Though it sometimes gets a bad rap as the favored genre of bookish old men, jazz is a style rooted in celebration and characterized by improvisation. Celebration and improvisation is exactly what’s been going on throughout Pensacola’s musical community since it was announced that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis would perform at the Saenger Theatre on July 26.
The world-renowned group, comprising fifteen of the most accomplished and well-respected musicians currently performing and teaching, is making a rare appearance on the Gulf Coast.
Marsalis himself, regarded by many as one of the best trumpeters to have ever picked up the instrument, originally hails from New Orleans. His father, Ellis, plays each Friday at Snug Harbor in New Orleans and siblings Branford, Delfeayo and Jason have all made careers as professional musicians as well (that is an understatement made for word count’s sake).
So it’s safe to say that bringing jazz to the masses is a family tradition that became a global mission for Marsalis, and Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC)—for which Marsalis is the managing and artistic director—is a forum to play, teach, and perpetuate that tradition through a variety of media including live performance, radio broadcasts, sheet music for schools, music instruction, and an HBO series titled “Wynton Marsalis: A YoungArts Masterclass” to name a few.
Don Snowden, Department Head of the Performing Arts Department at Pensacola State College (PSC) spearheaded the effort to bring Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) to Pensacola and has recruited several area musical groups and organizations to contribute to the experience for musicians and music fans of all ages.
From providing seats for primary school students in the balcony, to having local college students performing at the VIP reception ahead of the show, members of Pensacola’s musical community are rallying around what is sure to be an amazing night for music fans.
A People’s Music
Sandwiched between JLCO’s appearance at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta on July 25 and a benefit for Tipitina’s Foundation in New Orleans on July 27, the Pensacola performance will benefit PSC’s Performing Arts Department, in keeping with JALC’s educational mission.
“Our mission has three legs to the stool, as I call it: performance, education and advocacy,” said Todd Stoll, Vice President of Education at JALC. “We want to provide as much support and advocacy for jazz musicians and jazz lovers in general all over the country, and all over the world, actually.”
“It will show these music students what is possible in the music world. It will either inspire them or cause them to close their instrument case up and not play it again,” Snowden said with a chuckle when discussing the JLCO concert’s likely effect on musicians in the audience.
In addition to heading up PSC’s Performing Arts Department, Snowden serves as the Director of Bands and an Assistant Professor at PSC. Snowden is also the Director of the Pensacola Civic Band, an organization of adult instrumental musicians. Add on playing second trombone in the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra, leading the Pensacola Big Band All Stars, and performing in the Perdido Brass, and you’d be about halfway down his vitae.
When PSC was awarded a grant to produce an event to bring people from outside of the area, Snowden, as a musician and educator himself, immediately thought of one of the biggest artists in arts performance and education.
“We got the grant almost a year and a half ago. I was thinking of what would be a big draw. Me being a jazz nut, I said ‘Why don’t we go for the top and ask for Wynton Marsalis and JLCO?’”
JALC has a physical location in New York City, but its reach expands well beyond the walls of the organization’s facility. Completed in 2004, the Frederick P. Rose Hall is billed as “the world’s first performance, education and broadcast facility devoted to jazz.”
Marsalis co-founded JALC in 1987 at the age of 26, after having an already accomplished career including multiple Grammy awards in both jazz and classical categories. Starting off as a summer concert series, JALC became an official department of Lincoln Center in 1991, and in 1996 became a constituent of Lincoln Center, joining the ranks of the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera and New York City Ballet.
The JLCO, which is involved with all aspects of the center’s programming, tours over one-third of the year and performs regularly at JALC in New York when not on the road. After its show in New Orleans, the group will perform a string of dates in the Northeast, including the Newport Jazz Festival, before returning to New York.
“It really comes down to us inspiring and energizing the local community, which is what we want to see,” Stoll said of the JLCO’s touring.
“That was written into our mission statement for many, many years—we want people to feel welcome, and we want the community to be inspired by the feeling of the performance,” Stoll said. “The performances will always be at a very high artistic level, but there’s a secondary feeling that we want to be just as powerful, which is a feeling of, ‘Man, we’re all in this together, and it’s going to be all right.’
