WBGO Blog
  • Matt Wilson's Christmas Tree-O: Tiny Desk Concert

    December 20, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

    For all the heartwarming feelings it encourages, Christmas clearly has a campy side. Your aunt's purpose-built sweater, sappy televised Christmas specials, the house on your block which outdid itself decorating yet again: Anything with such tradition breeds tacky offshoots. Of course, Christmas music often treads this territory, too. Where would we be without malls piping delightfully schlocky retreads of seasonal anthems? (Here's looking at you, Mariah Carey's Christmas album.)

    The extraordinary jazz drummer Matt Wilson seems to know that camp is part of the holiday's appeal. He recently recorded a new album of Christmas favorites new and old with two other musicians; the band and the record are both thusly called — what else? — Matt Wilson's Christmas Tree-O. (Dig that bargain-bin cover art, too.) And the Tree-O showed up for its Tiny Desk Concert with both a pink tinsel tree and an animatronic singing Santa hat.

    The band's artifice may be a bit hokey, but its musicianship isn't. With only a snare drum and ride cymbal, Wilson kept an impressively varied but deep swinging pocket, along with "wonder boy" Paul Sikivie on bass. Meanwhile, Wilson's longtime associate, reedman Jeff Lederer, stole the show on three different horns. There was gonzo tenor sax expressionism in "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing," playful clarinet staccato in "O Come All Ye Faithful" (also featuring "the NPR tabernacle choir" singing along), and a crazed, squawking reading of the most famous part of Handel's Messiah leading into a shrill "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" on piccolo.

    There's a deep grounding in jazz for this — for taking threadbare or overplayed melodies and transforming them into creative art of the highest order — as well as long-standing precedents of outgoing, personable showmen.

    So there have been Matt Wilsons before: obviously talented individuals, genuinely committed to their art, naturally inclined to elfin mischief. But to date, none of them have ever played Christmas-themed Tiny Desk Concerts. And we're happy to pass along the Christmas Tree-O's gift to you.

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra Performs Holiday Favorites

    December 14, 2016

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    Wynton Marsalis leads the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra. (Image Credit: Frank Stewart /Jazz At Lincoln Center)

    In this festive annual tradition, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis offer swinging and soulful performances of classic holiday music.

    In addition to the selections heard on their Big Band Holidays album, the ensemble will perform new arrangements of songs both sacred and secular, from "Silver Bells" to favorites like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

    The occasion features Sherman Irby, an extraordinary saxophonist, arranger and composer whose most recent commissioned work was met with a standing ovation in Rose Theater.

    This year's holiday festivities are made complete with a very special guest, singer Catherine Russell. The next generation in a family of jazz royalty, Russell possesses a transcendent voice and uplifting spirit that have secured her spot as a Jazz at Lincoln Center audience favorite.

    NPR Music will stream a live performance of the JLCO's Big Band Holidays concert Wednesday, Dec. 14. This concert has now concluded.

    Copyright 2016 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

  • In Memoriam: Steve Ifshin

    December 13, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

    Add new comment | Filed under: In Memoriam
    credit: Sally McCay
    credit: Sally McCay

    Steve Ifshin served jazz from behind the scenes, but to those who knew him, he loomed large for the strength of his leadership, enthusiasm and vision. He was an especially vital force at WBGO Jazz88, where he served four years as chairman of the Board of Trustees. He also served on the boards at Jazz at Lincoln Center and the University of Vermont Foundation. He died on Nov. 23 at Westchester Medical Center after a brief illness. He was 80. Ifshin’s commitment to jazz ran deep, as did the support and encouragement he gave his team. Amy Niles, the president and CEO of WBGO, remembers the confidence he inspired as board chairman: “He had such a can-do attitude that was contagious,” she said. “When he was behind you, he made you feel that anything was possible, no matter what the challenges.”

    Ifshin with Natalie Cole
    Ifshin with Natalie Cole

    Wynton Marsalis, the managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, remembers Ifshin’s dedication to the art form. “Steve loved the music and the music loved him back,” he said. “He was a son of Brooklyn who forged a path with insight, moxie and mother wit. He applied his entrepreneurial skills and love of jazz to elevate our beloved WBGO.” Stephen Neil Ifshin was born on July 11, 1936 in Brooklyn, to Daniel Ifshin and the former Beatrice Kaplan. He spent his early years in Crown Heights, and later attended Midwood High School, near Brooklyn College. “When we first met, he wanted to know did I ever go to Wingate Field and play basketball,” said Robert J. Appel, chairman of the board at Jazz at Lincoln Center, who missed Ifshin by several years at Midwood High. “He was passionate about Brooklyn and the old neighborhood in the ‘40s and ‘50s, just as he was passionate about the music.” Ifshin attended the University of Vermont on a basketball scholarship — an especially noteworthy distinction given his height of 5’3”. (“When I introduced him to Kareem Abdul- Jabbar,” said Niles, “I pointed out that the two of them had something in common.”)

