Wynton Marsalis and orchestra perform, teach at HSPVA
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis seen here performing at HSPVA. Houston's own Vincent Gardner (standing) is soloing. Photo by Aswad Walker.

Though the threat of rain changed the venue, potential bad weather could not stop the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), led by nine-time Grammy-award-winning jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, from performing before an eager and engaged crowd at the Kinder High School for Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA).

The JLCO brought its “Spirit of Swing” to the Bayou City and opened its three days of shows at HSPVA, performing and teaching HSPVA students, students from two area elementary schools and seniors from the Julia C. Hester House, all of whom expressed open enjoyment of the performance.

“I liked the solos a lot, and how the musicians went over multiple styles,” said HSPVA music freshman Amari Walker. “That helped me learn more about what I’m currently playing. I also thought it was cool that the legendary Wynton Marsalis said the trumpet, the instrument I play, was the most supreme of all instruments.”

And with Marsalis, whose father was a lifelong educator, the teaching he and other JLCO members shared with attendees was just as much about life as it was about music.

“I always try to teach concepts and be very substantive in the concepts that I’m teaching,” said Marsalis. “We punctuate it with the music. So, whenever we give examples, we show them what the music is and juxtapose the two ideas of the freedom that comes with improvisation and the importance of having that freedom; individual rights. But equally important is the responsibility to others that’s represented by swinging.”

Marsalis says playing with a group in jazz has the combination of that individual freedom and group responsibility.

“You make up stuff. You’re free. But you have the responsibility to swing and find other people’s time and to create space for others and to nurture that space. It’s all fundamental human things that we teach,” added Marsalis.

Several attendees of the HSPVA performance/teach-in said they felt they were not only in a concert, but a class on history, civics and ethics.

“We try to bring a lot of information in there because all of that is a part of the music. That’s the significance of music as an art form. It is the art of the invisible and all things like thoughts, feelings, aspirations, hopes, dreams and disappointments, all are in the province of music. But it’s also a chronicle of your history, the great musicians who’ve played. And it’s a look into the future because the type of collective creativity that’s in jazz means that you could never do the same thing twice. It’s like a good conversation. And it’s important for us to use our education system to teach our kids values that will reinforce the best and richest parts of what it takes to be citizens in a democracy,” said Marsalis.

During their three-day Houston residency, JLCO members are scheduled to teach some master classes at HISD and Klein ISD schools, including Kashmere High School which was home to a Houston-area jazz great, the late “Professor” Conrad Johnson. They will also perform a concert for the public at the Wortham Theater with an open Soundcheck/Q&A for students. And Marsalis will still be teaching both about music and life.

“We tend to think about our US Constitution only in terms of our rights, but we also have responsibilities. And, above all, with jazz is a belief in the collective ability to do something that is coherent. Once you lose a belief that you can come together with people and give a little bit and get a little bit and share space, and that you all can come up with something that will be better than what existed without you working together, when you give up on that, you can’t really be a jazz musician. Because that’s what our music is really about.”

Marsalis’ orchestra-mate, the Chicago-born Gardner, who is a full-blown Houston transplant, appreciated the homecoming.

“I love being able to share the gifts of this band with our hometown crowd,” he said. “Jazz Houston, our mission is to develop the jazz environment here in this city. And this [HSPVA performance] goes right along with what our mission is.”

Gardner said the standard of excellence in a jazz arts organization is Jazz at the Lincoln Center and the standard of excellence for the living jazz ensemble is the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, things he was eager to share with H-town residents.

“I can talk about it all I want, but being able to actually have them here and have the City of Houston to be able to hear them and experience it firsthand is a beautiful thing,” shared Gardner.

Marsalis views Gardner as family. And judging by Gardner’s words, the feeling is mutual.

“He’s my brother. I’ve known him for 28 years or so at this point, and been playing with him for 23. He’s just someone I have tremendous love and respect for. I’ve learned a lot from him. We’ve been all across the world together, touring around for the last 23 years. So, he’s a huge part of my life. And I still enjoy every minute I get to play with him.”

Marsalis and company are offering a series of performances and classes to celebrate and expand appreciation for jazz, America’s classical music.

Made up of 15 of the finest soloists, ensemble players, and arrangers in jazz music today, the JLOC with Wynton Marsalis, was founded in the mid-1980s in a bid to expand the global jazz community, especially among young people. 

Jazz Houston will be presenting the JLCO in Houston for the second time, and the expanded education/performance residency is the first of its kind for the orchestra in the city.

Jazz Houston, founded by Gardiner and his wife, acclaimed singer Belinda Munro, seeks to stimulate the growth and appreciation of jazz through its education programs, including The Jazz Houston Youth Orchestra, in-school and after-school jazz education programs, and through its concert presentations.