It’s Sunday night and the Capital Jazz Project is performing a tribute to Duke Ellington. For local jazz fans, the scene is familiar. CJP performs half a dozen Sunday night concerts each year, always with an educational theme, normally in the American River College theatre. But tonight CJP is playing in a packed club, over the din of clinking glasses, cash registers, and muffled conversations. And something else is different about this concert… The American River chamber orchestra is on hand, including students, community members and a few mentors from the Sacramento Philharmonic. Like some in the audience, many of them are learning about jazz too.
“We have a lot of students who are from Eastern European countries and don’t have a chance to play this music or really growing up hearing this kind of music.”
Steve Thompson directs the orchestra program.
“For them to be able to sit down with a group like CJP and join in and be part of this has just been outstanding and during the break I was in the hall listening to every one of them saying ‘wow this just really great.’ Two weeks ago they were saying ‘who’s Duke Ellington?’”
The idea of incorporating strings into a concert by the Capital Jazz Project began last fall when Thompson was approached by CJP pianist and musical director Joe Gilman. They decided jazz great Duke Ellington, who was born in April, would be a good choice for a tribute with strings. Joe Gilman.
“He’s written some tunes that are like standards, he’s written some jazz classics, he’s written some tunes that are vocal oriented. So we decided to put all that together for this concert. Then it came time to figure out, o.k. now we gotta come up with three hours worth of music. So how we gonna do this?!”
Writing orchestral arrangements is no small task. While Gilman and CJP saxophonist Mike McMullen have experience in the field, clearly they would need help, which professor Gilman got in the form of an assignment.
“I’m teaching arranging at the Brubeck Institute which is down in Stockton. And so I decided well this is a perfect educational opportunity for them to learn how to write for strings and have it played by a studio orchestra situation with a jazz combo and so that started as a project for them as early as January.”
The Brubeck Institute at University of the Pacific is a National Fellowship program for exceptionally gifted 18 and 19-year-old musicians. Josh Gallagher and Mark Zaleski are among the six Fellows whose arrangements were featured.
“It was a very educational experience for me, because I haven’t spent much time around string players, just finding out how they interpret things that I wrote.” “None of us have written for strings before so to hear those arrangements played, you know, you kinda know what the chords are gonna sound like, but you don’t know how it’s really gonna come through until today. So it’s a pretty thrilling experience. ”
Thrilling for the orchestra, too, says conductor Steve Thompson. But, he adds, the biggest benefit of this rare, musical collaboration may have been its educational impact.
“The students get a real shot at seeing what a professional is like. They get maybe 2 rehearsals like they did for this one. And they have to do a show. So it gives them a strong sense of what it takes to be a professional musician so it’s a real nice deal for all of them.”