    Ifshin receiving the WBGO Champion of Jazz Award
    Ifshin receiving the WBGO Champion of Jazz Award

    Ifshin began his career in commercial real estate in 1965, with Wolf & Macklowe. In 1973 he cofounded N. Peter Burton & Company, a commercial brokerage and property management firm; he served as its president until 1989, when he sold the business to Grubb & Ellis. Some of the largest real estate transactions in New York City at the time were shepherded by Ifshin, including the sale of the Ford Motor Building to the Bronfman family, in 1981, and the sale of the Tiffany Building to The Daichi Kangyo Bank, in 1986. He was founder & Chairman of both the Empire State Land Company, a developer of residential properties, from 1985 to ’88; and The Delphi Land Company, Inc., a developer of town home communities, from 1989 to ’91. From 1991 until his passing, he was cofounder (with his son Adam) and chairman of DLC Management Corporation, one of the nation’s leading owners and operators of grocery-anchored shopping centers and community retail space. Ifshin was a supporter of jazz long before his official involvement with two of the music’s leading nonprofits. He loved singers, especially Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, and pulled a shift as guest host of “Singers Unlimited,” Michael Bourne’s long-running program on WBGO. Ifshin and Bourne formed a close friendship, attending baseball games (Ifshin followed the Mets; Bourne is a diehard Cardinals fan), as well as jazz gigs and the Broadway theater.

    Ifshin with his wife, Billy Lim
    Ifshin with his wife, Billie Lim

    Bourne describes the ebullient way Ifshin would greet someone, briskly walking up with a twinkle in his eye. “He would not be offering his hand; he would be reaching for your hand,” he said. “And there was a difference in that. The first thing he said, every time, was: ‘How are ya?’” Partly through the influence of his wife, Billie Lim, an art jeweler and former costume designer, Ifshin kept a flashy personal profile: luxury watches, rings and assorted bling. “He drove a Bentley well above the speed limit,” Niles recalled, but added: “He could talk with anyone about anything.— he had an uncanny ability to connect people, and connect to people.” As WBGO chairman from 2011 to 2015, Ifshin was instrumental in expanding the station’s reach and audience, notably through the effort to relocate its signal transmitter from 744 Broad Street in Newark to 4 Times Square in midtown Manhattan. He also oversaw the station’s transition of leadership from longtime president Cephas Bowles to Niles, whom he pronounced “committed to boosting WBGO’s reputation as the preeminent public radio station in the jazz community.” Ifshin’s tenure on the Jazz at Lincoln Center board began more recently, within the last year. But he was a longtime supporter of the organization’s programming. “He would show up at concerts all the time,” recalls Appel. “He’d show up at Dizzy’s. He loved everything about the music. Although he was only at a couple of board meetings, he was at Jazz constantly.”

    Ifshin with his family
    Ifshin with his family

    Marsalis said: “Jazz at Lincoln Center was excited and proud to welcome him to our Board, and we are saddened that his time with us was so short. Steve is a testament to the impact one dedicated and passionate person can have on this music and our culture — we are all the better for Steve’s time with us.” Ifshin left behind a vibrant support structure for jazz, and a strong network of friends and colleagues, some who’d known him for decades and others who merely felt that way. “Everything that he enjoyed, he enjoyed completely,” said Bourne. “But there was nothing that he enjoyed more than the people in his life — his family, his friends.”

    Ifshin with Frank Sinatra, Jr.
    Ifshin with Frank Sinatra, Jr.

    In addition to Lim, his wife of 25 years, Ifshin is survived by his children, Noelle and Adam; his sister, Ellen; and three grandchildren, Anya, Alec and Ari, along with many in and beyond the jazz community. Chief among that constituency is the WBGO family, which honored Ifshin at its 2015 Champions of Jazz Benefit, held at the Mandarin Oriental New York. Timed in observance with Frank Sinatra’s birth centennial, the gala featured pianist Monty Alexander and a performance by Frank Sinatra, Jr. — tracing a celebratory line from one Chairman of the Board to another.

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    Contribute to the Steve Ifshin Tribute Fund.

  • A Very Jon Batiste Christmas

    December 13, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Jon Batiste carries his melodica with him pretty much all the time. "I always have it," he says. "It's kind of like my murse — a man purse." (Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist)

    Jon Batiste has two big gigs –- he's the band director for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and he's an artistic director at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. And now, he also has his very own holiday album: Christmas With Jon Batiste.

    There are so many iconic Christmas albums — from artists like Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Elvis. Batiste knew he had to differentiate himself somehow, and he says he was up to the challenge, eager to rearrange classic songs in unexpected ways. "I love remixing things and making them fit into a different context than what you imagined," he says. "Like taking 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' and putting it in the context of Rosetta Tharpe church with a bluegrass banjo and a soul singer like Judith Hill."

