Marsalis and SJA mentor young jazz musicians at Castleton

This weekend

The students will be on the bill again this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Aug. 1 and 2, with a different, larger ensemble, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, who are travelling from New York just for these performances. Wynton Marsalis will headline both shows. For tickets ($35 to $200) or information, call 866-974-0767 or visit castletonfestival.org.

“Transformative” and “rigorous” are words that swirl around the Summer Jazz Academy, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s educational partnership with the Castleton Festival. Forty-three gifted American high school jazz students were hand-picked by Jazz at Lincoln Center to participate in JLC’s inaugural advanced-training program in jazz performance.

It is also the Castleton Festival’s first all-jazz endeavor. Marsalis and festival co-founder Lorin Maazel announced their partnership shortly before Maazel’s death in July 2014. Both men cited their similar philosophies of educational support and outreach in music.

Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Star Octet bassist Rodney Whitaker works with high school students last week at Castleton.Jessica Hickling/Castleton Festival
Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Star Octet bassist Rodney Whitaker works with high school students last week at Castleton.

The two-week institute is designed and taught by Marsalis and an elite faculty of jazz musicians. Students study the intellectual side of jazz aesthetics, culture, history and practice and the performance side in big bands and small combos. The curriculum and format are based on Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 27-year history of education in jazz performance and appreciation.

“At Jazz at Lincoln Center, we believe in a holistic education using the entire history of our music,” said Marsalis. “And performance education through community-based education. We will teach kids to play at the highest level, but we also want the Jazz at Lincoln Center Summer Jazz Academy experience at Castleton to be transformative and to invite young people into the feeling of jazz.”

That transformation is evident at the performances. At last Saturday’s show, which featured the Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars, the student ensembles played in the first half. The young musicians appeared relaxed and personable — despite their intense introductory week at SJA — as they introduced their songs and dug into the music. They are taught more than just how to improvise; they are also taught the subtler points of musicianship, how to listen to each other, and how to interact with an audience.

SJA faculty selected the repertoire to encompass a range of 20th-century styles. The result is a handful of tunes composed by Wayne Shorter, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Tadd Dameron, Thelonious Monk and Jelly Roll Morton — Morton being, as Marsalis put it, “a singular force in American music.”

Morton’s songs stood out for their age (his recordings with the Red Hot Peppers are about 90 years old), freshness and longevity. “Wynton said that we need to learn from the originals,” said student Dylan Cooper. “And we can do that with jazz because most of the originals were recorded, unlike with classical music.”

What came through in the SJA performances were Morton’s humor and playfulness, Monk’s angular harmonies and elasticity of time, Parker and Gillespie’s rapid and precise technique and Shorter’s sense of space and breathing room … elements that were especially evident in the All Stars’ performance in the second half of the show.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, the octet whose members have spent the last two weeks teaching high school jazz musicians at Castleton Festival perform last weekend at Castleton Festival Theatre, including (from left) pianist Helen Sung, guitarist James Chirillo, trumpeter Marcus Printup, trumpeter and leader Wynton Marsalis, saxophonist Ted Nash, trombonist Vincent Gardner, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Ali Jackson. Jessica Hickling/Castleton Festival
The Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, the octet whose members have spent the last two weeks teaching high school jazz musicians at Castleton Festival perform last weekend at Castleton Festival Theatre, including (from left) pianist Helen Sung, guitarist James Chirillo, trumpeter Marcus Printup, trumpeter and leader Wynton Marsalis, saxophonist Ted Nash, trombonist Vincent Gardner, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Ali Jackson.

The All Stars consist of Wynton Marsalis and Marcus Printup on trumpets, Ted Nash on sax and clarinet, Vincent Gardner on trombone, Helen Sung on piano, James Chirillo on guitar, Rodney Whitaker on bass and Ali Jackson on drums. Collectively they are much more than a tight ensemble. Their individual personalities also shone clearly through every song in their set.

They opened with Nash’s arrangement of the children’s song, “Old MacDonald,” which swelled into lush harmonies and dipped at times into the hubub of barnyard animals. Players tossed off casual references from other tunes, like Sung quoting a snippet of “Turkey in the Straw” during the fadeout.

The stage was filled with warmth, jocularity and mastery as the All Stars entertained the audience with Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” Jelly Roll Morton’s “Dead Man Blues,” Oscar Pettiford’s “Blues in the Closet,” and Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” For an encore, the rhythm section came back onstage, Marsalis walked to the edge of the audience, and — backlit and silhouetted by the stage lights — played a hushed, tender version of the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You.”

In short, after a week of intense study, the students saw a demonstration, with the Castleton audience, of how jazz is done.

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