The notion that jazz can not only coexist with classical music in performance, but truly benefit from the alliance, has generated a nearly century-long debate. While the issue certainly wasn't resolved at the Kennedy Center Thursday night, the first installment of the three-day "Jazz in the Concert Hall" series illustrated why many serious composers have been intrigued by cross-genre settings and strategies.
Dubbed "It All Started With the Spiritual," the opening-night program began at the beginning, with the Morgan State University Choir, a massive assembly of glorious, soul-stirring voices, tracing the roots of jazz expression to the internalized rhythms, antiphonal exchanges and melismatic flourishes of African-rooted choral music. Under the direction of Nathan Carter, the ensemble created a thoroughly exhilarating sound, remarkable for both its power and its precision, as it celebrated the evolution of choral arrangements. One could only pity the many latecomers who filed into the Concert Hall afterward, unaware of the extraordinary performance they had just missed witnessing.
The focus then shifted to the music of the great ragtime composer Scott Joplin and stride pianist James P. Johnson. With Marin Alsop conducting, the National Symphony Orchestra infused Joplin's "A Real Slow Drag" (from "Treemonisha") with colors and gaiety that belie its name. Johnson was represented by William Grant Still's brilliantly colorful orchestration of "Yamekraw," nimbly executed by the NSO, and the ebullient "Victory Stride." Both performances were enlivened by pianist Dick Hyman's idiomatic touch.
The second half of the concert opened with Leonard Bernstein's "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs." Its surprising harmonies were reflective of the composer's jazz sensibilities, and the performance was made all the more appealing by clarinetist Loren Kitt's deft contributions. William Banfield's "Symphony No. 6: Four Songs for Five American Composers" then offered an impressionistic salute to Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan. The music, marked by a warm lyricism beautifully sustained by the strings, underscored Banfield's gift for melodic development. Gillespie and Davis, however, were briefly evoked by the inspired and feisty trumpet work of Jon Faddis and Chris Royal.
The evening ended, fittingly, with series host and artistic director Billy Taylor at the piano, performing "It's a Matter of Pride" with the full support of the NSO and the choir. Drawn from "Peaceful Warrior," Taylor's tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., the piece capped the concert with an impassioned and exultant coda. The final concert in the series is scheduled for tonight.