    Batiste says this kind of reimagining is central to his creative process. "I oftentimes choose songs ... that you would not imagine could be funkified or taken into a new sphere –- and do exactly that," he says.

    The pianist's connection to this project extends beyond the creative opportunities it presented. He comes from a deeply religious family, and he says he feels a spiritual connection to Christmas music. "These songs, to me, are sacred, because they're basically in line with my faith and everything that I believe in," he says.

    Batiste's family is legendary in the Louisiana jazz world. He was just 8 years old when he played his first show with the Batiste Brothers Band. "It wasn't as if we were pressured to be musicians," he says. "It's just kind of a part of the culture — so much so that when you're born in New Orleans, you're either gonna get a trumpet or a piano or a drum."

    Batiste's family actually did give him a drum to play in one of his earliest performances. He was the youngest musician on stage, and he says there could have been as many as 30 family members in the performance. In his eyes, the conga drum was a natural choice. "At that point, I may not know how to play any of the other instruments –- but more importantly, all the other instruments are taken," he says. "So give him the conga drum!"

    Christmas With Jon Batiste is available now through Amazon Music. Hear more from Batiste, who joined NPR's David Greene in conversation, at the audio link.

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • The Life Of Danny Barker, Who Saw Jazz As 'A Ride On A Royal Camel'

    December 10, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Sporting a plastic cigar in his mouth, Danny Barker leads the Onward Brass Band in a parade at the 1974 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. (Image Credit: Michael P. Smith/The Historic New Orleans Collection)

    Danny Barker died in 1994, but he's having a bang-up December. The New Yorker is running a story online about the long and eventful life of the New Orleans banjo player and guitarist — and the Historic New Orleans Collection has just re-issued his memoir, A Life in Jazz.

    Danny Barker came up in New Orleans at a time when jazz was just getting started. Over the course of a more than 70-year career, he played with Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Wynton Marsalis and Dr. John. In his later years, Barker started a youth band in New Orleans that would help bring the brass band tradition into the 21st century.

    Gwen Thompkins hosts the public radio show Music Inside Out. She wrote the New Yorker story, as well as the introduction to the new edition of Barker's memoir. She joined NPR's Scott Simon to talk about the man and his music; hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.

    Scott Simon: So, Danny Barker was born in 1909. How did he find a life in jazz?

    Gwen Thompkins: He came from one of the great musical clans of New Orleans, the Barbarin family. His grandfather played in a brass band with some of the early greats of jazz: King Oliver, Louis Armstrong. And then also, Danny Barker's uncle, Paul Barbarin, he played with Armstrong as well as Henry "Red" Allen.

    So, Danny Barker tells this really terrific story: His family went up to see Paul Barbarin in Chicago when Danny Barker was about 10 years old — that's around 1919, right? He and his little relative, a 12-year-old, they're walking around one morning on the South Side of Chicago. They're peering into clubs, and they see a bunch of men and women kissing and canoodling on the dance floor of this club. And so once this 10-year-old Danny sees this sight — lovers on the dance floor — and he sees this band, he's like, "I want to be a musician. I want to do this full time." [laughs]

    Barker brought his banjo up from New Orleans, and then within just a few weeks that banjo was stolen. And that was kind of the best thing that ever happened to Danny Barker, because at that time, at the beginning of the 1930s, banjo was out in the big bands. And so guitar came in. He learned to play the guitar lickety split. And then he was able to compete with some of the great rhythm guitarists of that era.

    Danny Barker was also a songwriter. Tell me about the song "Save the Bones for Henry Jones."

    "Save the Bones for Henry Jones" was probably his best known, because it was recorded by Nat King Cole and Johnny Mercer. But you know, Danny Barker was the king of the double entendre, if not the triple entendre, in music. And he wrote a lot of novelty songs, particularly for his wife, who was a blues singer called Blue Lu Barker. She wasn't big star, but she was very good at what she did, which were sort of very naughty blues songs.

    Why did it take so long for Danny Barker's memoir, A Life in Jazz, to get published?

    When he began peddling this memoir — this is back in the '40s — there weren't an awful lot of African-American jazz musicians who were getting book deals. Even though Barker had more than just his life to talk about — he had done all kinds of research on the early days of jazz, looking up and interviewing older musicians, people who predated Louis Armstrong, for instance. As far as Barker was concerned, jazz was sort of a noble calling. And he wanted people to understand that. He wanted people in New Orleans to understand that this was our birthright; he wanted people around the world to understand that this is a marvelous gift of music from the United States.

    One of the fellas I interviewed is a trumpet player called Greg Stafford. And he told me that Barker once told him, "Playing this music is like taking a ride on a royal camel. That's a great ride, to be riding on a royal camel with the kings and queens. That's what it's like when you learn this music."

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.