing Symphony” performance, which featured the SLSO musicians meshing tightly with the swinging approach and crisp, dynamic solos by the members of JLCO, the jazz musicians performed two encores on their own.

The first featured St. Louis vocalist Denise Thimes delivering a fine version of Ella Fitzgerald’s "A Tisket, A Tasket." Then Marsalis and the jazz musicians closed out the evening with an effortlessly swinging take on Duke Ellington's "C Jam Blues."

During the encore, the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony had the same looks of undivided attention and enjoyment of the music as the high school students had the day before.

As Marsalis said then, "Remember, every moment is important. You have to be hungry when you start playing."

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