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Swing in Time

OrchestraX salutes the 1920s and the music of Gershwin and Ellington

It's hard to imagine Jelly Roll Morton and Hot Lips Page inspiring Marilyn Manson-style outrage with their syncopated tunes. Even more amazing, a group of watchdogs in Illinois called the Vigilance Association printed a 1922 report saying jazz had corrupted a thousand young Chicago girls. At the same time, a Missouri school superintendent, afraid Kansas City youth would succumb to the evils of rhythm and blues, demanded a legislative war on jazz, which rivaled the war on booze.

Drink and jazz shared an easy connection. Players and bands cross-fertilized amid flourishing speakeasies, and in big cities such as Chicago, muted brasses stood for youthful irreverence. Ballroom dancing gave way to the Charleston, the shimmy, the rag and the fox-trot. To the uninitiated, jazz meant gambling and cigarettes, cocktails and flappers. To someone like Thelonious Monk, jazz meant freedom.

Conductor John Axelrod and OrchestraX get ready to riff in a Roaring Twenties salute on the centennial birthdays of two jazz giants, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington. "The Rhythm and Swing Gala," May 15 through 17 at The Rice Crystal Ballroom, will try to recreate the wild jamming of Tin Pan Alley, Tinseltown, Model Ts, short skirts, bobbed hair and the cool rhythms of ragtime.

For Gershwin, jazz had a vernacular all its own. While it's wrong to try and label the complex harmonies of Rhapsody in Blue, the piece is defined by jazz elements. The opening clarinet solo and restless keyboard dissonance capture the hedonism of Prohibition. Paul Whiteman's New York orchestra first performed the work in 1924 as part of "An Experiment in Modern Music." The show also featured tunes by Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert. But Gershwin's experiment was the hit of the evening. It gave the 25-year-old composer instant notoriety and marked the birth of symphonic jazz.

"Whatever one thinks of his works ... [Gershwin] dramatized, glamorized and humanized the American composer," wrote music historian Edward Jablonski. Since Gershwin's music could move from nightclub to concert hall with ease, he was suspect to the stodgy music establishment. Purist Leonard Bernstein believed Gershwin's melodies were as inspiring as Tchaikovsky's but still refused to acknowledge the former as a composer. OrchestraX will play Rhapsody along with Gershwin's Cuban Overture. Both feature Axelrod, the group's artistic director, on piano. "This is probably the first time people coming to an OrchestraX concert will see Axelrod in his other role as pianist," says OrchestraX General Manager Nicky Garfield. Baritone Lester Lynch and mezzo-soprano Tiffany Jackson, seen in Houston Grand Opera's La Traviata last February, will perform songs from Porgy and Bess, a story that takes place in Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1920s, and which was the first full-length American opera inspired by jazz.

While Gershwin borrowed from jazz, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington civilized it for the masses. The composer, pianist and bandleader is seen as one of the greatest American composers in any genre. At 16 he composed his first song, "Soda Fountain Rag." When he moved to New York City in 1922 with drummer Sonny Greer and tenor sax player Otto Hardwick, he learned jazz piano from James P. Johnson and Willie Smith. Soon after, he formed his first nightclub band. Billy Strayhorn, Ellington's longtime collaborator, has said, "Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is his band." The group acquired its signature growl and wa-wa sounds when it was joined by trumpeter James "Bubber" Miley and trombonist Joe "Trickey Sam" Nanton. The OrchestraX brasses borrow a few notes from Bubber and Trickey Sam in Ellington's virtuosic "Black, Brown and Beige."

With "Rhythm and Swing," OrchestraX cuts loose in its mission to make classical music relevant to the indifferent 18- to 40-year-old set. The players want no pressure to sit quietly. No need for the dead etiquette of a chamber concert. OrchestraX audiences get to feel and dance their way into an era. "We're recreating a 1920s speakeasy and inviting people to come dressed in 1920s costumes," Garfield says. "It's certainly not a black-tie affair. We want people to get in the spirit of the era. When Lynch and Jackson sing Porgy and Bess, they'll be walking in and around the audience."

After dinner and the show, you can hoof to your heart's content. SSQQ, a local dance studio and event collaborator, will give instructions on how to swing while DJ Dean spins a few old records. There will be plenty of cards and lots of gambling, if you like. Or you can drink and get into that true blues feeling as musicians jam till the wee hours.

OrchestraX plays the music of Gershwin and Ellington in a salute to the Roaring Twenties at its "Rhythm and Swing Gala," Saturday, May 15, at 7 p.m. and Sunday and Monday, May 16 and 17, at 7:30 p.m. Advance tickets are $18, $15 for tables of eight, $10 students, $22.50 at the door. Call (713)225-6729.

 
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