Manhattan may be a rapidly changing island, with new architecture and new money morphing the city into a more homogenized version of itself, with many of the unique and intimate establishments that locals have long adored going the way of the elevated train, but a few things have stayed the same. New York City is still home to some of the most accomplished musicians in the world, and nowhere is that more evident but right in the center of it all, at Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time Warner Center, specifically in their 5th floor jazz club Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, named after one of the greatest trumpeters that ever lived, trumpet virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie. Jazz at Lincoln Center is also the of home of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, whose Managing and Artistic Director, Wynton Marsalis, is a Grammy winning (nine times!) composer whose 1994 Blood on the Fields was the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize for music.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has been on a world tour for the last six weeks, culminating in Australia and New Zealand, but that did not stop JLCO’s Walter Blanding Jr., (tenor & alto sax & clarinet) from getting on the stage at Dizzy’s on Friday night for a first set at 7:30pm, three days after returning from a 36 hour flight home. Blanding and his bandmates, trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, pianist Emmet Cohen, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. performed a flawless first set of five songs that included a Thelonius Monk composition and an impressionistic version of Cole Porter’s Love for Sale, along with a few original compositions. That first set was followed by a second for the evening at 9:30pm, and Blanding and the band are set to take the stage once again tonight at 7:30 and 9:30. Next week, Blanding’s fellow JLCO member, Sherman Irby (alto sax) will step onto the stage at Dizzy’s for four nights beginning on Thursday, March 24th at 9:30pm.
Blanding was born into a musical family on August 14, 1971 in Cleveland, Ohio and began playing the saxophone at age six. In 1981, he moved with his family to New York City; by age 16, he was performing regularly with his parents at the Village Gate. Blanding attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and continued his studies at the New School for Social Research where he earned a B.F.A. in 2005. His 1991 debut release, Tough Young Tenors, was acclaimed as one of the best jazz albums of the year, and his artistry began to impress listeners and critics alike. He has been a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra since 1998 and has performed, toured and/or recorded with his own groups and with such renowned artists as the Cab Calloway Orchestra, Roy Hargrove, Hilton Ruiz, Count Basie Orchestra, Illinois Jacquet Big Band, Wycliffe Gordon, Marcus Roberts, Wynton Marsalis Quintet, Isaac Hayes, and many others. Blanding lived in Israel for four years and had a major impact on the music scene while touring the country with his own ensemble and with U.S. artists such as Louis Hayes, Eric Reed, Vanessa Rubin, and others invited to perform there. He taught music in several Israeli schools and eventually opened his own private school in Tel Aviv. During this period, Newsweek International called him a “Jazz Ambassador to Israel.”
For the first time, members of the world-renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis will arrange tunes from Broadway’s most beloved productions including Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific, West Side Story, Fiddler On The Roof, The Producers and more. In a special concert event entitled World on a String: Swinging Songs of Broadway on April 14-16 at 8:00pm in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, the world renowned big band and guest vocalist Kate Davis will debut these arrangements. Harold Arlen wrote over 500 songs, including many for the stage as well as the classic Over the Rainbow, which was voted the No. 1 song by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. Jerome Kern & Irving Berlin are two of the most significant American theatrical composers of the early 20th century, each having been represented on Broadway hundreds of times. World on a String: Swinging Songs of Broadway will celebrate the famed avenue’s most talented, inventive, and sophisticated composers, many with jazz-oriented roots.
Despite a major case of jet lag, Blanding has been hard at work composing the pieces for his shows at Dizzy’s, as well as working on his arrangements for World on a String. Working on his laptop while traveling between world cities, he has managed to organize the pieces for Fantasy in Blue, the title of his show at Dizzy’s, and to also turn his attention to Moonshine Lullaby from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, one of the pieces that will be performed at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater in April. Talking about the process before his show on Friday, Blanding said “Arranging a song is like giving birth in a way; it’s an amazing process in that there is no necessarily workable method for creation because once you think you’ve figured out some kind of a formula, there’s always a problem that presents itself that requires a new way of thinking of some type of other solution.” Blanding says “Composing and arranging music for the orchestra, everybody is unique; Wynton has done a great job in choosing each one of us; Sherman Irby, Ed Nash, Victor Goines, Chris Crenshaw, Ryan Kisor, Dan Nimmer, Carlos Henriquez, Vincent Gardner, Ali Jackson, Kenny Rampton, Paul Nedzela, Joe Temperly; they’re really special people first of all, and then as musicians, they are really special. We’re proud to have each other, and to play together and the energy between us is very unique”
Talking about adapting Berlin’s song for the upcoming show, Blanding states “You have a composition that someone has already written and you are reinterpreting it in a way to make it your own. I’m putting my own taste to it, adapting it to the orchestra and making it original using my creativity and writing skills to try to turn it into something else.” Laughing, Blanding went on to say “After 45 years, I think I’m just now starting to get to a point of maturity where I’m almost starting to understand ‘who am I’; through looking back over time am I able to see the kind of things that I’ve become accustomed to doing. Stylistically, I can say it like this, there are certain sounds that I like, and I try to incorporate that into music. Jazz is something that is so vast; Western music has the same harmony, 12 notes, however the style is different between disciplines. When you’re creating something, any kind of a profound discipline creates something unexpected and leaves room for growth. So when I’m writing or creating, when I make a choice, logic dictates from the choice that I make, from the infinite possibility of choices that I can make, but if I choose something, whatever it is, that choice determines what the next step should be. So it’s kind of like taking from an infinite well of resources.”
Blanding explained that the number one reason he plays music is “because it heals me”. “Jazz is based on improvisation, and whether you write music, play or listen to it, it helps us to understand ourselves profoundly, and in turn we understand how to cooperate with each other on a profound level; because that is what a jazz group does – everybody’s improvising together, they’re accepting one another even if they have a difference of opinion or styles, to make harmony together spontaneously.” Fantasy in Blue onstage at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola is the perfect expression of this principle at work, and Sherman Irby’s sets next week promise to be a variation on the theme. A deep understanding of the principles of jazz is not required, however, to appreciate a great night of music and dining with the lights of Broadway and Columbus Circle sparkling in the background. Jazz at Lincoln Center at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola is still one of the classiest and swellegant ways to spend an evening.
Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola
10 Columbus Circle
New York, NY 10019
212 258 9595