Over the sound of dueling pianos, pounding percussion and blaring horns, the rhythm of cheerful tapping feet and clapping hands filled the theatre. In the dim light of Campbell Hall, I could see smiles and mouths agape in awe and after every song or hear people gasp and whisper words of astonished praise. This kind of reaction comes from an appreciation of a time-honored American tradition: a celebration of 20th century culture and the musical legacy of people from across the nation. At the finale of UCSB’s Jazz series, artists Aaron Diehl, Adam Birnbaum and Cécile McLorin Salvant brought that musical tradition to life.
UCSB Arts & Lectures concluded a collection of jazz performances on Tuesday night with “Jelly and George: Celebrating the Music of Jelly Roll Morton & George Gershwin.” The event featured a group of prominent contemporary jazz musicians, including Diehl and Birnbaum on the piano and Salvant as the ensemble’s vocalist. The performance showcased some of Morton and Gershwin’s more obscure jazz compositions, written at the beginning of the jazz age in the 1910s and 1920s.
“These are two very important American composers,” Diehl explained, “but they never knew each other. I imagine if they did, they would be what we would call ‘frenemies.’”
The “Jelly Roll Blues” demonstrated the dynamics of Morton’s music with growing volume and complexity throughout the piece. The song began with the dual pianos, Diehl and Birnbaum, joining in counter melody. Birnbaum’s hands flowed down the keys, creating a sound effect like something falling. Diehl countered the other pianist’s flair with high, magical-sounding trills. The song transitioned to a steadier, more forceful rhythm as Paul Sikivie increased his volume on the bass.
Lawrence Leathers on the drums gave the song a New Orleans vibe with heavy use of the snare. The southern jazz style was complete as three other musicians on trombone, trumpet and clarinet emerged from backstage, playing with clear, bright tones.
The next Morton song, “Sidewalk Blues,” used the full ensemble to create a different musical atmosphere. The song began with Leathers blowing a train whistle and honking a car horn, while the rest of the musicians shouted and called to each other from across the stage. The cacophony of noise mimicked the soundscape of a downtown city street. The song transitioned from a steady beat that built with the whine of the trumpet to a peaceful, lulling duet between trumpet and clarinet, like a leisurely stroll. The soothing melody was continuously interrupted, however, by the train and car sounds. Through music, the band was able to recreate the environment of urban 20th century America.
As Salvant took the stage, the audience roared with excitement, signifying her presence and success within the jazz community. Low, pounding piano began the song “I Hate A Man Like You,” creating a dark, angry tone. Salvant’s vocals started off slow and sassy, getting higher and more nasal, as though mocking someone. As the song continued, her voice grew louder and deeper with stylishly retro vibrato and rich, full low notes. She grinded her voice fiercely at the beginning of the third verse, mirroring the song’s spiteful lyrics. Her vocals carried the emotional weight of the song and told its story through inflection.
The tone of the performance changed completely with the next number, “Black Bottom Stomp.” Diehl felt that the piece “combines the best of New Orleans and Chicago jazz.” The clip-clopping percussion complimented the upbeat and cheery melody with Brandon Lee blasting high notes on the trumpet. Diehl and Birnbaum’s piano solos recalled the ragtime style with energetic and quick piano chords and a mixture of both high and low notes.
After the whirlwind of the upbeat tune, Corey Wilcox thrilled the audience with an elaborate trombone solo. The number was filled with anticipation as Wilcox began with low, vibrating tones and slowly began to climb to higher notes. The other band members began clapping along and shouting words of encouragement as the trombone wailed through clear, high notes. Wilcox demonstrated his control of the sound with trills and stylistic wavering in the notes. After each sustained wail, audience members gasped and a few even hooted with approval. When the piece ended, the crowd went wild with applause and whistles.
The final song, “I Got Rhythm,” served as a reminder of jazz’s role in American popular culture. The number started with a deconstructed melody, with each instrument playing a fragment of the familiar tune. The band members comically interacted with each other, Leathers using his train whistle and car horn again, while Evan Christopher squeaked out high notes on his clarinet. The musicians hollered and shouted at one another and began the upbeat, catchy tempo with heavy percussion and a steady baseline. Salvant returned to the stage with a clear, sweet voice as she sang the nostalgic lyrics with a friendly smile. The entire band finished together with one final appreciation for jazz music and jazz culture.
The show inspired both admiration and awe in audience members as the crowd leapt up in an immediate standing ovation after the finale. Music lovers of all ages buzzed with excitement and words of praise as they left the theatre, demonstrating the long-lasting effect of jazz on the entire country. This final installment of the Jazz series represented the legacy of musical talent: combining classic music with new prominent artists.