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Just fifteen years prior to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts being carved out of a blighted area in Manhattan’s upper west side, the center of the jazz world was one magical block of 52nd street just about a half mile south. And it was even further back in time, when one had to travel to Harlem to hear the greatest and most influential jazz artists of the day. Jazz, even in New York City, was the poor stepchild of the arts, and “high society” only accepted the most sanitized version of America’s only truly indigenous musical art form. That all changed in 1988, when Wynton Marsalis, after winning a Grammy award for both jazz and classical albums, formed the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), an ensemble which took up residence with the equivalent stature of the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the New York City Ballet. Carolina Performing Arts presented this highly acclaimed group in a triumphant return appearance that had ticket seekers and scalpers scouring the grounds of Memorial Hall as if it were a round ball game at the nearby Dean Smith Center.
JLCO is the culmination of nearly 100 years of what started as smaller jazz ensembles in New Orleans to what is now collectively labeled as a “big band.” As far as instrumentation, there are no surprises, tricks, or modern “improvements.” This is your standard lineup: 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, a 5 man reed section consisting of various saxophones, clarinets and flutes, and the rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. Other than the excellent sound board mixing, there is nothing electronic here and many of the charts played would have seemed perfectly in line with the playing you would have heard from Duke Ellington and his various bands.
During the heyday of the big bands it was a commonly accepted fact that there were white “sweet” bands and there were black “hot” bands. This, of course, had a lot to do with segregation and Jim Crow laws, but also the expectations of the target audiences. JLCO is about as evenly racially mixed as you can get and the only qualification is that you are a musician of the absolute highest caliber, completely capable of fronting your own group.
Although Marsalis is the featured name and in many respects has become the recognized face of jazz for the past 30 years, when he plays with JLCO he eschews any preening of his status and is simply the lead trumpeter and announces the selections. As is the case in nearly every non-classical concert, selections are simply never printed beforehand, resulting in a coin toss on what you are going to hear. This program was an interesting mix of original compositions by Marsalis, several jazz classics, a very unusual (for this type of concert) solo and a hoped for, but not entirely surprising guest artist.
Evaluating or critiquing any of the 15 players in JLCO would be an exercise in presumptuousness. The wonderful thing is that just about every player had a chance to solo, and each musician has a unique and singular voice that sets him apart. After a smoking hot gospel-tinged number written by Marsalis that included some of the band singing “gimme that old time religion,” the next piece was quite incongruous. Described as the ”most soulful man from Scotland” he introduced Joe Temperley who played a lengthy bass clarinet “classical/celtic” solo accompanied by piano.
As soon as Wynton mentioned the word “guest,” and knowing that another guy with the same last name now calls Durham his home, the audience erupted knowing what was coming. Out came big brother Branford with tenor sax in hand for a blistering rendition of Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues.” It was interesting to watch the musicians watching Branford as he blew his solos. Many, who had themselves just played incredible solos, had that open-mouthed, blown-away look like the rest of we mortals.
As the intermission-less concert ended and Wynton wished us “good luck in the tournament,” despite our best whooping and hollering it seemed like that was it as the house lights came on. Then the magic happened and we got the dream team performance that had been cautiously hoped for: Wynton and Branford Marsalis, backed only by piano, bass and drums. Everyone simply melted as they played Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady Be Good.” This alone was worth the price of admission.