Chris Washburne ambled onto the stage at Bard’s Sosnoff Theatre on May 13th, a cool stride in his long limbs, a blue pork pie hat covering his shoulder-length hair. He was wearing a suit and tie. His look conveyed accurately what was in store for the evening, billed as “A Celebration of the First 100 years of Jazz” (a hundred years ago to the day the first jazz record was published) with Mr. Washburne serving as bandleader and narrator. As a well-known trombonist and an academic, he was well qualified; accompanying him was a virtuoso ensemble that could not have performed a better interpretation of what Jazz was, is, and promises to be.
This celebration was the conclusion of an outstanding winter/spring jazz series entitled “The French Connection,” featuring the works of Django Reinhardt, L.M. Gottschalk, and songs of the French Salon. It was another brilliant collaboration between Bard’s Fischer Center and the Catskill Jazz Factory, an organization fast earning the reputation for bringing world renowned talent into our communities—literally, from stellar concert venues to schools and libraries. Before the music began, Mr. Washburne implored the audience to bring “a young person” to the next concert, thereby ensuring the next generation of jazz enthusiasts.
My own renewed interest in jazz has many sources, the primary one being the eponymous jazz clubs of the city of New Orleans. I could hardly contain my excitement when I learned that Evan Christopher, another school master of early jazz and an improvisational clarinet wizard, would be heading up an ensemble featuring the works of the 19th C New Orleans composer L.M. Gottschalk in April at Bard. We had just seen Mr. Christopher at Snug Harbor in the Faubourg Marigny in New Orleans a few weeks before. That sweet, warm night in the Big Easy was one of those that left me believing in the possibility of good music to transform society, which, in fact, New Orleans jazz has done for at least a hundred years. Bringing that spirit to our quiet, pastoral place can only be a great thing. Those who have coaxed talent from the South and all around the world to the chilly, rugged mountains of the Catskills and into our valleys deserve major kudos! Several of the exemplary alumns from Catskill Jazz Factory (CJF) events returned for the exciting finale on May 13th.
The jazz review began with Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” one of the tunes that made ragtime famous in the early 20th century. This time it included the less familiar lyrics sung with playful artistry by the expressive and sultry singer Sara Elizabeth Charles, who earlier this season gave a stunning performance of poems by Maya Angelou set to music at the Millbrook Library. Ms. Charles is in full control of her beautiful voice and her unique style, which, for this rag included her own two step. The song is about a poor man in rags who steps into a ballroom party and impresses all the fancy ladies with his dance moves, leaving with the belle of the ball at the end of the night. It is from performances like those of Ms. Charles that we can appreciate the stories that jazz music tells us.
They next played “Bamboula,” a song that brought widespread recognition to L.M. Gottshalk, a New Orleans composer born in 1829. It’s a piece honoring the rhythms of Congo Square, the only place in the antebellum South where slaves were allowed to congregate and play their instruments. “Bamboula” brought out the tight and swinging rhythms of the horn section which included Mr. Washburne on trombone, Dominick Farinacci on trumpet, and the astonishing Mr. Christopher channeling the joy and sorrow of Congo Square on his clarinet.
We were given a tender and powerful performance of a spiritual sung by the South African singer Vuyo Satashe, whose voice, in these ears, is a direct channel to the Divine. Smooth, sorrowful, lustrous and utterly unforced sound was a reminder of where the soul of jazz lies, some of its roots in all that is holy. We learned why spirituals and songs of struggle are a very important element of jazz. (Mark your calendar if this kind of singing moves you: The Vuyo Satashe Ensemble will be at the Bard Summerscape Spiegeltent in August covering songs of protest and reconciliation from the 1960’s.) The night progressed with music that constitutes the bedrock of Jazz. The songs of WC Handy, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, and others were performed in faithful and inventive turns, which also included the young singer Martina DaSilva, Caleb Curtis on Sax, Hans Glawischnig on Bass, and Vince Cherico on Drums.
One of the major highlights of the evening was a two-piano duet, harkening back to the cutting contests of stride piano players of the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. The exuberant and dexterous Brazilian pianist Andre Mehmari invited the audience to see where a “conversation” between himself and the young pianist Dan Tepfer might lead. This got me excited. It was a heads-up for the unforgettable improvisational adventure to follow. It was an exhilarating performance that was as thrilling to watch as it was to listen to. The two virtuosos soared and swooped and circled each other with no direction other than the ability to translate every passing moment of their musical imaginations into a mutual conversation. Certain melodies would appear and reappear, momentarily bringing humor or familiarity to the improv session. Not a single beat was missed and when they finished a rapt audience rose to their feet. I found out later from Tepfer that the two had never played together before, which made it all the more astonishing.
This is Jazz, and thankfully, it’s alive and well. The ability to hear, anticipate and play with such sensitivity, spontaneity and virtuosity that our lives and our stories are transcended into something unspeakably beautiful, mysterious and powerful. The uniquely American stories and sounds of Jazz have made the world a better place for over a hundred years. It gives me hope for our Democracy.