The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose—and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization. (President John F Kennedy, December 1962)
WASHINGTON (Feb. 24) — When band director Gerald Powell brought the jazz band from Kenwood Academy in Chicago to the John F Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts, they gave the singularly most “of the people” high school jazz band concert you might ever see on any stage, anywhere.
That’s not to say the dozens of ensemble members played with pristine intonation, because they didn’t. It’s not to say they made every attack and cutoff together, because they didn’t do that either. However, their very participation made this the quintessence of high school jazz and elevated the art form in a work that celebrates the good and the bad in the lives of Chicago students and makes neither an apology for the bottom nor boast for the top. That was their whole point in coming here. In America, musicians don’t just play jazz; they are jazz.
And when they were done with the multi-segment jazz concerto, which lasted a little more than an hour and was first performed three years ago on the stage at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, the thousand or so people in the crowd in the Eisenhower Theater rose to their feet in unison. Supporters who drove out here from Chicago just for this performance, law clerks who bought tickets earlier today after a text from a friend convinced them that jazz on a Friday night would be a good diversion, even tourists who picked this concert at the last minute—they all got more than they expected and at the end of the night applauded as much for who these kids were and where they came from as for the hard work evident in their performance.
The chart was the work of Theaster Gates and Jason Moran, a MacArthur fellow and the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center. Being who he is, Mr Moran could have easily called any group of musicians to perform this work. But he chose instead not just to play a chart about violence in Chicago but to make the actual people who were living in that violence a fundamental component of this performance and this piece. A tragedy just two weeks before the chart made its Chicago debut brought the shooting death of a guitarist from the band, as the Chicago Tribune reported and Deborah F Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center, mentioned to the audience here before the music.
Ms Rutter’s appearance on the stage before a night of jazz was atypical, but as she pointed out, she was the president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra back when the work debuted in Chicago, with this same high school ensemble, and her connection to this work is firmly in place. She said, though, that she only learned a few days ago what the work’s title, “Looks of a Lot,” meant. (A Chicago rapper once noticed lots of police cars in Chicago, saying “it looks of a lot of blue,” referring to the color of the lights on those police cars.)
Only three students from that jazz band three years ago were part of the Kennedy Center performance, but high school bands aren’t really designed for long-timers; a high turnover is sort of built into high school. After the piece, Mr Moran introduced the musicians, giving special recognition to graduating seniors in the group. I couldn’t count how many there were, but several students came forward for a bow at this point. The chart included a brief reference to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” in honor of where these kids are in their lives.
In addition to references to graduation marches, there were other marches in the work as well, including a funeral march around what appeared to be a sculpted coffin or altar. (The chart opened with a narrator speaking poetry that was later intoned by a vocalist, who sang, “My loved one once lived here.”) After all the funeral marchers exited, Mr Moran jammed on the grand piano so hard the bench came up off the floor several times and Ken Vandermark played notes one would assume clarinets could never make. Yet there they were, and we in the audience could just hear the people cry out in anguish.
The work also featured a drumline that brought a touch of marching band, part of these kids’ lives, to the Kennedy Center stage with this diverse work. It’s been here before, but I got the sense the presence of these dancing cymbals, bass drums, snares, and toms, to perform this work, has never meant as much to musicians as it did to these kids.
“We have to find the light in each other,” Mr Moran said during the final bow, alluding no doubt to both the title of the work and his wish for these kids and society.