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."

Rallying Against Funds Cut

The school board has requested a budget increase of $136 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1. County Executive Isiah Leggett has proposed a $117 million increase, nearly $20 million less.

This proposed 1 percent reduction in the $2 billion school system budget has prompted the largest mobilization of teachers, parents and education leaders in Jerry D. Weast's eight years as superintendent.

"It's been a long time since I've been asked to hit the streets," said Chris Sneeringer, a staff development teacher at Cannon Road Elementary in Silver Spring, who turned out last week with several hundred other public school employees and a smaller number of parents to attend a budget hearing in the County Council chambers.

Veteran teachers compared notes: When had they seen so many of their colleagues holding signs and storming the gates of county government?

"The last time I saw it this big was right after I started, in '92," recalled David Cochran, a world studies teacher at Gaithersburg Middle School, who also attended the April 11 hearing.

Leggett has reasoned that the school system should be able to absorb a 1 percent budget cut. County Council members reminded a somewhat hostile audience at the hearing last week that it was not the first time Weast had been asked to make cutbacks.

Weast and school system advocates see it differently. Weast, in an interview last week, said he, the school board and the administration of former county executive Douglas M. Duncan enjoyed an open-book budget process: The school board would request only what it really needed, and the council would do its best to oblige.

Here's what the numbers show:

In three of the past eight years, fiscal 2003, 2005 and 2007, the County Council has approved 100 percent or more of what the school board has requested. In four other years, the council approved between 99 and 100 percent. In one year, fiscal 2004, the school board received 98.7 percent of the funds it sought.

Duncan blamed the shortfall on a stagnant economy. Weast did not take it lightly. In a report to the school board that spring, he wrote, "The effective loss of that much funding would mean the elimination of entire programs or services, entire categories of positions or the elimination of a sizable portion of current classroom personnel, meaning literally hundreds of teachers and instructional specialists."

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