Arts and Culture

Wynton Marsalis' orchestra and competition inspires local youth

Jazz at Lincoln Center comes to Madison Sept. 23

Lincoln Center in New York City—home of the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera and other stellar groups—has fostered and celebrated jazz music since starting, 30 years ago, a summer jazz concert series. Now the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, directed by the world-renowned trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, is bringing the swing from New York to Madison with a Saturday, Sept. 23, concert at Overture Center for the Arts.

At least one member of this vaunted ensemble has high praise for a Madison-area high school jazz band which has won the right—multiple times, in fact—to travel to New York and play with the orchestra. That local group, the Sun Prairie High School Jazz Ensemble I under the direction of Steve Sveum, performed at Lincoln Center this past May—for the fifth straight year and 11th time since 1998—as a finalist in the “Essentially Ellington” competition started by Marsalis.

Another recent finalist in the competition from Wisconsin, the jazz band at Beloit Memorial High School, will actually open the JLCO show on Oct. 11 at the Marcus Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee.

Every year the “Essentially Ellington” program distributes the written parts of two or three Ellington performances, transcribed from original recordings. The scores are made available to any interested nonprofessional group, the vast majority being high school jazz programs. Over three thousand schools receive them each year and all are invited to submit audition recording for the chance to be selected as one of the 15 finalists who participate for three days every May at Lincoln Center. The finalists play for each other and for the flagship ensemble, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

“I tell you, when my high school group competed, it was one of the first years of ‘Essentially Ellington,’ and it was just a tri-state event,” JLCO bass player bass player Carlos Henriquez says. “The schools that have come through here the last few years are bad—I mean they can really play at a whole other level than we did back then.”

Henriquez was a member of the jazz band at LaGuardia High School of Arts and Performing Arts in NYC —the 1980 film “Fame” was based loosely on life there­—that won the competition in 1996. Less than two years later, he would join the JLCO, filling an interim position. Since 2002 he has been the full time bassist of this remarkable group.

Henriquez shared some thoughts and insights with Madison Magazine by phone last week in advance of the JLCO’s Overture Center appearance.

Henriquez describes himself as a “Nuyorican”: His parents were born in Puerto Rico (where they had both been musicians), and he grew up in the Bronx, where, Henriquez says “music was in the house: Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Tito Puente. My mom, she didn’t discriminate!”

Starting first with piano lessons. He later switched to classical guitar, but at the start of high school, began playing bass. The move had more to do with circumstances than a sudden attraction to the latter instrument.

“I attended a Pentecostal church, and once in a while the bass player (for the worship services) didn’t show up. I knew the last four strings of the guitar were the same as the bass, so the other guitar player had me fill in,” he says. “I didn’t know then what I know now—that as the bass player you can really play a big part in shaping the structure of what is happening musically.”

Today he gets that rarefied opportunity in the JLCO—an ongoing source of inspiration for students and older jazz fans alike. He says he’ll have had some say in what will be played be Saturday night at Overture Center. “The program we’re touring with right now features some numbers by Jelly Roll Morton, and the rest are numbers from guys in the band,” Henriquez says. “There are 11or 12 of us who compose and arrange as well.”

To have this chance to see the powerhouse JLCO here at home is truly special. If you go, don’t be surprised if the most exuberant members of the audience are high school students—the next generation of jazz musicians.

Greg Hettmansberger covers opera and classic music for

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