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Photograph by John Abbott

Soaring Swingers: Led by top trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (center) and featuring a collection of the finest players in jazz, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra ranks as the nation's premier jazz ensemble.

Sophisticated Swing

The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra takes a danceable look at big-band classics

By Jenny Austin

PIANO NOTES RISE, hover and coalesce with the translucent sounds of Marcus Printup's trumpet, and I am rapt, phone to my ear, another part of me aloft in the evening air of his New York City apartment. He plays for me, his left fingers spilling over the keys and his right fingers hopping on the trumpet valves, and he wins me over with his passion and this ambidextrous serenade. I love this interview.

Our talk, an interview about Wednesday, April 12's Cocoanut Grove date with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (for which Printup plays in the trumpet section), is as spunky and eloquent as the orchestra itself. (Led by Wynton Marsalis, the orchestra ranks as the nation's premier jazz big band.) Like the tones of his brass instrument, Printup is both discerning and soulful. His enthusiasm for looking at progressions in jazz, for the relationship between jazz and dance and the committed role Lincoln Center has in leading a country-wide renaissance of jazz education similarly is glowing and brassy.

Returning to Santa Cruz for a second year on a UCSC Arts and Lectures lineup, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra's spring 2000 tour takes the group around the country in traditional style to play in settings reminiscent of the pre-World War II ballroom era. Titled "For Dancers Only," after a work Sy Oliver wrote for Jimmie Lunceford's orchestra, this tour sets out to capture the magical fusion of jazz and dancing during the swing era.

While this performance is not simply a swing revival, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Jazz at Lincoln Center organization, both devoted to honoring the history of jazz and its musicians, are careful to restore the essence of the performances of the 1930s and '40s. "We really try to bring the spirit of the music back to what it was back then, a new art and musical form," Printup says. "We want to recapture the enthusiasm of the big band music, new at that time."

That doesn't mean that the orchestra ignores half a century of jazz innovation since then.

"The orchestra doesn't have to sound exactly like Ellington, even though we are playing his compositions," Printup says. "Listen to 'Take the A Train.' It was recorded in the '50s, '70s--it has the same chord changes, but the sound has to evolve. It's a different band, a different time."

Drawing from musical influences from more than half a century of musical styles provides more complex paths of innovation. In returning to the pure swing music before these developments, a musician uses these musical progressions to improvise and create new themes. "You really need to have quick reflexes, be creative, always be looking for ways to keep it fresh," says Printup.

Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra also endeavor to further understanding of jazz with national collaborations on educational events, Printup says. "As jazz musicians, I think it's our duty to educate others in this long tradition. Jazz is something to be taken seriously, it requires a great deal of training and is not informal, but is comprised of a great deal of theory. We try to educate the public that it is a formal art form of sophistication and prominence."

For Printup, jazz needs to be redefined as sophisticated. Many progenitors and pioneers in jazz--players now regarded as heroes in the idiom--didn't know how to read music. For this reason, and the music's emphasis on improvisation and nontraditional rhythm, jazz is at times not understood as an intellectual music.

"Jazz is a four-letter word," Printup says. "And there are many categorizations of jazz: fusion, modern, bebop--it isn't clearly defined, and therefore has the potential to lose some of its essence. Today, many forms of popular music, such as rap, rock and hip-hop are pushing jazz off the map."

MISSING FROM MUCH of the latter-day swing revival is attention to the cultural and racial relationships of the musicians during the swing era. They were complicated--as they have been since that time. Big bands often meant that color lines were crossed and black and white musicians moved into a shared musical world, but there were economic and artistic disparities. More profits were made by white swing bands, such as Benny Goodman's and Glenn Miller's, even though black musicians like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway laid the groundwork for this era.

"With anything, you need to look at the era," Printup says. "It was the 1930s and '40s, women had only recently attained suffrage and there were a lot of oppressive factors in society during the beginning of the century. As Ellington said, it's not only music for black people to enjoy--it is universal, for everyone to listen to, to gain something from. It's good to mix our respective perspectives together, experience a bicultural interchange--we are all equal. We should share philosophies and creativities and be a melting pot. Isn't that what we're supposed to be in the U.S.?"

That attitude informs the musical feeling of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The mood is playful and graceful, the technique beautifully crafted. As in Ellington's band, each musician lends a distinctive integrity to the ensemble, and the cohesion of the players is like a taut exchange between masterful swing dancers.

"The members of the LCJO have been playing together as a group along with Wynton Marsalis for years," Printup says. "There is no audition involved with being part of the band--he chooses musicians after visiting different performances. Fate brings us together, and there is a freshness in our group. We love playing together, and it's easy to get into the vibe for a scripted concert, especially with our love for the music."

The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra plays the Cocoanut Grove, 400 Beach St, Santa Cruz, beginning at 8pm. Tickets are sold out. (427.2227)

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From the April 5-12, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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