I just returned from Wisconsin yesterday, where I had very little time for culinary experiences. Instead I was doing a teaching residency at Stevens Point University, which culminated in a concert by their jazz band, under the direction of Mathew Buchman, of my suite Portrait in Seven Shades. When I heard they were going to attempt this difficult piece, which was composed for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, I had my doubts.
Arriving in Stevens Point on the evening before my residency was officially to start I was greeted at the airport by one of the sax students, Katie, who in the course of a 25 mile drive to the hotel managed to get in about a dozen questions relating to arranging, improvising and practicing. I guess my residency had already begun.
A lot was packed into those three days - classes, rehearsals, private lessons, lectures. I got to know many of these students, and I really appreciated how inquisitive and passionate many of them were about playing and learning. I also enjoyed hanging and getting to know the instructors, in particular Mr. Buchman, who over lunch each day, had several questions of his own. It’s always a great privilege to come into a scene you know nothing about and see the great work that so many people are doing.
An hour and a half before the band was to attempt to tackle my suite, I did a lecture in a small auditorium, complete with projected images of the great artists whose iconic paintings were the inspiration for each of the seven movements. It was a tame affair with thirty or forty attendees. The forty-five minutes of non-stop talking, added to three days of non-stop question answering, left my voice sounding like a cress between Tom Waits and Kathleen Turner.
The big moment arrived, and the students, all alike in their matching black attire, mounted the stage and took their places. It felt like my kids up there. And with a father-like pride I have to announce that they not only got through the suite, but played it with a lot of enthusiasm and musicality. They dealt with the odd-time signature of Dali, the technical challenge of Picasso, and the avant-guard direction of Pollock quite expertly.
This residency came on the heels of a recent visit, also to Wisconsin, where Vincent Gardner and I did workshops at six schools in three days. Three of these bands are finalists at the Essentially Ellington festival coming up next week. I don’t know what these kids are eating to sound so good. I guess it’s the cheese...