Education is always at the intersection of collaborations between trumpet master Wynton Marsalis and Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City. And even though pandemic protocols are moving his latest Hancher concert online beginning Tuesday night, he’ll be schooling his virtual viewers on the intersection of jazz and democracy.
“Jazz music is the perfect metaphor for democracy,” he said in a prelude to a solo video performance of “Amazing Grace,” recorded in the Grand Rotunda of Manhattan’s Federal Hall, where the Bill of Rights was approved in September 1789.
“We improvise, which is our individual rights and freedoms. We swing, which means we are responsible to nurture the common good, with everyone in fine balance. And we play the blues, which means no matter how bad things get, we remain optimistic while still mindful of problems.”
He’s expanding on that concept in a Hancher event that represents firsts for everyone involved in this musical community conversation.
Marsalis chose Hancher for the online debut his new work, “The Sound of Democracy,” featuring “The Democracy Suite.” He and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet filmed the concert Sept. 27 in New York’s Frederick P. Rose Hill.
It’s also Hancher’s first online pay-to-view presentation, as the University of Iowa’s performing arts venue looks at new ways to bring the arts to patrons while its doors remain closed.
All of this translates to a one-of-kind experience for audiences, expanding Hancher’s reach far beyond Iowa City.
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“This is a new adventure for us,” said Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s executive director. One that he can share with family, friends and colleagues around the country, giving them a Hancher experience. “The sky’s the limit in terms of who can participate.”
He’s honored to bring them a debut performance.
“First of all, I am very proud to say that this is a collaboration of many presenters around the country, but Jazz at Lincoln Center called Hancher first,” Swanson said.
He credits the strong ties forged between Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center over 12 previous Hancher appearances. This concert will be lucky number 13.
“We have a special relationship,” Swanson said. “What I love about this, is that for them, too, this was a new concept, because they have not done a lot of virtual — and that they reached out to us first.”
Hancher has been testing the virtual realms, as well, posting local video shorts during the pandemic and hosting the virtual world premiere of Step Afrika’s “Stono” dance video in early September.
That content has all been free to view, but that’s not a sustainable model for Hancher — especially not when it’s facing the loss of revenue from canceled and postponed events, as well as the end of $1.5 million in general support funding from the university within three years.
“We don’t want to get out of the routine of charging for performances,” Swanson said, so this concert presented an opportunity to ask for a viewing fee of $20 per household to see a video with “top-of-the-line” production values.
“What a bargain — 20 bucks for an experience that is special,” he said. And even though the video launches at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, the link will be active for 72 hours, so ticket-holders can watch at their convenience.
Swanson is especially hoping that families with budding musicians will watch it together. He holds many fond memories of Marsalis opening his dressing room door after a concert, so he could speak with the line of college and high school students eager to greet him.
Then in December 2013, he didn’t want to stop speaking to students between his 5 and 8 p.m. holiday concerts at Iowa City’s West High School. Realizing Marsalis hadn’t even had a chance to eat dinner, Swanson tried to wrap up the discussion, but Marsalis shooed him away.
“He was enjoying that to the nth degree,” Swanson said. “He wanted to continue his spirit of teaching to all these kids, so it’s from the heart.”
Another heart project is “Democracy Suite,” which Marsalis composed during the pandemic.
On Hancher’s website, it’s described as “a response to the political, social, and economic struggles facing our nation. ‘The Democracy Suite’ is a swinging and stimulating instrumental rumination on the issues that have recently dominated our lives, as well as the beauty that could emerge from a collective effort to create a better future.”
With the national elections coming in less than two weeks, Swanson said the timing is right for the debut. He noted it builds on the concept of “thinking about democracy and our freedom, and how it’s just so important for everybody to have their voice and get things together and end up working together and making great things happen.
“That’s kind of similar to jazz,” he said. “All these musicians — they’re separate instruments, but then finally, in the end, it’s all one voice.”
In his “Amazing Grace” video, Marsalis continues that line of thinking.
“The one thing you learn as a jazz musician is how to listen. We don’t know what people are going to play, so it’s very important for us to follow them, follow very, very closely. We have a saying, if you want to find something new to play, listen to the person next to you,” he said.
“The question that confronts us right now as a nation is, ‘Do we want to find a better way to play?’ And if we answer affirmative, we will make it through these things. If we answer, ‘No, we want to be our worst selves,’ we are going to struggle.”
At A Glance
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• What: Hancher Online presents: “The Sound of Democracy,” performed by Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet
• When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, with the online link available for 72 hours
• Cost: $20 per household; concert link emailed to ticket-holders
• Details and ticket link: Hancher.uiowa.edu/2020-21/jazz-lincoln-center-orchestra-septet-wynton-marsalis
• Questions: Email Hancherfirstname.lastname@example.org
• Related video: Wynton Marsalis discusses the common grounds of democracy and jazz at Wyntonmarsalis.org/news/entry/what-do-democracy-and-jazz-have-in-common
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