Last spring Wynton Marsalis invited me to join him and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra on the road for a week of concerts in the South. The schedule took us through Louisville KY, Meridian MS, Nashville TN, Asheville NC, Savannah and Atlanta GA. Six concerts in seven days. It was such a pleasure to hear this band every night for a week, and it was an honor to hang out with these extraordinary musicians. The road teaches many lessons, I tried to keep my eyes and ears open, and not get in the way.
Wynton and I met on a poster project in 1990 and we have maintained a friendship over the years. We collaborated on a book about jazz musicians "Jazz ABZ" published by Candlewick Press in 2005. (The book makes a nice gift.) He has a list of about 100 things he's working on at any time, but he loves getting out on the road. There's a strict schedule and structure to follow, but like the music, there is also room for improvisation and some mischief. I sense that he loves being out here with the guys, playing music, meeting people and spreading the feeling of jazz around the country. Years ago Dizzy Gillespie's manager told me that once when Wynton and Dizzy's United Nations Orchestra were in the same town, Wynton asked to sit in with the band on his night off. He didn't want to take any solos, he just wanted to sit in the trumpet section and play for a night.
Each afternoon there’s a soundcheck at 4 pm. The band runs through 4-5 songs, and reviews anything that may be presenting a problem. David Robinson, the soundman adjusts the microphones for the best sound for each hall. I never hear anything that doesn’t sound great. The musician’s personalities are reflected in their casual dress between concerts. Sweatsuits and various styles of hats that can tell a careful observer something about the musician and how he’s feeling that day.
Dan Nimmer is always the first one to sit down and warm up. Each venue has its own piano, so he must get comfortable with different instrument each night. He’s 25 years old and he plays with a sense of swing that you might not think was possible if you met him on the street. He told me that when he was a ten-year-old kid in Wisconsin, he’d sneak out of bed at night and practice by placing his hands on the keys and playing silently without pressing down.
Soundcheck, Opera House in Meridian MS
There’s a lot of time to kill backstage and chess is played by a number of the guys at a very high level of competion. I hear a lot of bravado, and big talk about who is going to whip who, and tall-tales of past victories, even victories over a musician who is no longer in the band. In fact, I notice these tales of monumental conquest seem to grow with the defeated players absense.
Joe Temperly plays the gigiantic baritone saxophone, and is the elder stateman of the band. He replaced the legendary Harry Carney in Duke Ellington’s band in the 1970’s and he carries that legacy to JALCO with dignity and style. Joe’s solo on “My Funny Valentine” is, for me, a highlight each night. I can tell from the looks on the guys faces when he’s playing how much they all admire and love Joe.
The hour before the concert reminds me of batting practice before a major-league game. Everyone has their own routine, Brooks Brothers suits are ironed with various degrees of concern for personal appearance, horns are unpacked. The guys joke, or walk around slowly, concentrating on their tone, lost in thought.
Backstage at The Savannah Music Festival
Some nights I’d get a ticket to sit out front with the audience, but I actually preferred finding a spot backstage and watching from the wings. I missed hearing a lot of great musicians who played before my time: Art Blakey, Count Basie, Duke, Bird, Charles Mingus. But sitting in the wings and listening to this band, I feel extremely lucky to be around today hearing this music.
In every town we visit I sense a feeling of community that has been built up by the band’s past visits. There’s always a few guests and young musicians sitting backstage, looking in from the wings. Many of the guys in today’s band have grown up doing this exact thing.
After the concert, family, friends and fans come backstage. Young musicians nervously approach the guys, and I hear a lot of impromtu lessons and words of encouragement being given. I saw Carlos Henriquez give a young bass player his phone number and instructions to call him anytime. These musicians are extemely generous and kind, and I know a few words from them can make somebody’s week. I'll post some more drawings from the tour in my next article. Thanks to Lou Brooks, who saw these drawings and invited me to join you all at Drawger. I've been stalking this site for a while and there are so many artists here that I admire. I'm looking forward to being part of the scene.