Essentially Duke (and Wynton)

Last November I was in Boston to be designated the Distinguished Graduate of the Year at the Alumni Dinner of Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the country, founded in 1635. Previous alumni-somewhat before my time-have included Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Ralph Waldo Emerson. For me, the highlight of the evening was the vivid presence of the Boston Latin School Jazz Band, brilliantly directed by faculty member Paul Pitts (BLS class of 1973).

The band was there because my award citation included my involvement in jazz, which began, at age 11, the year I entered Boston Latin School. I first heard these players-integrated by gender, race and ethnicity-a few years ago when I visited the school. They were playing Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” and I was surprised, and impressed, by how deeply they got into his music.

I told them then that Duke would have been pleased, and several asked me, “Did you actually, really, ever talk to Duke Ellington?” I told them that when I was in my early 20s in Boston, he was a mentor of mine when he came to town and he continued to be one in the coming years.

On that November evening, the school band again played “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” as well as three other Ellington compositions. I thought of how Duke loved his brass section as these trumpets and trombones brought to mind Ellington’s “Braggin’ in Brass.” And the other sections were also resounding, playing tributes to Ellington.

Wynton Marsalis deserves direct credit for the band’s success that night. As Paul Pitts told me: “All of these charts are the real deal, and have been made available through Essentially Ellington, a competition for high school bands across the United States.”

Every year, Jazz at Lincoln Center sends out, Pitts continued, “six Duke Ellington original charts transcribed by David Berger with a recording of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra playing them and the information to find the original recordings. We have all learned so much by studying this music, and I think Wynton has done a great service to music education to get this music out there to high school students.”

Last year marked the 10th annual Essentially Ellington Competition, which has introduced more than 200,000 students to Duke since it started. And as Marsalis wrote in the accompanying material for band directors: “While the arrangements in their original form may be daunting to young musicians, the satisfaction they feel having tackled ‘the real thing’ and the sense of accomplishment… knowing they’ve played what the masters played is a great motivator.”

I could see that satisfaction in the Latin School musicians that night-and in Headmaster Cornelia Kelley (BLS ’44). She is a tough-love educator, and like her predecessors, insists that no child dare to be left behind. As the evening ended, the band, very much including the brass section, was on fire, and the headmaster, sitting next to me, said emphatically to the audience: “That’s what it’s all about, ladies and gentlemen!” The life force of Ellington’s music had reached and lifted her.

Paul Pitts sent me Wynton Marsalis’ performance notes on the compositions played that night, and they reminded me that Marsalis is the preeminent jazz educator of our time. It’s not only the extensive Jazz at Lincoln Center educational projects, including the Jazz for Young People concerts, there are also his occasional television appearances on which he so clearly gets inside the music both verbally and with his horn.

Marsalis’ informal yet precise style of communication is evident in his notes to young performers for Ellington’s “Launching Pad,” which the BLS band played during that alumni night: “This is a blues. It’s a good tune to open up for kids to solo on. And it’s a tune to get the right feeling in the rhythm section. An important thing to stress is attacking the syncopation, all those little accents on the ends of the beats. It’s important to attack those beats to propel the music forward.

“Be aware of the balances needed between the solo instruments and the trio of the trombone, flugelhorn and the tenor saxophone. Make sure that not only do they play in balance, but that they also get the proper human and vocal quality to their sound…. It’s important to find the right tempo; if it’s too slow, it could be murderously long, but if it’s too fast, it will sound frantic.” (Emphasis added.)

Two years ago, the BLS band almost made the cutoff score for the second round of the Essentially Ellington Competition. But to use an old Boston term, they have a lot of sticktoitiveness. And they learn, and play, from the entire jazz legacy. Last year, for instance, they performed Charles Mingus charts, and that’s as challenging and ultimately satisfying as reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars in the original Latin, which I used to have to do at BLS.

These young musicians are learning what I heard Coleman Hawkins say during a recent NPR tribute: “I don’t think about music as being new or modern. I just play.” And because of bandmaster Paul Pitts, what these players are experiencing now will last them the rest of their lives. As Paul says, “At times, they get inside a chord, a wondrous chord, and enjoy it for the beautiful thing it is!”

Band masters who’d like to know more about the Essentially Ellington program can write: Lindsay Brust, Jazz at Lincoln Center, 33 W. 60th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10023; [email protected];