Birth of the American Orchestra | Playbill

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Classic Arts Features Birth of the American Orchestra Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra delve into the Birth of the American Orchestra.

"The first great composer and intellectual in jazz is New Orleans creole, Jelly Roll Morton. He was a master of hot music and improvisation, but wrote everything out and expected musicians to read every note of it. In his music, we find everything that will be developed in orchestral jazz," explains Jazz at Lincoln Center Managing and Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis at a recent Harvard University lecture.

Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra delved into the Birth of the American Orchestra on January 9–10 in Rose Theater. It will be both an entertaining and colorful storytelling experience through the history of big band and orchestral jazz. In the recent past the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has highlighted this rich history with performances in honor of great jazz composers like Eddie Durham and Benny Carter. This program will focus on them, as well as such great bandleaders as Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Chico O'Farrill, Bill Challis, and Don Redman.

In the mid-1920s, composers Don Redman and Fletcher Henderson came into prominence. In Henderson's band was a young man named Louis Armstrong. "Louis teaches the world how to phrase with swing. His improvised solos are as logical as compositions, but brimming with the fire of fresh invention. Soon, Don Redman begins writing for this eleventh piece and a new orchestral configuration becomes common currency. Don Redman is the architect of the Jazz Age Orchestra AND the Swing to Modern Era Orchestra. Like Redman, composer Bill Challis has a genius for turning New Orleans jazz into large ensemble music," says Marsalis.

"This evolution continues into what is called 'The Jazz Age.' As the Jazz Age big band began to sweep the country, the audience became divided over small group jazz hot and the orchestral hybrid. Jazz hot was only for record buyers, but if you wanted to gig you needed a hybrid large ensemble for dancing. Even Jelly Roll and King Oliver formed Jazz Age Orchestras."

Duke Ellington was born in Washington D.C. on April 29, 1899. He eventually moved to New York City in the mid-1920s and gained national attention with his orchestra. He called his music "American Music," rather than jazz. He and Fletcher Henderson were the early innovators of orchestral jazz. "And though Ellington tours frequently," notes Marsalis, "the Cotton Club is home for his 12-piece ensemble. Duke composes the highest quality music for the personalities of his iconic soloists _Bostonian Johnny Hodges, the cool sophisticate; Alabaman Cootie Williams, growling master of the trumpet; and New Orleans clarinet wizard Barney Bigard, to name a few."

The Jazz Age occurred in the 1920s, and Swing Jazz developed in the late 1920s into the early 1930s. Changes in this new era included the use of more free flowing rhythm, using four beats to a bar instead of the two beats that was common in New Orleans Dixieland jazz. "From the Jazz Age to the Swing Era, it was a revolution in sound," Marsalis says. "Bands swung on everything from European classics to the American Popular Song, from nursery rhymes to the blues. And many of the musical objectives and imperatives established in the early 1920s had been realized and developed.

"The Swing Era and Fletcher Henderson begin arranging in a style everyone can understand. If your rhythm section doesn't swing, nothing will. Count Basie comes east from Kansas City with an orchestra full of geniuses that have stomped the Midwest into mush. They're carrying an otherworldly collection of soloists _ tenor saxophonists Herschel Evans and Lester Young, trumpeters Buck Clayton and Sweets Edison, and the All-American rhythm section of Freddie Green, Walter Page, Jo Jones, and Basie himself."

Benny Goodman's presence on the jazz scene in the mid-1930s made major social changes to America with the integration of the jazz big band. "The jazz orchestra is, itself, an act of social as well as musical integration. And over it, through it, and because of it, segregated folks came together. And the value of this music is in its encouragement of reason and of reasoning, in its celebration of affirmation through kinship, and in the fact that musicians were interested in each OTHER and in each OTHER'S artistry. And there is nothing deeper or more personal than interest, except endurance. And that's what would be needed to survive what was coming."

The great bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie once told Marsalis, "One should not consider it an achievement to lose one's orchestral tradition."

For more information and the full schedule, visit or call 212-258-9595 for reservations. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Box Office is located on Broadway at 60th Street, Ground Floor. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10am _6pm; Sunday, 12pm _6pm. For groups of 15 or more:212-258-9875 or

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