Jazz came to the Double H Ranch Wednesday.
Jazz great trumpeter Wynton Marsalis brought five members of his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which debuts tonight at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Marsalis’ “Swing Symphony,” to play and do a bit of music education for the 137 youngsters at the ranch. The band’s appearance was the first time jazz musicians had come to the venue as well as representing a new partnership for SPAC.
“Part of our mission is to bring great music and the arts to the community,” said SPAC CEO Elizabeth Sobol before the event. “It’s a way to give back.”
The kids, who suffer from life-threatening illnesses and come from all over the world to this ranch that Charles R. Wood and actor Paul Newman founded in 1993, were expectantly waiting along with their chaperons, SPAC patrons and members of the press. Then the band arrived, all dressed in suits. They were clarinetist Victor Goines; trombonist Chris Crenshaw, bassist Carlos Henriquez, pianist Dan Nimmer, and drummer Jason Marsalis.
Wynton Marsalis was the last to enter. Great whoops of delight greeted them. Marsalis got off to a fast start. After he told his audience that “music is about communication,” he had the drummer beat out a four beat bar with half the audience counting out the first and third beat and the other half count out the second and fourth. This evolved into hearing each instrument, clapping to specific rhythms and then singing a tune “Little Liza Jane” while the band provided back-up.
“Great,” Marsalis said. “We’re gonna take you on the road with us.”
He then moved on to explaining and demonstrating what call and response was, how to create a groove and what swing was and got the kids to clap or sing these out. Often, Marsalis would go back and review the material and always he praised the children.
“Fantastic,” he said. “You’re so great on all levels. I love what you all are doing.”
His band played a hymn and then moved into “St. Louis Blues” which ended in having the wildly enthusiastic audience stand up as he and the band walked through them. The kids then sang out a huge thank you and “we love you.”
Max Yurenda, the ranch’s CEO, said afterwards that, “the kids embraced it. They loved it. Double H takes it to the next level.”
Marsalis said the afternoon was special for the band.
“It’s edifying. . .so soulful,” he said. “When the kids are so appreciative it’s more uplifting for the musicians.”
His band, which has been together since 1989 has been doing these educational outreaches since 1994 and have thirty different types of shows they can do. He was supposed to do “What is Jazz,” for this event, but, he said, when he saw how close and intimate the space was he decided not to use the script.
“I’ve done years of these young people’s concerts in thousands of schools,” Marsalis said. “It’s giving the basic facts to get them involved and to show them how jazz works and to get their participation.”
But playing for the children is what’s important, not just giving them dry facts, he added.
On Thursday night, SPAC audiences will get to hear another side to Marsalis. As a jazz musician, he has always dealt with improvisation, which is in a sense composing on the spot. But actually composing a work for an orchestra was never a goal, he said.
“It was in the 1990s that I did my first piece,” he said. “Kurt Masur (the New York Philharmonic’s then-music director) teased me that I was scared to write something for the orchestra.”
Finally by 1999, Marsalis agreed. The result was “All Rise,” which the orchestra premiered in 2000. It gave him the idea that he could develop a vocabulary that might work.
“I grew up playing classical music and I love the sound of the symphonic orchestra,” he said. “But I never studied orchestration. I picked things up as I went along.”
Yet, so many years later, he still finds integrating jazz forms with symphonic forms very difficult.
“Orchestration is a hobby,” he said. “But putting jazz music with classical is hard. It’s all about coming together.”
His “Swing Symphony” composed in 2010 is his third symphony and was premiered by the NY Philharmonic.