“We want people to have a feeling of welcome, a feeling like you’re visiting a relative—but a relative who can really, really play,” Stoll said with a laugh, referring to the spirit of all of JALC’s programming.
Marsalis has performed in Pensacola once before, in 1991. Marcus Printup, a trumpeter with JLCO, was a guest soloist with the PSC jazz band over 10 years ago, but Snowden reiterated the rarity of having 15 musicians of their abilities perform locally.
“Everyone in the band is a virtuoso,” Snowden said, who stated the performance is already drawing the desired response reflected via ticket sales.
While Snowden reports ticket sales from as far as Jacksonville and Orlando for the show, a large portion of the seats will be dedicated to area students, thanks to donations from a few local businesses, yet one more notable aspect of the event.
“Rarely does a performing arts department get a chance to have a fundraiser where every penny goes back to the department,” Snowden said. “I think it’s going to sell out.”
Behind two adjacent storefronts on Palafox Street is a labyrinth of rooms, equipment and people providing for one common goal: keeping clean, functional musical instruments in the hands of area students. The staff of Schmidt’s Music, including a small army of instrument repair technicians and apprentices, diligently goes about their work with the sounds of jazz and classical music coming from a few rooms, and the sounds of small machinery from others.
“You know the ultra-sonic cleaners they have in jewelry stores? This is the same thing, only gigantic!” owner David Schmidt said, referring to a large vat softly jostling what appears to be a tuba in a bath of cleaning fluid. Schmidt is standing in one of his store’s repair workshops, behind the store’s main lobby and showroom, all part of a business he founded 33 years ago as a repair tech.
In the decades since, Schmidt’s Music has dedicated itself to instrument sales, rental and repair, primarily for local schools and music students.
“Our focus has always been education and service,” Schmidt stated. “To be in this aspect of retail music you’re much more involved than just selling things. You believe in education. Everybody in here is a band kid. Everybody either went to college on a scholarship or had their life radically altered by being in public school music—every one of our employees. It’s been that way for 33 years here.”
A saxophonist himself and active in local jazz organizations, it was after chatting with Snowden at Five Sisters Blues Café during a benefit for local musician Clarence Bell that Schmidt decided to help make Snowden’s goal of providing free tickets to area students a reality. Along with local law firm Beggs and Lane*, Schmidt’s Music donated funds to purchase the majority of balcony seats at the Saenger to provide tickets to middle and high school students, free of charge.
(*Note: After press time, the Inweekly learned that the law firm of Clark, Partington, Hart, Larry, Bond & Stackhouse also joined in as contributors to provide tickets for local middle and high students.)
“Talking to Don is what planted the seed and I asked him if I could get involved,” Schmidt said.
“It was his idea to give those tickets away to school kids. He’s always thinking about education, how to proliferate that,” Schmidt explained, emphasizing that Snowden’s work with the Civic Band also provides opportunities for older musicians as well. “He’s built a huge core of community for musicians. Once you graduate from high school or college, there’s really no place to play if you’re not a professional player, but you enjoy it and you want to continue. He provides that venue.”
At the time of the interview, Schmidt said he was hearing positive feedback from band directors, and had received word from the director at Bailey Middle School reporting that 60 students had signed up for tickets. Middle school students received two tickets each—one for the student and one for a parent or guardian. At least 120 seats would be filled as a result of his and Beggs and Lane’s donation.
“Making that decision and getting the donations made it accessible for those kids. That will change a young player’s whole perspective toward music and an instrument,” said Schmidt’s General Manager, Dustin Bonifay. “It’s not just that we’re excited to see the concert and musicians of that level, it’s that we’re excited for how it’s going to inspire and impact all those students that are going to be there.”
In the past, Schmidt’s has contributed to bring jazz musicians to the area—earlier this year they supported the Manilow Music Project, which recognized one area music teacher and provided a night out on the town and tickets to Barry Manilow’s performance. The store has also cosponsored performances by Chris Vadala, Bobby Shew and Ira Sullivan in the past—but both Schmidt and Bonifay noted that the JLCO show donation could have the largest residual effects of anything they’ve had a hand in sponsoring.
