Virginia Arts Festival and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

SBO Staff • Jazz FocusJuly 2023 • July 16, 2023

For many in the packed house at Norfolk Virginia’s Chrysler Hall on February 25, it was a great concert with the legendary Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. But for the young jazz players on the stage that night, it was an experience they’ll never forget.

The evening marked the culmination of a new joint project between the Virginia Arts Festival and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, focusing on the jazz music programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). 

Nine HBCU bands traveled to Norfolk for a learning-packed weekend February 23-25, 2023. Waiting for them were the virtuoso musicians of what has been proclaimed “the greatest big band on the planet,” including Wynton Marsalis, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the National Medal of Arts and nine Grammy Awards, and the top-tier players of this legendary orchestra, many of whom have Grammy-winning careers and artistic leadership positions of their own.

A whirlwind weekend with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra players and staff, featured one-on-one and ensemble coaching, jam sessions that offered students opportunities to show their strengths and learn from others, and adjudication sessions where each college/university’s band performed before a panel of veteran artists and music educators. They also got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to discuss music, careers, inspirations, and other far-reaching subjects with these legendary artists.

The weekend brought bands from South Carolina’s Benedict College, Ohio’s Central State University, Mississippi’s Jackson State University, North Carolina’s Elizabeth City State University and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Alabama’s Gadsden State Community College, Louisiana’s Grambling State University, and Virginia’s Hampton University and Norfolk State University. 

At the end of the weekend-long process of study, support, camaraderie, and performance, two of the bands were selected to open the Virginia Arts Festival’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra public concert at Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall. Young players from Benedict College and Norfolk State University wowed the 2,000-plus audience, among them family fans and new friends from the other schools participating in this innovative and inspirational new program. 

The idea for the HBCU-focused Jazz at Lincoln Center residency came from Virginia Arts Festival executive and artistic director Robert W. Cross. A classically trained percussionist and principal percussionist with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, Cross is a long-time jazz fan. He has created robust jazz programming at the Virginia Arts Festival since its founding in 1997, including a jazz club in Norfolk’s historic Attucks Theatre—the oldest remaining theater in the United States that was envisioned, funded, and built by members of the Black community.

When Cross approached the JLCO staff about a new HBCU-focused residency and performance/adjudication program, they embraced the new effort as a valuable addition to their existing education programs, which include the Essentially Ellington High School Band Competition and Festival, the high school-age Summer Jazz Academy, the Jack Rudin Competition for college-level artists, the Jazz for Young People concert program, Swing U– virtual classes for jazz fans, enthusiasts, and students of all backgrounds and levels, and the Jazz Academy video library, a collection of videos exploring the history, technique, and performance of jazz. Likewise, the addition of the HBCU Residency complemented the Virginia Arts Festival’s robust education programs, which serve thousands of area students each year through in-school residencies, master classes and demonstrations, student matinees and more.

The impact of the Virginia Arts Festival/Jazz at Lincoln Center HBCU Jazz Residency has been substantial and will be ongoing. “I will definitely take the criticism and work on the noted concepts for future reference,” wrote Gadsden State University director Ruben Desmond Mitchell. As the students were all invited to stay in touch with the artists they met at the residency, Mitchell noted “I’m sure I will be reaching out to you in the near future as we try to make a greater impact in this area for the sake of jazz.”

Band leaders from all the participating schools expressed gratitude for the experience. “The opportunity to learn from these iconic figures in jazz–these are jewels for us,” wrote Dr. Jonovan T. Cooper, director from North Carolina A&T University. “I will use this experience to help improve our concept and sound.”

All nine of the HBCUs who participated in the 2023 program will be invited back to the Virginia Arts Festival/Jazz at Lincoln Center HBCU Residency in 2025, along with other schools who apply. In addition, this session’s band leaders were invited to participate in JLCO’s June 2023 Band Director Academy, held annually at New York’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, the home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Four of the bands’ directors participated in the Academy, which is led by a distinguished faculty that includes such famed artist/educators as Terell Stafford, Director of Jazz Studies at Temple University and Rodney Whitaker, director of Jazz Studies at Michigan State University.

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