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Swinging With The Duke at the 2012 W. C. Handy Festival

Posted: Jul 26, 2012
The Righteous Brothers may sing about a "rock and roll heaven," but when I die I want to go to jazz heaven. And if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back as a jazz vocalist.
I was in jazz heaven for two hours Tuesday night at the Elegant Evening of  Ellington held in the historic Shoals Theatre on Seminary Street in Florence, Alabama. The performance, part of the 31st W. C. Handy Festival, included a dozen compositions by Duke Ellington performed by twelve phenomenal jazz musicians and the amazing vocalist Sue Matthews.
The ten day long W.C. Handy Festival showcases music of all genres, particularly jazz and blues. The great W. C. Handy, born in Florence, Alabama, in 1873, became widely known as the "Father of the Blues," taking the blues from a regional music style with a limited audience to one of the dominant national forces in American music. Renowned composer, pianist, and big-band director Duke Ellington, who was born in Washington DC some twenty-six years later in 1899, is credited with having elevated jazz to an art form. Ellington composed over 1,000 songs and is considered to be one of the most influential artists in the history of jazz music.
Going to the annual Handy Festival has become a part of my birthday tradition. Last year for my birthday Randy gave me VIP tickets to the final concert featuring the Drive-By Truckers, the Decoys, Spooner Oldham, and a host of other guests. Following the concert, we attended an after-hours cocktail party at Billy Reid's elegant couture boutique on Court Street. The next day we returned to the Shoals area for an afternoon and evening jam at the home of Dick Cooper on Shoal Creek.
This year the headliners for the final concert will be the Blind Boys of Alabama and will feature a special guest appearance by Christine Olhman. The concert will take place at Norton Hall on the University of North Alabama campus on Saturday evening, July 28. Check out the festival website for details about the concert and other Handy events.
Randy and I kicked off the 2012 Handy Week with an event I had been looking forward to for over a month: An Elegant Evening of Ellington, and I really did think I had died and gone to jazz heaven. We sat down front next to our friend Pam Watters, artist and wife of celebrated jazz trumpeter Ken Watters. Ken, along with two other horn players, three sax players, three guitars players, a percussionist, a keyboardist, and an upright bass player made up the prestigious band. The lovely and talented Sue Matthews joined the orchestra on vocals for a number of Ellington standards such as "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me," "In My Solitude," "Satin Doll," and an exquisite rendition of "Lush Life." I was familiar with Matthews having heard her perform at the 2011 Handy Fest, and I could not wait to hear her smoky, velvety voice again. Jazz Times called Matthews "a bona fide vocalist" whose phrasing "is a dream."
A number of the guest musicians on the program hailed from the DC area and are associated with the Smithsonian Museum. One of the very special guests for the evening was John Edward Hasse, Curator of the Division of Culture and the Arts at the Smithsonian. Dr. Hasse welcomed the audience and introduced the program.
The guest director for the evening, and premiere woodwind player, was Scott Silbert, chief arranger for the Unites States Navy Band and member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks orchestra. I had the pleasure of hearing Silbert last year during Handy Fest in a jazz session with Ken Watters, Charles Rose, and others at the tiny Zodiac Theatre in Florence.
Regarding the Ellington concert, Silbert made the following comment to the Florence Times Daily: “I think they’ll walk out of this concert knowing more about Duke Ellington....They’ll enjoy the music, but also see it as an opportunity to learn more about the music that this great man made over his life time. That’s always the goal, for me at least, is to say that people came, they enjoyed the music, but they walked away knowing more about what the music meant.”
Silbert, who was playing alto sax, guided the audience through the concert, adding tidbits about Ellington's life as a composer and about his fruitful twenty-five year collaboration with Billy Strayhorn. The band opened the concert with a rousing rendition of a Strayhorn composition, "Take the A Train," one of my many Ellington/Strayhorn favorites. Having taken the A Train on several occasions, I could appreciate Ellington's instructions to Strayhorn about how to find his residence in New York City. When Strayhorn asked for directions, Ellington said, "You just take the A Train to Harlem...." Hence, the name of the composition.
The evening was filled with unexpected treats---upright bass player Jim Ferguson from Nashville, who has worked with The New Christy Minstrels and others, took the vocal lead on a popular Ellington composition "Prelude to a Kiss," and later in the program percussionist Chuck Redd moved to the vibraphone, accompanied by his brother Robert on the keyboard, for an awesome rendition of "Chelsea Bridge."
Two sets of brothers played in the jazz band for the Evening of Ellington making the event even more noteworthy: Chuck and Robert Redd and Howard and Gary Lamb. Robert plays keyboard among other instruments and has performed at the Kennedy Center, in the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, and at the White House. Howard and Gary Lamb both play horn. Gary plays trumpet, as does Ken Watters, and Howard plays trombone. It is an interesting aside that Ken's brother Harry Watters, a talented musician who lives in Alexandria, VA, and occasionally appears at the Handy Festival, also plays the trombone. (photo of Ken Watters standing,  Gary Wheat left front, guest director Scott Silbert on right, and Gary Lamb second row.)
The three guitarists were also stellar musicians: Mundell Lowe who has performed with Billie Holliday, Charlie Mingus and many others, Tom Wolfe who is the Associate Dean of Humanties and Fine Arts and Professor of Jazz at the University of Alabama, and Mel Deal who is a member of the faculty of the Nashville Jazz workshop.
Ike Harris, instructor at David Lipscomb University in Nashville, also played upright bass, and Gary Wheat of the Tusacaloosa Horns played an mean tenor sax. Sarah Robinson rounded out the band on baritone sax.
Jazz, like blues, is an organic art form--constantly growing and changing, adapting and mutating. Last night's performance was equally organic with musicians switching instruments and the set list constantly changing. The compositions evolved like works in progress, and it was fascinated to watch the musicians interacting with one another. Most of all, I was thrilled to observe how much the musicians loved the music and what sheer joy they took in playing it. With the exception of those who had to blow into their horns, the smiles never left their faces.
The orchestra finished off the evening with a popular favorite "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and then to satisfy a wildly applauding and still eager audience, performed the crowd-pleasing "Mood Indigo" as an encore. The smile never left my face.
A special thank you to Pamela Willis Watters for providing me with the photographs.
----Penne J. Laubenthal

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