Repair services are also part of the store’s charitable work benefitting local students, specifically those in the Belmont Youth Band (BYB). The store’s six repair technicians repair donated instruments and turn them over to the BYB, a few members of which will perform for the JLCO while in Pensacola.
“We fix up donated used instruments at no charge and give them to them as a working unit,” Schmidt said, who was excited to learn that the BYB was also in the mix of students getting exposure to the concert.
“I remember when I was a kid, I was exposed to Maynard Ferguson like that at a concert where free tickets were available. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to go. I had no idea you could make an instrument sound like that,” Schmidt remembered. “I realize the potential for the impact. It changed my life—at that point, I said ‘That’s what I want to do. To heck with all this other stuff, I think I’ll go that way.’ It can hit like lightning, it really can.”
Playing Them In
When the JLCO arrives at the Saenger, they will be greeted by the songs of the BYB, which, like donors Schmidt’s Music and Beggs and Lane, became part of the event after speaking with Snowden.
The performance for JLCO will be one of several BYB has scheduled in July. Only a few days after they welcome JLCO to town, the group will travel to Tunica, Mississippi to perform at the Jus’ Blues Festival for the second consecutive year.
“I try to give the kids as much exposure as possible,” said Vivian Lamont, co-founder and leader of the BYB.
The BYB, which meets every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, is open to all students ages 7 through 18 with an interest in music.
“We give them free instruments, free lessons and help them get college scholarships,” Lamont said. “We teach them a variety of music: classical music, pop tunes, jazz and even religious music, because we perform in churches, too.”
The students are divided into levels—beginners, intermediate and advanced. It will be BYB’s advanced students that perform for the JLCO, one of the many perks of hard work in the group.
“With my advanced students, I sometimes get them to work with some of the beginners, to get them started,” Lamont said. Students who regularly spend time working with other students are often able to get credit through schools for volunteering, which in turn bolsters their applications for scholarships.
Currently, Lamont has four former BYB students attending Pensacola State College on music scholarships. Lamont also regularly sends students to summer band camps at universities, typically the University of West Florida or, as one 11th grader did last year, to attend Florida State University’s summer music program.
“We try to keep them busy education-wise and let them know that music is a great opportunity to help you get into college. Even if you don’t want to wind up being a musician, you can take music and major in something else. The student that went to Florida State, he wants to be an engineer, but he’s an outstanding violinist,” Lamont said.
Recently, having secured a new permanent home for regular sessions, Lamont says she is seeing an uptick in the number of students participating, currently at about 50. “I’m steadily getting new students in everyday now that I’m in a new location at the Woodland Heights Community Center,” she said.
The BYB has been working with local students since January 2003 when Lamont co-founded the group with bassist Rudy Pendleton. For health reasons, Pendleton had to step away from BYB, but Lamont has carried on since then, building a network of teachers to instruct as the band has grown.
Lamont herself started singing in church at age 5. After having supportive teachers in middle school, she competed as a high school student in a voice contest against college students in Washington, D.C., where she lived at the time. After winning the contest, Lamont was able to receive instruction at the Modern School of Music, then joined the Jazz Workshop in D.C. at the age of 21, and frequently sang at military bases in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia.
“I did that for quite a while until I moved here to Pensacola 22 years ago,” she said.
“That was my main reason for doing this: a lot of young kids’ parents can’t afford private lessons for the kids. When they get to middle school, if there is a band, some of the kids are already far more advanced because they’ve been in private lessons. To help out, I wanted to prepare the younger students, in the event they do join the band, so that they won’t be behind.”
As for the students who will perform for the JLCO members, Lamont said they are excited for the chance to play for the professionals. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime for them, so they’re on cloud nine,” she said.
Funding the Future
The very scholarship fund that grants awards to students, including several of Lamont’s former BYB members, is one of several aspects of PSC’s performing arts department that will benefit from ticket sales for the JLCO show.
