The scene: July 7, 1956, the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. Duke Ellington's band is weathering a rare slump. With public interest waning, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves starts to play the obligatory solo, when a woman in the front row starts dancing. That spontaneous act inspires Gonsalves to improvise the landmark 28-chorus solo that bridges the gap between "Diminuendo in Blue" and "Crescendo in Blue" and ultimately turns the music world on its ear. The subsequent release of the Columbia recording of the live performance would single-handedly rejuvenate the band's sagging career. You wouldn't know it today, but that symbiosis of jazz and dance has been around since Jelly Roll Morton first worked the red-light district in New Orleans.
But somewhere along the line, jazz lost its step. The swing era of the '30s and '40s kept people on the dance floor and in nightclubs, but the bebop revolution of the late '40s and '50s sacrificed jazz's dance groove for more a complex interpretation of swing. The masses avoided it like.... well, like modern jazz.
"Part of it is that we are artists," says bassist Rodney Whitaker, whose credits include stints with Roy Hargrove and Terence Blanchard and appearances on more than 70 recordings. "We started to consider ourselves artists so much that the whole notion of entertainment was beneath us.....For example, Duke Ellington, he wrote great suites and masterworks that weren't about dancing."
Leave it to the highly talented and opinionated trumpeter and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis, to bring the hip back to the hop with For Dancers Only, a program featuring the music of Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman, and new compositions written by Marsalis and bandmates who were inspired by the swing era.
"[I]t's important for people to know the history, that they don't think that this is a new thing," says Whitaker, who joined the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in 1996. "There's a whole history behind the lindy hop, and it goes back to the '30s....Basie, Duke, Benny Goodman and all the jazz greats. I think we call it edutainment -- audiences come in and they have a good time, but within them having a good time, you can educate them."
The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra has earned international acclaim for its educational residencies, workshops and concerts for students and adults. A tireless educator, Marsalis maintains a relentless pace. He has been known to play well past midnight and show up for an early-morning high school band rehearsal the next day. He expects the same from the members of his orchestra, but you won't hear them complain. Most of these musicians benefited from Marsalis's tutelage when they were cutting their teeth. "It's easy, because pretty much everyone in the band met Wynton at some stage in their life at a workshop he was doing at our school or in our town or something," says Whitaker.
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It was JALC's educational program that spawned the idea of For Dancers Only. With the swing revival in full force, Marsalis and company were being asked to do programs with swing dancers as part of their residencies. "We noticed that most of these kids who are dancing don't know the history of the dance or the music," says Whitaker. "So, I think that's part of the mission: to let them hear the real music where this dance came from."
Unfortunately, when For Dancers Only comes to Houston, there won't be a space for the audience to put its backfield in motion. But Marsalis and orchestra hope concertgoers, like the artists themselves, will improvise like crazy.
"We encourage the audience to get up and dance and have a good time," says Whitaker. "If you feel like dancing, dance. That's what jazz is about. It's about having a good time. If you take that from jazz, then jazz is in trouble."
Society for the Performing Arts presents Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on Sunday, May 7, at Jones Hall at 7 p.m. For more information, call (713)227-4SPA.