The first performance of “All Rise,” Wynton Marsalis‘s epic and extraordinary jazz symphony, didn’t quite go as planned.
“It sounded so bad that first night,” Marsalis sighs, recalling the December 1999 premiere at Lincoln Center. “It was like I was in the middle of a bunch of noise. I felt like I had inflicted a crime on about two hundred people in public.”
Luckily, things got better.
“We were scheduled to play it the next October in Czechoslovakia,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and legendary jazz trumpeter says. “I was trying to get out of that performance. But in the first rehearsal, it was like another piece of music. It sounded like music all of a sudden. Then we played. The people went crazy. They loved it. Ever since, it’s always gotten a tremendous response.”
Marsalis is bringing “All Rise” to Strathmore for two performances next weekend, a highlight of the venue’s season-long series, “Shades of Blues.” “I put a lot into the piece,” he says. “It took me about six months of writing around the clock. The last month my ears were so hot, they were actually hurting. I’ve never written music where I actually had my inner ear hurt because I was hearing so much music.”
The 12-movement piece, fusing blues, jazz, spiritual, and classical music and incorporating a choir of 150 gospel singers, was originally commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and its then-conductor Kurt Masur. “He wanted me to write a piece that celebrated bringing jazz and classical music and black and white people together in America,” says Marsalis. “But I started to think much broader than just people in America. What does it take to integrate with other people? That’s the subject of ‘All Rise.’ What does it take for us to come together, and what do we do when we come together?
“It’s very relevant to this moment,” he adds. “Times have been troubling for a long time. The 1960s were troubling. The 1970s were troubling. The movement away from integration that took place in the late ’70s was troubling. The reasserting of Confederate principles that took place in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan were troubling. The financial crisis that took place in the early ’90s was troubling. A lot of what’s happened in the last years have been troubling — mass incarcerations, privatization of jails, redistricting. We could go on and on and on.
“These days, it’s like we’re swinging back in the other direction. Yes, it’s troubling that we made the decisions we made, but we had the opportunity to vote, we showed up at the polls, and that’s what we decided. Those of us who don’t like the direction we’re going in, we have to protest illegal actions. Fight. Exercise our rights for citizens to create the country we want to create. It will not be easy. To think that centuries of tribalism and injustice just go away — they don’t.
“Kurt Masur told me when I was writing ‘All Rise’ — and I keep this quote on my phone — ‘The line between civilization and barbarism is much thinner than you think. That’s why with everything that you do, you have to decry barbarism and the reduction of people.'”
“All Rise” will be performed on Friday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 26, at 4 p.m. in the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Md. Tickets are $65 to $175. Call 301-581-5100 or visit strathmore.org/blues.
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