Early on, jazz musicians played anywhere people gathered to have a good time. In those years, jazz was not thought to be serious enough to be considered concert music or to deserve a concert venue. That changed on Jan. 16, 1938, when Benny Goodman and his band made their historic appearance in Carnegie Hall. Forty-nine years after that first foray into a classical-music performance space by Goodman and his band, a summer concert series began in New York City. That series, Classical Jazz at Lincoln Center, was wildly successful. In 1991, the name of the series was changed to Jazz at Lincoln Center. Heading up Jazz at Lincoln Center was, and still is, Wynton Marsalis.
From the start, each era of jazz has been dominated by a few musical personalities — one or two musicians, who, in the public eye, are regarded as representatives of the art form. In the beginning, it was Louis Armstrong. Later came Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane; in the current era, it’s Wynton Marsalis. Now 56, the musician, composer, bandleader, educator and cultural advocate speaks all dialects of jazz, from its New Orleans roots to be-bop to 21st-century musical parlance.
Here in Chicago, the Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series began in 1994. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra visited Orchestra Hall in that first season and has returned almost every season since. This year, the Jazz at Lincoln Orchestra, led by Marsalis, appears at Symphony Center for concerts on March 1 and March 3. The first concert features Marsalis and company performing original tunes, jazz classics and everything in between. The second concert, though, presents Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performing with the CSO, conducted by Edwin Outwater.
Now in his 10th season as music director of Ontario’s Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, Outwater also is director of summer concerts for the San Francisco Symphony and was recently appointed artistic director of the Eastern Sierra Symphony, a summer festival in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. Though he’s recognized for his conducting talents, Outwater also is widely regarded as a visionary programmer, a musical trailblazer with a gift for cross-cultural collaborations.
“I’m not a jazz musician, but I grew up surrounded by jazz,” Outwater said. Indeed, he did. His grandmother worked closely with Ella Fitzgerald and jazz impresario Norman Granz for several decades. “I was surrounded by people like Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass. I don’t improvise the way jazz musicians do, but I have a good sense of time and rhythm and the culture.”
Outwater, 45, a California native who now lives in Chicago, started his musical career as a bass player, but studied English literature at Harvard. “When I got to Harvard, I was playing chamber music with wonderful musicians, but I’d always been interested in conducting,” he said. “It turned out that Harvard was a great place for me. It had the Bach Society Orchestra. I became conductor of that in my sophomore year.”
After graduating cum laude from Harvard, Outwater went on to receive a master’s in conducting from the University of California at Santa Barbara. After that, he was a young conductor waiting for his big break. “I worked my way up as an assistant conductor in Tulsa, and in south Florida, with the Florida Philharmonic. The big break for me was when Michael Tilson Thomas hired me as his resident conductor at the San Francisco Symphony. That led to lots of guest conducting.”
It wasn’t long before the CSO invited Outwater to conduct a family concert. He’s returned here many times since. “I’ve done a lot of different things with the CSO over the years,” he said. “It’s turned out to be a long and warm relationship.”
Outwater’s March 3 program includes the overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila, selections from Duke Ellington’s The River (“It’s wonderful, evocative and beautiful,” Outwater said), Mussorgsky-Ravel’s Pictures from an Exhibition and a movement from Wynton Marsalis’ Swing Symphony. “I love putting the puzzle pieces together,” Outwater said. “That aspect of conducting really suits me.”
This isn’t the first collaboration of the CSO and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. In years past, Symphony Center audiences have heard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite with Sir Andrew Davis conducting the CSO paired with the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn version of the Grieg offered by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. And there was even a coupling of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale with Marsalis’ A Fiddler’s Tale featuring the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and JaLCO.
But this time things are different. “The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra will be placed right in the middle of the stage and surrounded by the CSO. For Pictures from an Exhibition, they’ll be trading movements,” Outwater said. “It’s great fun to have two orchestras at the absolute top of their game interacting like this.”
Benny would have loved it.
TOP: Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will perform March 1 and March 3 at Symphony Center. | Photo: Frank Stewart/Jazz at Lincoln Center