I’ve been a resident of Charlotte, NC for almost 11 years. I must admit that during most of that time, the choices for mainstream jazz have been at best, limited. Yes, there have been a few establishments that have called themselves “jazz” clubs, but they have mostly offered what we sometimes call “grown folks music”, that is, a mix of radio hit-based R & B instrumentals; vocalists whose time atop the pop charts has passed and competently performed, but unimaginative “smooth” jazz. Economic times being what they are, even those clubs have fallen by the wayside. Though there would be the occasional appearance of a jazz star, they were few and far between.
I tell you that to tell you this. To quote Martin Luther King, we straight ahead jazz fans are now “able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope”. Within the past 15 months, Charlotte has played host to well-attended concerts by notables such as Regina Carter, Kurt Elling, Kenny Barron, Russell Malone, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, Branford Marsalis and now another Marsalis brother, Delfeayo; who brought a vibrant quintet to the McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square last week. I’m going to cut to the chase: it was the finest jazz concert I’ve seen since I’ve lived in this city.
The concert was presented by the Jazz Arts Initiative, a new non-profit organization composed of educators, cultural arts patrons, musicians and individuals, all dedicated to the continued development of Charlotte’s arts heritage. Headed by Lonnie Davis, the JAI has shown great potential to succeed where other similar organizations have failed – first because they have already produced tangible results, such as last night’s concert and the ongoing educational programs for elementary and secondary school students; second, because they have shown a willingness to use social media, to an extent that prior organizations have not and finally, because they are funded in part by The Charlotte Arts and Science Council, giving them needed legitimacy with local arts fundraisers.
The evening was kicked off in fine fashion by the JAI All-Star Youth Jazz Ensemble, a promising group of youngsters, all in their teens: Quinn Bannon on drums; Phillip Howe on trumpet; Claire Lucas, bass; Steven Ray (remember that name) on guitar and Alex Sherman, piano. These well-trained, enthusiastic kids delivered solid, swinging takes on Miles’ “Four” and Sam Jones’ “Unit 7”. Their performances bode well for the future of JAI and Charlotte area jazz.
Delfeayo took the stage immediately after the JAI Youth; relaxed, in good humor and ready to swing. Surprisingly, he played no music from his latest, album Sweet Thunder, an Ellington tribute. Instead, he delighted the audience with tunes from the jazz canon and his own compositional catalog. He broke with tradition by kicking the set off, not with a flag-waver but with Strayhorn’s “Intimacy of the Blues”. Marsalis and the quartet, consisting of his longtime pianist Victor “Red” Atkins, John Brown on bass and Charlotte’s own Ocie Davis on drums, had the crowd feeling “intimate” as we hummed, swayed and responded with sundry expressions of approval.
Another regular Marsalis ally, saxophonist Derek Douget and trumpeter Ashlin Parker, a Charlotte native who shows remarkable promise; joined the group for a bouncy romp through the old warhorse “Drum Boogie”. This delight was followed by one of the high points of the evening, Elvin Jones’ “The Lone Warrior”, a tune inspired, as we found out in Delfeayo’s expository comments, by Jones’ father’s refusal to answer his draft notice. Marsalis and Douget and Atkins painted a story of haunting determination in their solos and the ensemble passages. You could envision the proud, resolute Jones père as he marched through his 25 mile journey.
From a previous performance, here’s Delfeayo’s group on an excerpt from “The Lone Warrior”, featuring Mark Gross…
The second half of the show was devoted to numbers penned by Marsalis: the dark, haunting “Lost in the Crescent”, the appropriately whimsical “Br’er Rabbit” (both from Marsalis’ underrated Minions Dominions album). And the compelling set closer, “The Weary Ways of Mary Magdalene” from his debut album Pontius Pilate’s Decision. That tune’s percussive piano vamp grabbed my attention when I first heard it nearly 20 years ago and it still moves me in the same way now.
After the concert was over, Mr. Marsalis returned to the stage for a Q & A session with the audience. In keeping with the relaxed atmosphere that had been established, Marsalis was gracious with his time and expansive with his answers, peppering his responses with interesting anecdotes and raucous humor.
To close the evening, there was one more selection. Victor Atkins returned to join Delfeayo for reminiscence about the beginning of their musical partnership, followed by a duet on “What a Wonderful World”. It was truly a wonderful evening of jazz in Charlotte, one of many we hope to see in the near future here. Kudos to Delfeayo Marsalis and his fine sextet, to the JAI All-Star Youth Ensemble and to Lonnie Davis and The Jazz Arts Initiative; thanks to them, the future of jazz in this city looks very bright, indeed.
Delfeayo Marsalis website: http://delfeayomarsalis.com Follow him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/delfeayo
The Jazz Arts Initiative website: http://www.thejazzarts.org Follow them on Twitter: http://twitter.com/theJazzArts