Jazz at Lincoln Center covers everything from history to stride piano in virtual programs
Todd Stoll loves to talk about Duke Ellington.
“I feel like Duke Ellington is probably the most original composer in American history. He might be one of the most original composers in human history,” said Mr. Stoll, vice president of education at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.
“Duke Ellington created a completely original system for melodic writing, based on the blues,” Mr. Stoll told the News-Press last week by phone from New York City.
Mr. Stoll said Mr. Ellington is an example of the diversity of jazz and the music’s role in integration and efforts for equality, subjects that are on people’s minds during Black History Month.
The center is playing an active role in virtual programming at UCSB Arts & Lectures and a UCSB residency by the center and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra leader Wynton Marsalis. Mr. Marsalis and the center are working this year with UCSB students in music and black studies classes.
The UCSB Arts & Lectures’ virtual programs include “WeBop” workshops for children ages 3-5 Saturday mornings through March 20 and Swing University: Jazz 101, taught by Seton Hawkins Tuesday evenings through Feb. 23.
The Swing University classes feature Mr. Hawkins talking about various composers and bands and playing musical clips. He discusses everything from sweet music and hot music to the complex stride piano techniques of James P. Johnson.
“To this day, when I meet young piano players who want to challenge themselves, I tell them, ‘You’ve got to go through James P. Johnson,’ ” Mr. Stoll said. “His music is highly syncopated, highly complicated and technical music that has a level of bounce and swing. It’s one of the bedrocks of modern jazz.”
That’s among the lessons you can expect in the virtual programming, which includes not-so-famous works by composers. Mr. Ellington, for example, wrote a lot more music than his trademark “It Don’t Mean A Thing.” He wrote everything from ballads to movie soundtracks, theater music, concert pieces and dance music.
Mr. Stoll said Mr. Ellington liked to write complicated, orchestral pieces, but kept the music to simple chord changes when soloists performed. That allowed them to improvise to their hearts’ content.
The UCSB programs include the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz for Young People concert, “Who is Dave Brubeck?” The virtual talk, which streams through Thursday for people who registered last week, is being delivered by Ted Nash, a Los Angeles native living in New York and includes concert clips.
Mr. Brubeck holds a special place in Santa Barbara history. The late jazz legend, who was a friend of Mr. Marsalis and was part of integration efforts, performed regularly at the Lobero Theatre.
“Dave was really much a freedom fighter. He was very interested in civil rights and social justice, and he dedicated a lot of his music and time to that cause,” Mr. Stoll said. “He had an integrated band in the 1950s.”
Mr. Stoll said Mr. Brubeck lost gigs because he had a black bass player.
“Dave had a letter from an agent saying, ‘You’re going to lose X number of dollars if you don’t change out this black man,’ ” Mr. Stoll said, referring to the risk of venues canceling shows. “Dave wrote back and said, ‘Cancel them.’ He believed in civil rights and social justice at a time it was very costly to him financially and professionally to be that way.”
Mr. Stoll noted jazz bands were integrated more than a decade before Major League Baseball.
He noted that it was remarkable that a group of disadvantaged, disenfranchised and exploited people created an American art form that’s been copied around the world and influenced nearly every other form of popular music. “The fact that the people who were treated the worst did this is remarkable.”
Added Mr. Stoll, “Excellence is a form of protest.”
Mr. Stoll said Mr. Ellington used his music to make civil rights statements three decades before the 1960s movement for equality.
Mr. Stoll said Miles Davis and Charles Mingus are known for calling attention to civil rights, but noted the groundwork for that was laid down by Mr. Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
And Mr. Stoll pointed to Louis Armstrong’s contribution to civil rights through the life he lived, the music he created.
“Louis Armstrong grew up in abject poverty. He had to get a job at 6 years old,” Mr. Stoll said. “He rose from that to one of the most beloved figures in American history. He was popular all over the world.
“Anybody who met Louis Armstrong loved him,” Mr. Stoll said. “He never thought he was better than anyone. To come from that level of poverty and achieve that level of fame and recognition — and stay grounded in who you were — is a miracle.”
Mr. Armstrong was known for his raspy but sweet and sincere voice and his energy behind the trumpet. He was known for classics such as “Hello Dolly” and “Wonderful World,” which he sang from the heart.
One of Mr. Stoll’s favorite movies is “High Society,” the 1956 romantic comedy starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra. But it’s Mr. Armstrong who got the last word in that film.
“And the first line,” Mr. Stoll said, noting the movie was set against the backdrop of the Newport Jazz Festival. It features Mr. Armstrong performing.
“He really taught jazz musicians what swing was.”