By Jerome Langston
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis consists of some of the best arrangers, soloists and ensemble musicians working in jazz music today. Led by Wynton Marsalis, a nine-time Grammy winner and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the world-famous trumpeter and second oldest son of America’s first family of jazz, JLCO’s impeccably high artistic and cultural standards, attracts a wide spectrum of fans around the world—both in and outside of jazz circles. So, whenever they come down to Virginia to perform as part of the Virginia Arts Festival, it’s a big deal, regardless of the actual program theme or setlist that they’re following for a particular concert. Their shows are always a highlight of the season.
The last time Wynton was here, he was joined by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet, for three performances at the Sandler Center back in the spring of 2021. The smaller ensemble and multiple shows were largely due to the complicating reality of COVID at the time, which limited the audience capacity for each show. While he was here then, VAF’s Executive & Artistic Director, Robert Cross, talked to Wynton about his desire to provide, through the festival, a jazz residency for HBCU jazz ensembles and orchestras. His intention was to strengthen and support their existing jazz programs through this initiative, but Rob didn’t have all the dets worked out yet—but was just looking for Wynton’s feedback about attempting something like that. Wynton texted Rob during an intermission at one of the concerts, and afterwards, along with one of JLCO’s education gurus, they laid the foundation for this important collaboration between the Virginia Arts Festival and Jazz at Lincoln Center. “He agreed to come and produce this event for this project with us,” says Rob. “He obviously brought his resources, expertise and team to the project. We’ve been working on it for almost 2 years now.”
Earlier this week, when Rob calls me to chat about the jazz residency, he is headed to the Ferguson Center to rehearse for an upcoming Virginia Symphony Orchestra concert there. Many may not know that Robert Cross is also a Grammy winning percussionist, who still performs with VSO as often as he can. “It’s a juggling act… I still love playing so I try to do it when the schedule allows,” he tells me. Then he provides additional details regarding the HBCU jazz residency that will occur later this month, beginning a couple days prior to JLCO’s concert at Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall. “We have eight bands confirmed, and they’ll be here for three days,” he says. The HBCUs that are participating include Norfolk State University, Hampton University, Grambling State University, Central State University and Elizabeth City State University.
On Thursday, the band directors will have dinner with Wynton, allowing them to share whatever they’d like to with the jazz icon. On Friday, each band is assigned a coach—who is a member of JLCO, and eventually they will break out into instrument specific jazz clinics. On Friday night there will also be a jam session for the young musicians, leading to the selection of one or two bands to serve as opening acts for Saturday’s big concert. Pertaining to that selection, Rob says that “Wynton’s really stressing that it’s an educational and mentoring process,” as opposed to a competition between the bands. In any case, the Saturday evening concert will feature the selected band(s) for the program’s first half, with JLCO performing their full set in the second half. It should make for a great night of high-level jazz artistry.
After talking to Rob, the following day I was able to converse with trombonist Vincent Gardner, who is the lead trombonist in the orchestra, and has been with JLCO for over 20 years now. Vincent grew up in Hampton, and though he no longer lives here of course, much of his family and childhood friends are still residing in Hampton Roads. Currently, Vincent is the founding Artistic and Education Director of Jazz Houston, and has multiple commissioned compositions that he’s busy working on, including a trombone concerto for the University of Michigan’s orchestra. He always enjoys being back here to perform for his hometown crowd, and loves playing at Chrysler Hall. “I’ve always felt that the crowds in Virginia were a little reserved on the surface, till they loosen up,” he says. Once they get into perhaps the third song, things begin to change for the better. “I like feeling that kind of progression that happens.”
When I tell Vincent about the HBCU jazz residency, he’s excited for what it can accomplish, as he participates and leads similar educational outreach in Houston these days, and wants more to be done here locally. “There’s so much meaningful education around jazz music that can happen,” Vincent says. “I just hope we get a chance to do more.”
WANT TO GO?
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra w/Wynton Marsalis
with Top Ensembles from the JLCO & Virginia Arts Festival HBCU Jazz Residency
Presented by Virginia Arts Festival