​Sewanee Immersed in Jazz This Weekend

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

This weekend, Feb. 9–11, Sewanee is afloat in jazz through a blend of lectures from renowned experts and scholars, jazz performances and discussions, and a culminating special concert on Sunday, Feb. 11, at 2 p.m.
“MJQ Redux: Celebrating Jazz at Sewanee” marks a moment from University of the South history in April 1961 when the Sewanee Jazz Society hosted the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) in a concert at the gymnasium. The performance was significant not only because of the appearance of the jazz legends, but also because the all-black quartet performed amidst the racial turmoil of the segregated South.
Kash Wright, University Jazz Ensemble director and an event organizer, said jazz enthusiasts who want to hear world-class musicians and history buffs who want to hear from music experts are both in for a treat.
“And if you support music and the arts here at Sewanee, then rediscovering Sewanee’s rich heritage and tradition of playing and being patrons of jazz will also appeal to you, and you will get to hear from current Sewanee student musicians,” Wright added.
In addition to MJQ, the Sewanee Jazz Society of the 1960s and 70s brought other legends to campus, among them Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck.
Eric Benjamin, Sewanee’s director of Multi-Cultural Affairs and another event organizer, was part of the Sewanee Jazz Society as a freshman in 1969. Benjamin said he was not a student “when the true trailblazers organized the Modern Jazz Quartet performance,” but discovered students in Sewanee who were culturally and socially advanced.
“I was blessed to be an Atlanta native as a teenager during the time of Dr. King, listening to John Coltrane and Nina Simone, on albums and the radio, while they were alive still,” he said.
“Having grown up with jazz, it was great to find students at Sewanee who ‘knew about the music.’”
Stephen Miller, Sewanee Music Department chair and primary organizer, noted that past Jazz Society members Dave Wilson and Gray Smith were instrumental in developing the event. MJQ Redux is serving as both a reunion of the Sewanee Jazz Society and a celebration of MJQ and jazz.
Even for people who are not fans of jazz, the culminating concert by the Aaron Diehl Quartet at Guerry Auditorium is a tremendous opportunity, Miller said.
“Bottom line: Aaron Diehl’s Quartet comprises some of the best musicians in the world on piano, vibraphone, bass and drums, and to hear these virtuosos live—no electronic wizardry, studio effects, or Auto-Tune—will be inspirational, no matter your musical tastes,” Miller said.
Diehl, the lead musician, is known for his jazz instrumentals, classical performances and “accompanying one of the greatest vocalists on the planet, Cécile McLorin Salvant,” Miller said. Diehl also performed for the New York Philharmonic, last year.
“Along these same lines, the repertory of the Modern Jazz Quartet that the musicians will explore in the concert is quite varied, sometimes sounding more like straight-ahead bop-style jazz and at others more ‘classical,’” Miller said. “The instrumentation itself will be fascinating to all ears. While most are familiar with the sound of the piano, the vibraphone (played Sunday by the very talented Warren Wolf) is just not heard all that much.”
Wright, a member of the Kash Wright Trio, director said MJQ has influenced his own music. He discovered the quartet through Miles Davis’ album “Birth Of The Cool,” on which John Lewis, the pianist for MJQ, performed and also arranged two songs, Wright said.
“The MJQ is definitely the gold standard for blending aspects of jazz and classical music seamlessly and performing tight arrangements of standards and their own original compositions,” Wright said. “If any or all of those things interest you as a musician, I’d encourage you to listen to them. There are always aspects of what they do that will influence your composing and playing.”
A sample of the celebration’s events include: The opening session at Gailor Auditorium today (Friday) at 8 p.m., which features a screening of the documentary “Music Inn” with one of the film’s producer George Schuller, the son of jazz musician Gunther Schuller
On Saturday, Feb. 10, at 3 p.m., author Gary Giddins, who was featured in Ken Burns’ documentary series “Jazz,” and Christopher Coady, University of Sydney professor and leading scholar on John Lewis, will host a discussion.
As Sewanee wades into the big jazz weekend, Benjamin noted that the genre is powerful in many ways.
“Jazz is great music and, like classical music, it raises your vibration and your IQ,” he said. “I find that the creative nature of improvisational jazz keeps the mind flexible. This can be relevant today, as society moves through the ‘great disruption’ and we are forced to improvise in our lives.”
There are a few events restricted to registered symposium guests, but all lectures and demonstrations are open to the public, Miller said. Tickets for the Aaron Diehl Quartet performance are available online for $35 through Feb. 10 and $40 at the door the day of the concert. Half-price student tickets are available at the door for $20 and University of the South students, staff and faculty get in free with a University ID.
For more details, tickets and a complete schedule, visit sewanee.edu/mjqinsewanee/.