Much of the music we call “jazz” can be traced back in some way or another to the dancehalls of Harlem in the early decades of the 20th century. It is appropriate, then, that Jazztown 2000, the second annual Williamstown Jazz Festival, began and ended with dancing.
Jazztown 2000 wrapped up a week of events with a dance, featuring the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Wynton Marsalis, at the Hunter Center for the Performing Arts at Mass MoCA in North Adams. The event was the first stop for the LCJO on their national “For Dancers Only” tour, which will take the orchestra to 24 cities over the next few months.
The afternoon began with a brief dancing lesson from swing dance couple Janice Wilson and Paolo Lanna. Wilson tried to loosen up the Williamstown crowd. She urged the men to lead assertively, explaining that “If the ladies don’t know what you’re doing, they can’t look sassy, and they’re going to be unhappy.”
The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the preeminent big band in America, is that rarest of things: a heavily hyped band that is as good as it is supposed to be. The first set featured flawless sectional work and impressive solos throughout a variety of original compositions and standards, including Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Credit the writing, the musicianship of the performers, and the sound technician at Mass MoCA: the balance was perfect, the lines impeccably played, and the swing unfailing.
After playing for an hour, the Orchestra took a brief break, but Marsalis reminded us that they would be back shortly for “more swinging music.” They did not disappoint. While the first set was a showcase of how cleanly the band could play, the second set was dirtier and even more exciting. The set opened with a dance showcase that gave the instructors and other accomplished dancers the chance to show off.
Marsalis presided over the affair, introducing tunes and identifying soloists from his seat in the trumpet section with wit and aplomb. Introducing the tune “Chant of the Weed,” he assured us that the band had no idea what kind of weed it was talking about, and before the last number, he threatened to have the imposing Rodney Whitaker put down his bass and cut a rug. “They call him the Dancing Bear,” Marsalis crowed.
Wynton Marsalis is the most visible member of a prominent musical family, and is the closest we come to jazz royalty. He has been an important figure in the recent development of jazz, helping spark a renewed interest in the music of the early big bands and becoming one of the music’s most prominent ambassadors. It is nice to know, therefore, that for all of his respectability, he can still play the blues. His style as a bandleader is not flashy, and he is not even the most frequent soloist in the band, but when Marsalis did stand up, he stood out, delivering exciting, elegant and passionate solos.
While every section in the band was outstanding, the trombone section deserves special mention. The trombones in Duke Ellington’s Orchestra were referred to as “God’s trombones,” because there seemed to be nothing they could not do on their instruments. One of the jobs facing the LCJO’s trombone section is to live up to that legacy. The trio of Wycliffe Gordon, Ron Westray and Andre Hayward accomplished this daunting task admirably. Showing an impressive versatility, they were by turns soft and sweet or unbelievably loud and rude. Gordon and Hayward frequently traded fours in solos, each one outdoing the other with ever faster, higher and louder riffs. They didn’t even look like they were trying all that hard. The section’s skills were evident in the repertoire as well, with both Gordon and Westray contributing original compositions to the set list.
Although the LCJO’s performance was undoubtedly the highest profile event of Jazztown 2000, it was only the highlight of an entire week of top quality performances and seminars. (An indication of the name recognition enjoyed by Marsalis and the LCJO is the fact that the Tom Harrell Quintet and the Billy Taylor Trio, both featuring some of the America’s most respected living jazz musicians, played to a two-thirds full Chapin Hall on Friday and Saturday evening, while the LCJO concert sold out months in advance.)
In addition to performances by nationally renowned jazz artists like Harrell and Taylor, the annual festival continued to grow and expand in its second year to include a week of dance workshops with prominent instructors Chazz Young, Kevin Michael Gaudin, Mickey Davidson and Norma Miller. The workshops, open to the public and to local school children, took place at Mass MoCA, the Clark Art Institute and on campus in the Lasell Dance Studio, and were backed by local musicians Brian Connors ’01, Dan Bissex ’02, Conor Meahan and Brian Coughlin ’95.
Meahan also performed Friday evening at St. John’s Episcopal Church, sitting in on drums with gospel greats Horace and James Boyer. The Boyer Brothers delivered an inspiring and energetic performance to a packed St. John’s.
Jazztown is a unique collaboration between Williamstown and the major educational and cultural institutions in the area. As such, the week struck a balance between goals of education and entertainment. In addition to leading dance workshops for community members and students, Miller, a member of the famous Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in the 1930s, also visited Lyell B. Clay Artist in Residence and Lecturer in Music Andrew Jaffe’s Music 140 Class, “Introduction to the Music of Duke Ellington,” to talk about growing up dancing in the Harlem of the Savoy Ballroom and the Cotton Club, and to identify herself and her fellow dancers in some of the earliest existing Lindy Hop footage.
Another component of Jazztown was the annual Williams College Collegiate Jazz Festival, this year featuring jazz bands from 13 colleges, including Dartmouth, the University of Massachusetts, Skidmore and Amherst, as well as the Williams College Jazz Ensemble, under Jaffe’s direction. Each band played a short set and received comments from adjudicators David Demsey and Joris Teepe.
Teepe, who was born in the Netherlands and is now based in New York City, is a bassist, writer, arranger and teacher who has studied with Ron Carter and Peter Washington, among others. Demsey, a saxophonist and educator, has performed with the New York Philharmonic and recently published John Coltrane Plays “Giant Steps,” a book of transcriptions from the famous 1959 recording. On Friday, Demsey delivered a lecture in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall on the music of John Coltrane.
Jazztown 2000 was sponsored by the Williams College Department of Music, the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce and Mass MoCA, and received funding from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Department of Economic Development and the Office of Travel & Tourism.