From Marsalis, a Master Class in 'That Swing' and an Ellington Exhortation

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007

It was pressure enough when the Springbrook High School jazz ensemble was asked to play the Duke Ellington standard "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" for perhaps the most prominent Ellington fan in contemporary jazz, Wynton Marsalis, who visited the Silver Spring school last week.

Imagine then being informed -- by the much-featured expert of Ken Burns's "Jazz" documentary -- that the group did not, in fact, possess the aforementioned swing.

"Who here has ever heard Duke Ellington play?" Marsalis asked. Two hands went up.

Well, things got better from there, and by the end of the 90-minute work session, the trumpet virtuoso had the Springbrook jazz band swinging soundly.

He also treated them, on a student's borrowed trumpet, to a deconstructed version of "Happy Birthday" that was every bit as mind-expanding as the national anthem by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.

"You can hear that's 'Happy Birthday,' right?" Marsalis asked, when the applause faded.

Marsalis visited the Montgomery school because his manager's child is a student there. The event was low-key and not widely advertised; his session was watched by a small audience of students, joined by a few adults.

He took the school stage with confidence and told the student ensemble he had done this thousands of times. The trumpeter's Web site says he "schedules meetings with students wherever he is, and while on the road with his bands he regularly conducts master classes in local schools."

Marsalis didn't seem surprised when only a few students indicated they'd heard the music of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which he appraised as the greatest band in the history of the Earth. He urged them to go out and buy an Ellington CD; how else could they hope to learn the tunes?

"What chance do you have of speaking French," he asked, "if you've never heard anyone speak it?"

Marsalis is arguably the most famous jazz musician of the past 20 years and is regarded as something of a traditionalist.

He reminded the students that Ellington was among the most important American composers of the past century, that swing is, or should be, the national dance and that blues is "like the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."


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