“Our budget has been cut this year because of a decrease in enrollment, so it’s going to supplement what we’ve lost. The bulk of it is going toward scholarships that we’ll be able to use for several years,” Snowden said.
“We need to replace our piano laboratory. It’s about 15 years old and things are starting to wear out on it,” Snowden stated of another expected use of the funds raised through the performance. The piano lab is a resource all music students at PSC utilize, as they are required to pass a proficiency test when they graduate.
“There’s always a need for musical instruments because eventually they wear out. I have a set of tympani that I’ve had for 30 years—we finally got those replaced,” Snowden said. “I’m also working to try to get a commercial music production program going and that’s going to help us by lab equipment: computers, keyboards and things like that for it.”
The show will also mark the launch of “Friends of the Performing Arts,” a booster program for PSC’s Performing Arts department, which will allow people to contribute to the program year round. Students from PSC’s music department will perform at the VIP reception ahead of the show, along with a few from UWF.
All of the various educational aspects of the Pensacola show align with JALC’s mission, according to Stoll.
“If performance is the blood that runs in our veins, then education is the heart that pumps the blood,” Stoll said of JALC. “All the guys in the band are teachers. We did 2,717 individual education events last year—that includes classes, workshops, online courses, Jazz for Young People performances. We are committed and dedicated to education as the second most important thing we do next to performing.”
As a former teacher, Stoll said he learned of Marsalis’s commitment to instructing younger musicians first hand and has seen him expand his efforts through JALC.
“I met Wynton because he gave one of my students a trumpet lesson during a gig when he was the most famous trumpet player in the world, and he didn’t have to do that,” Stoll said. “His entire life has always been a combination of the highest level of performance and then understanding that for the continuation of the music, you have to educate the next generation.”
“We try to maintain that level of humanity,” Stoll explained. “That’s what Wynton always says: we want to raise the consciousness of our humanity through the arts. That is why we do education everywhere we go, because that’s the key.”
JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA WITH WYNTON MARSALIS
WHAT: A Performance Benefitting the Pensacola State College Performing Arts Department
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, July 26
WHERE: The Saenger Theatre, 118 S. Palafox St.
COST: $45-$65; VIP seats (including pre-performance reception) available for $100 each
Wynton’s Greatest Hits
Wynton Marsalis is a musician, producer, composer and educator. In addition to his work as the Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), his biography is replete with significant and numerous achievements, and he shows no sign of letting off the excellence. The following are a few of the highlights, as we couldn’t simply publish his bio in full (although we’d like to have done so). After giving this a glance, you might start to understand why the music nerds you know are so looking forward to Saturday’s performance.
•Marsalis was born in New Orleans in 1961. At age 8, he began performing traditional New Orleans music at the Fairview Baptist Church and began classical training on trumpet at age 12, performing with the New Orleans Philharmonic only two years later.
•At age 17, Marsalis entered the Julliard School and began performing gigs around New York City. In 1980, Marsalis joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. One year later, he formed his own band, began touring and began recording shortly thereafter.
•Marsalis has recorded more than 70 jazz and classical albums which have garnered him nine Grammy Awards.
•In 1983 he became the only artist ever to win Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical records, an achievement he repeated the following year. He went on to win Grammy Awards for five consecutive years (1983-1987).
•In 1997, Marsalis was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in music for his oratorio, Blood on the Fields, an epic composition for big band, gospel choir and symphony orchestra commissioned by JALC. Marsalis was the first jazz artist to be awarded the prize, previously only bestowed upon classical composers.
•In 2001, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan proclaimed Marsalis an international ambassador of goodwill for the United States by appointing him a UN Messenger of Peace.
•His other honors abroad include the Netherlands’ Edison Award, an Honorary Membership Royal Academy of Music—the Academy’s highest decoration for a non-British citizen—and France’s highest distinction, the insignia Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, an honor that was first awarded by Napoleon Bonaparte.
•In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Marsalis organized the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Concert which took place at JALC and raised over $3 million for musicians and cultural organizations impacted by the hurricane.
•He has written five books, the most recent being 2008’s “Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.”