A jazz-history teaching colleague recently argued that Duke Ellington, in his 1927 classic, “Black and Tan Fantasy,” was slyly poking fun at white people by switching from hot swing (“black”) to hokey dance rhythms (“tan”).
That’s one interpretation, I guess.
I ran it by one of the world’s foremost Ellington scholars and interpreters — Wynton Marsalis — whose Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra just happens to be playing some Duke at the Paramount Theatre on Sunday, March 2.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Marsalis. “Duke grew up playing sweet music. His challenge was to learn how to play hot … He incorporated the sweet with the hot. And that’s what he continued to do his entire career.”
Whoever is right, one thing is certain: Music has meaning beyond the sound of the notes. Marsalis gave a series of lectures recently on precisely this subject, at Harvard University, titled “Hidden in Plain View: Meanings in American Music.”
“You hear ‘Oye, Como Va’ and it evokes a whole culture of a people,” said the 52-year-old trumpeter, bandleader and composer. “[Then there are] underlying meanings, what the structure of things means in terms of your way of life … like how jazz is based on democratic decisions, like our constitution. Music can’t do anything else but reflect who we are.”
Since its 1987 inception as part of “Classical Jazz at Lincoln Center,” Marsalis’ precision-tooled, 16-piece band has been doing a good job of reflecting who we are. Besides being the vehicle for such compositions as Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize- winning work, “Blood on the Fields,” the J@LCO is also responsible for popularizing and legitimizing the practice of playing jazz repertory, the way symphony orchestras approach classical music.
In Seattle, the band will draw on the playbooks of Ellington, John Coltrane and New Orleans. Marsalis chooses the program as he goes, but expect early Ellington gems such as “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Mood Indigo” or perhaps the later “Isfahan,” from “Far East Suite.”
From Coltrane, you may hear part of Marsalis’ arrangement of “A Love Supreme,” a piece his brother, Branford, has also successfully reinterpreted. And from New Orleans, you will most certainly get a taste of Louis Amstrong, whose “Hot Fives” and “Hot Sevens” are pillars of the music.
Jazz education has always been on the front burner for Marsalis, but even close associates were surprised when he announced earlier this year that he was taking on the leadership of the Juilliard School jazz program.
How in the world does he plan on meeting yet another obligation?
“Very carefully,” replied Marsalis, who added that he took the job because he’ll be traveling less, now that the orchestra has extended its New York season.
Take this opportunity to see the band in Seattle while you can.
It’s hot. And sweet, too.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 2, at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $31.25- $81.25 (877-784-4849 or www.stgpresents.org).