Celebrate Mardi Gras and New Orleans with a showcase of American jazz Saturday night.
Orbert Davis and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Ensemble honor the rich musical culture of New Orleans with an 8 p.m. performance March 22 at The MAC Performance Hall at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
Featured guest artists include Reginald Robinson, recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant, and Grammy-Award winning musician Howard Levy.
Davis is co-founder, conductor and Artistic Director of Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. He is an Emmy Award-winning trumpeter, composer and educator.
“It definitely shows how jazz became America’s music,” he said of the program. “The birth being in New Orleans and essentially how it migrates through time.”
The concert begins with central jazz figure Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues,” then goes back to honor the Native American traditions that inspired New Orleans music.
“The thing about New Orleans, unlike any geographical area in the United States, cultures were allowed to mingle,” he said. “In a very small proximity of space, you had Native Americans, Africans, Haitians, the French, other Europeans, Creole — which is a whole new race of Americans — and Spaniards. They were all in this area in the Delta, and the cultures and the music inspired each other. As people lived in proximity, so did the music. And the music changed rapidly.”
With so much to choose from, the task of shaping the program was daunting, to say the least, even though he has been playing New Orleans jazz for most of his life.
“I looked at it as a book. Each piece represents a chapter that tells this collective story of New Orleans music,” he said.
And he contributes a chapter, as it were. The concert includes the premiere of “Survival of the Saints,” a new work by Davis honoring the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
“This will be our second time performing it,” he said. “I wanted this piece to reflect a movie. The scene is before Katrina hit, during the hurricane and then after the hurricane. I used certain elements that draw the emotion and the chaos of living through the storm. And then immediately after the storm, there’s about 30 seconds of very uncomfortable silence. That represents after the storm hit. Not only was New Orleans stunned, but the whole country was stunned as we looked and saw the images, and they waited and waited for help to arrive. New Orleans was crippled in a sense and there was literally no movement going on.”
The piece then turns into a somber funeral march, followed by a sermon given by a trumpet-playing pastor in the orchestra.
“After the sermon, there is joyful music, where traditionally New Orleans would celebrate the home-going of the deceased. So we do the same thing in the last movement, which is called ‘Hope’ and is basically a joyous celebration of the rebuilding of New Orleans,” he said.
Davis is excited to have ragtime master Robinson along for the show, as well as Levy.
“Howard to me personifies the spirit of New Orleans music. And the fact that he plays six or seven instruments, and he invented the style of playing the harmonica and plays it like no one can,” he said. “And he plays many genres. When we think of New Orleans, each style influences the other — that is personified in Howard Levy.”
He hopes to bring a night of interaction to the MAC, he said.
“I think the one thing we try to do in our performances, especially this one, is to engage the audience through the music,” he said. “In most classical settings, the audience is supposed to listen and not be disruptive. But I think in this setting, there is permission to be disruptive. The music, hopefully, will make people want to get up and dance, even if it’s in their seat, and have an incredible time and enjoy the experience.”
Davis is doubly excited about performing at the College of DuPage.
“It’s sort of my home. I have a radio show on WDCB — ‘The Real Deal with Orbert Davis’ on Friday night from 7 to 10. I’m very excited to, in a sense, be home.”