The Manhattan School of Music‘s Jazz Program celebrated three decades of superb performances during the 2012-2013 season.  as casually as i say that put into the proper perspective 30 years of jazz is a lifetime, almost a third of our musical journey.  i got the opportunity to be present for a few of their concerts as well as some related performances.  herewith the first report.

putting it in context, there were a couple of storms in there, petrol shortages, major power outages, floods, a public transportation shutdown and a sudden spurt of winter in New York City.


those of us who soldiered up to Harlem –MSM is located at W. 122nd St, and Broadway– were rewarded by some seriously sublime moments. not only the concert but memories it drug up (sic).  conductor Justin DiCioccio, who triples as Associate Dean and Jazz Director, offered up a program called “The Symphonic Ellington.”  culled from a collection of the same title which featured some of the great Orchestras of Europe plus transcriptions from the Columbia Masterworks LP originally called “Hi Fi Ellington Uptown” (available on CD as “Ellington Uptown”) the MSM Jazz Band played in concerto grosso format buoyed by the full MSM Symphony Orchestra, some 94 strong in all.

the highlight for this writer, was the David Berger transcription of the Maestro’s and Billy Strayhorn’s suite Night Creature.  originally commissioned by, written and performed with the Symphony of the Air in 1955, it was recorded in Stockholm and Paris on “Symphonic Ellington.” as a publicist i worked on the reissue.  Ellington penned a narrative to be read prior to each movement of which there are three, originally untitled until after its initial performances including one by the National Symphony in D.C.  it reads, in part, “Night Creatures don’t come out at night; they come on.”  he was one; so was i.

further, when Alvin Ailey premiered his choreographed version of if for his company at the City Center in N.Y.C. in the 1970′s with Duke’s son Mercer  on the podium i covered it for Down Beat.  it remains one of the most spectacular performances i have ever experienced and remains high in the pantheon of the Alvin Ailey repertoire encored regularly, sans live musical accompaniment.  it was also the premiere of a dance review in the pages of that magazine.  a poster from the “Ailey-Ellington” event hangs prominently in my entrance foyer.

[a personal note: i took my two then-young children with me.  the Maestro signed a post card recreation photo which they still have.] 

at a Duke Ellington Society N.Y.C. Conference which i chaired (dare i say choreographed?) then Ailey director Judith Jamison sat on a panel with Duke’s granddaughter Mercedes chatting choreographer-to-choreographer about Ellington’s participation with Ailey.  it was like being a fly-on-the-wall. (see photo below.)

(l-r) Ellington Society Pres. Ray Carman, Ailey Director Judith Jamison, Mercedes Ellington, arnold jay smith

so faithful to the original was the MSM performance that there is an underground buzz being created to get it released on CD.  you will read about it here first.

other Berger/Ellington transcriptions played in the Borden Auditorium at MSM that night included (A Tone Parallel To) Harlem, expanded and extended versions of Mood Indigo and Caravan and a premiere (to these ears) of the complete Queen’s Suite for full orchestra.

this is the essence of this music.  it’s not about treating it as museum pieces but about how it continues to live and breathe and offer great rewards to students and audiences alike.  one could see the young string players getting into what they were doing.  the respectful surprise of the European classical students with their noses buried in the difficult sheet music on the stands before them –most were reading their parts– and the joy of the American classical (jazz) players, who seemed to be performing from their hearts, knowing they were playing the great Maestro’s music.

i have heard how DiCioccio drives them to perfection.  it shows.  Justin, “we love you madly,”


as sublime and subtle was the Ellington the dramatically and jarringly  opposite presentment was true of what followed a week later.  band director Bobby Sanabria led the MSM Afro-Cuban Ensemble in what was called “Harlem Hothouses.”  the guest was his friend and mentor NEA Master congero Candido Camero.

a frequent guest at MSM, the 90-year old Camero demonstrated his multiple-congas flying fingers on a piece written for him by Andrew Neesley, Que Viva Candido.  (N.B.: Sanabria, Candido and Michael Philip Mossman sat on another panel for that Ellington conference.  see photo below.)

(l-r) Candido, Michael Philip Mossman, arnold jay smith. (Bobby Sanabria sat to Candido’s right out of this image.)

the MSM program consisted of dedications to various Harlem edifices, personages and moments: Ellington at the Cotton Club, Dr. Billy Taylor in a premiere by Eugene Marlow called Taylored for Billy, Count Basie and the Woodside Hotel, Dizzy Gillespie, Strayhorn and Ellington, Machtio, Tito Puente and Spanish Harlem and the concluding Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite for Duke Ellington by Mossman.  it was heartening to see and hear that Duke Ellington is so remembered, revered and respected at MSM.

however, save for rare moments of introspection Sanabria’s penchant for overpowering his audience was unrelievable.  whether he was conducting or playing the drums his percussive attack was all f-f-f (triple forte).

the interesting part was how he reinterpreted, Afro-Cuban-wise, Jumpin’ At The Woodside, Woody’n You, which he identified as formerly Con Alma (news to me), and Isfahon.


Sanabria’s depth and knowledge of Afro-Cuban music history was demonstrated some weeks later at a meeting of The Duke Ellington Society.  his hour-and-a-half presentation opened a whole lot of eyes and ears, mine included, to the fact that Louis Armstrong and Ellington each recorded versions of an early Cuban tune, El Manisero (the Peanut Vendor).  ”they didn’t get the clavé right,” Sanabira said. “but they did record it and they swung it their own inimitable way.”  Louis’ vocal interpretation of the street vendor’s call, “Ma-a-ni,” is precious, as always.


Bobby Sanabria (l) & arnold jay smith @ Ellington Society (photo © 2012 Frederic Sater)

all the more puzzling as to why this brilliant musician, historian and educator belied the unsubtle manner he conducted the MSM A-C ensemble.

next month we celebrate Dizzy @ 95 with Mike Longo, Jon Faddis with the MSM Jazz Orchestra and at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Faddis lecturing at New Jersey City University, as well as an update of goings-on at the John Birks Gillespie Auditorium at New York’s Baha’i Center and related matters.

text © arnold jay smith, November 2012





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