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Wynton Marsalis brings Harlem gospel to Charlotte


Demonstrating a profound universal humanism, Wynton Marsalis’ “Abyssinian Mass” is a masterwork that raises “joyful noise” in reflecting the true form of African American worship — an uplifting celebration and landmark collaboration of jazz, gospel, instrumentation and vocals.

Marsalis, the artistic and managing director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, brings the work to Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on Tuesday, Oct. 8.

Together with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the 70-person Chorale Le Chateau, under the direction of Damien Sneed, Marsalis is taking his music on the road with “Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration Tour” during the month of October.

The extended piece was written by Marsalis in 2008 in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, one the oldest African American churches in the country and the first in New York. The church remains today at the center of Harlem’s black community, a vibrant hub of worship, social activism and culture.

The “Abyssinian” tour will make 16 stops along the East Coast and Midwest, with Charlotte and Chapel Hill its only North Carolina appearances. One unique aspect of the tour is found in its venues; the performances are held exclusively in churches and performing arts centers, ensuring patrons will experience the full depth of this unique concert experience.

Marsalis, 52, was the first jazz artist to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1997 for his work, “Blood on the Fields,” a piece commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center. Musician, composer, bandleader, educator and advocate for the arts, Marsalis has been a pioneer in bringing Jazz to the forefront of American culture. He has served as the world-renowned arts organization’s artistic director as well as music director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (formerly known as the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra) since its inception.

Here are excerpts from a recent conversation with him:

Qcitymetro: Congratulations on the 25th year of Jazz at Lincoln Center. What would you say are amongst the most significant achievements for the organization over that time?

Wynton Marsalis: First off, becoming a constituent and permanent part of Lincoln Center. Another major accomplishment is in building our own performance hall (in 2004), the Frederick P. Rose Hall, which gave us our own space and the opportunity to showcase performers and Jazz from all over the globe. I am always optimistic, but to see the need and demand for the music and the way the Hall addresses that is phenomenal. There is a special feeling in there, especially on nights where we have two or three different performers; it is really nice. All the different concerts we’ve played and the musicians we have presented is something I am very proud of. Our incredible library and archives and also the tremendous education programming we do is very special. We’ve held over 2100 different education programs last year alone.

What place does jazz hold in the pantheon of American music?

I feel that jazz is the art form that most objectifies the democratic process. What I mean by that is, when you study jazz, you can understand things like the Constitution, our roles, what it means to have democratic integrity, how buildings are constructed and our way of life. jazz is a method of communicating with other people who are equal. You also find the history of the 20th century in jazz. Two ages were named for jazz — The Jazz Age and The Swing Era.

The roll call of jazz musicians contributing their talent to the artistry of jazz music is legend — from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington, Arnett Coleman, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum and so many others. I could go on and on. These people have contributed so much to the country through a body of enduring art and raised people’s spirits for so many years. It really is an incredible contribution.

Part of the stated mission of JALC is recognizing the totality of the Jazz Mosaic. How big a can of worms is that, how do you tackle it all and what do you say to critics who say that JALC’s definition is too narrow or focused too much on 1950’s and earlier?

I think that is really a strength of ours, not a weakness, that so many forms want to be a part of jazz. One thing we try and do at JALC is define the central focus of jazz as swing, improvisation and the blues. We welcome all kinds of music into the house; we are also very custodial about the identity of jazz.

Regarding the critique that says this definition is too narrow, you have to understand that music has fundamentals; all styles of music have them. Sometimes people critiquing a style of music are doing so socially, not musically. It is pretty hard to argue against fundamentals. Those are the core fundamentals of the music. Baroque music has counterpoint; it just does. This is fundamental to this form of music, regardless of those who say “too narrow.” If you are playing Jazz, you swing; this is the rhythm that identifies it as Jazz. If you play Samba, there is a specific Samba rhythm – it has a tradition and a history as to what this rhythm is.

Jazz is the same way. Sometimes when there is a lot of commentary going on, agendas are confused. A musical agenda is different from a social agenda.

Tell us about Abyssinian Mass – why are you bringing it out for tour now?

The spark behind the tour is David Steward (a JALC donor and founder of World Wide Technologies in St. Louis, Steward has been instrumental in providing resources to making this tour possible). He likes the piece and encouraged us to bring it out. We thought it would be a good time. When I write these pieces, they are not really topical. Any time is a good time for the music to come out. I put a lot of research into the music and these works speak across times

They are designed to speak to issues that are not topical. With a mass, it is always the same issue — come together, speak together and stay together. Everyone has a place in the house of God. That is the main theme of the sermon, but the form of the piece itself takes you through many of the spiritual conditions of American music, Anglo- and Afro- American church music.

What is it about Gospel that cuts across faith lines and appeals even to a secular audience?

With my kind of spirituality, I am not proselytizing. I don’t try and be topical. I try and provide a core spiritual experience. I am a fan of scripture. I grew up with the Bible. It is a tremendous guide with spiritual insights. I tend to deal with the insights as insights and not as away to convince somebody that my beliefs should be their beliefs. I also view the music as music; the music is so much richer in church.

You wrote Abyssinian Mass in 2008. How has it blossomed and matured since it was first performed? What can people expect?

The choir is more used to it; they have a greater familiarity with it. They have a greater degree of freedom with the piece now. They are better able to articulate all the different emotions and different movements that are in the piece and give it treatment from straight-up gospel jump to almost like Bach music. I can tell you it just feels good to be part of a group activity, especially playing music; it is uplifting.

Tell us about Damien Sneed and the Chorale Le Chateau, the choral group accompanying your tour.

They are ready! They have been practicing and performing at a very high level. People will be very impressed and uplifted.

How did you decide to come to Charlotte?

Anthony Foxx (former Charlotte mayor, current U.S. secretary of transportation) is a very good friend of mine. I love Charlotte; I love playing there. I am looking forward to being there, and we are coming with a tremendous amount of warmth and communal feeling.

What is the one thing you hope audiences will walk away with?

I hope people will be uplifted and nourished. The band is playing on an extremely high level. We feel that these tours are historic because it is unusual to have Jazz bands play in churches. We played on a similar tour for a piece that I wrote some years ago called “In This House, On This Morning.” It was the first tour of this kind with a Jazz band in churches and was such a soulful tour; the music was accompanied with such intensity. We are looking forward to bringing a great deal of feeling and coming to embrace people with our music.