Plainsong: In case you forgot, March is the month that comes in like Willie "The Lion" Smith and exits like Joseph Lamb. Or vice versa.
In Minnesota, the 16th Annual Twin Cities Winter Jazz Fest March 2 at the new MacPhail Center for Music, downtown Minneapolis, included the trad Southside Aces , two big bands, and the great modern tenorist Sonny Fortune. And, in downtown St. Paul, March 11-May 18, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, "Blues in the Night" includes songs of Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer /Harold Arlen, Alberta Hunter and more, www.Ordway.org, (651) 282-3100.
Then there's a new band that really plays in time: the "Somethin' Jazz" band presented by the LaCrosse, Wisc. Area Jazz Society Sunday, March 9, when we in the U.S. set our clocks ahead for Daylight Savings Time. LAJS also will present the Clearwater (Minn.) Hot Club April 13, and, of course, it's preparing the annual Great Fiver Jazz Fest Aug. 8-10, (608) 791-1190.
Grammys Are Great! What's it like to win a Grammy? Windom, Minn. native and University of Minnesota graduate Maria Schneider, now a globally-acclaimed composer and conductor, told all to Ross Raihala of the St. Paul Pioneer Press Feb. 10. She's also collaborating on a new work with the St. Paul, Minn. Chamber Orchestra and famed classical soprano and SPCO "artistic partner" Dawn Upshaw. (If you've heard Schneider's music, you know how deeply into the classics she is.) Schneider, 47, won her second Grammy in three years Feb. 10.
Although she composes in a modern style deeply infused with classical elements that make her pieces sound much like highly introspective tone poems, Schneider is very much aware of the importance of the older jazz forms in her musical development. In an e-mail to The Rag™ she said, "My piano teacher in Windom, Evelyn Butler, had been a stride pianist in Chicago. She was a contemporary of Dorothy Donegan and played much in the same vein and had that similar personality of humor and fun. She taught me a little boogie woogie and stride, and we'd make simple arrangements of old standards. My love of standards came through her. My influences in writing came through Ellington, Thad Jones, the Basie Band, Charles Mingus, George Russell, Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer. Those influences later started to mingle with my love of classical music and the musics of Brazil and Spain. Ultimately, my music is a mixture of all those things with the atmosphere of my life. I think the landscape of Southwest Minnesota is quite present in my music."
A news release explained that Schneider's second Grammy is in the category of "Best Instrumental Composition" for her work "Cerulean Skies" from her 2007 CD Sky Blue, an album without in-store distribution. The 22-minute "Cerulean Skies" was commissioned by Peter Sellars for the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna. It was inspired by Schneider's love of birds and the song's compositional form mirrors avian migration; at times, it sounds as if you're in a forest with birds singing from all directions. (Shades of Ottorino Respighi and Olivier Messiaen)
Sky Blue was released in July of 2007 through ArtistShare (www.artistshare.com) and is available exclusively through her website, www.MariaSchneider.com.The CD has been chosen as the best of the year on numerous Top 10 lists and earned the designation of "masterpiece" in DownBeat magazine.
Schneider is an acquaintance of another musician with a Minnesota-Grammy connection: vocalist Kurt Elling, a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minn. and frequent Minnesota performer. He was nominated in the vocal jazz category for his CD Nightmoves but, alas, did not win.
While a student at the University of Minnesota's School of Music, Schneider became acquainted with Dean Sorenson who now heads jazz studies at the School. He has composed one of several songs that have been written for Minnesota's 150th anniversary of statehood this year:
"The new song that I have written for the state sesquicentennial celebration is called `Shines For All To See` and was commissioned by the Roseville, Minn. Visitor's Association and MN150. We wanted a song that would celebrate Minnesota (whose motto is "Star of the North"), something that would be fun to listen to and even more fun to sing along with. The lyrics describe some of my favorite places and things about Minnesota and touch on our proud past as well as our hopeful future. It is my hope that this song will become a part of Minnesota's heritage and will live on long after the sesquicentennial celebrations are over.
"I wanted the piece to have as broad an audience as possible, so I scored the instrumental parts for virtually any instrumentation. It can be performed by a jazz ensemble, concert band, string orchestra, or any combination of instruments. The vocal lines are easy to sing --- I tested them myself! Anyone interested in performing the piece can contact me at email@example.com"
I asked Sorenson what he and his colleagues at the U of M are doing re teaching traditional jazz and ragtime. Sadly, not much. "We have small groups (combos) but the focus is on bop or post-bop styles. Our annual Jazz Festival (March 8) featured trumpet player Al Hood in a concert honoring greats of the jazz trumpet including Cootie Williams and Harry James. I know that is not `traditional jazz' in the `traditional' sense, but it does pay respect to the lineage. Finding students that can play, and are willing to learn to play early styles is a challenge, to be sure.
"We did a concert a few years ago called `The Battle of the Bands' that featured some early big band writing, Jimmie Lunceford in particular. And years ago, I played in a band called the Dixie Jazz Patrol. We were all of U of Minnesota students. We were originally formed to enter a national contest sponsored by the Southern Comfort Corporation (based on playing, not drinking, although some might debate that!) We won the contest and went on to make a couple of LPs and played many concerts around the area and the US. Sadly, there has been nothing like that at the U since."