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Jazz at Lincoln Center opens its 35th season with the U.S. premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ “The Shanghai Suite”

Frank Stewart
Jazz at Lincoln Center
Wynton Marsalis

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Lincoln Center began presenting jazz concerts in 1987 with a 20-something Wynton Marsalis as its artistic director. That series would later morph into Jazz at Lincoln Center’s founding as a separate organization with its own identity and vision, and with a state-of-the-art physical space that includes the Rose Theater, the Appel Room and Dizzy’s Club. Now, 35 years later a 60-something Marsalis remains a focal point for the organization, demonstrated not only by the performances and tours of The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, but also by the special works and concerts under his direction.

To open its 35th season, Jazz at Lincoln Center will present the U.S. premiere of Marsalis’ “The Shanghai Suite,” which was originally performed in China in 2019. The piece, composed by Marsalis and featuring special guest clarinetist Ye Huang, is “a musical meditation on ancient and modern China, inspired by that civilization’s rich mythology, cuisine, and architecture, and set to the language of jazz rhythm,” according to the press release received by WBGO. Performances will be held Sep. 30 – Oct. 1 at the Rose Theater.

Huang, who studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, says that Marsalis has long been an important figure in Shanghai and China, owing to his many appearances there and his recordings, but not necessarily the jazz ones. “He was very well known among the classical circles in China because a lot of people listen to his trumpet concertos,” Huang explains. “But jazz is just starting in China, so not many people listen to jazz.” He first met the trumpeter and bandleader in 2017 when he served as an interpreter for The Jazz at Lincoln Center’s tour of China. “I was very fortunate to get to learn from him [not only] his music but his philosophy of music and many music lessons,” Huang adds.

Ye Huang
Yuki Tei
Ye Huang

Huang feels that Marsalis did truly capture both the culture of Shanghai and China very well. “In Shanghai we often call it the city of mystery and magic,” he says. “It’s like the cultural capital of China, very much like New York. Shanghai has a lot of international traces of Western influence, Chinese influence, and also buildings [that were] built hundreds of years ago. In Chinese culture we have a lot of literature, poems, cultures, martial arts, and architecture. He captured all these things inside music and merged with blues and jazz—all those elements.”

Huang says that the premiere of the suite went over very well. “The title is very interesting,” he says. “When you talk to Chinese people, they would immediately know what the title is because it’s so deeply in the culture. And so when we played in China, everyone loved it when it first came out. People were laughing and also enjoying the music, even though it’s jazz music [which] is very foreign to Chinese people.”

Huang believes that the suite had a major impact in China because it effectively melded jazz and Chinese music. “When we were in China, Wynton and the orchestra had a concert in major cities. And we did educational clinics and master classes. Jazz music wasn’t widely spread in China. Many people were very curious of this form of new music that includes improvisation. When we did master classes we often talked about what is jazz. How is this played? What message can we bring? Audiences loved that and also the way he merges Chinese elements into jazz. Jazz music is very flexible. You can merge Latin music, African music and adding Chinese music is a way of bringing new things, introducing new things to Western cultures and American culture. ‘The Shanghai Suite’ is the best way of connecting people together.”

In the press release, Marsalis explained the underlying elements for the music of the suite: “Like Chinese music, the blues and all the early Afro-American spirituals – and Anglo-Celtic music – is based on pentatonic scales,” he said. “A lot of things Wayne Shorter wrote for Art Blakey are based on a pentatonic scale. Of course, China has many more pentatonic scales than we do, and their use of them is much more sophisticated – different scales have different meanings. We’re always looking for connections between other traditions and our music, and we look forward to presenting these musical connections throughout the season in the House of Swing.”

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”