Ralph Ellison was a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer whose best-known work, Invisible Man, is included in Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Ellison had many influences, but one of his main influences was his love of Jazz Music. In fact, Ellison’s wife is quoted as saying, “When he can’t find his words at the typewriter, he goes upstairs and plays the trumpet.”
Ellison’s favorite artists including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Thelonious Monk. These artists not only influenced Ellison’s writings, but his view on what makes America America. Ellison saw Jazz as the perfect expression of our national culture – one that, much like jazz, is stitched together from many other cultures and improvised in a moment’s notice.
This vision was the inspiration behind the New Jersey Performing Arts Center putting together Jazz in the Key of Ellison. Which is a multimedia show that interweaved Ellison’s writings with the very music he loved. The show was presented over the weekend as part of The Chicago Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series.
The night had two narrators, Roxane Gay and Robert O’Meally, who brought the words of Ellison to life. They would read a bit of Ellison’s writing and then turn things over to The Andy Farber Jazz Orchestra, which would expertly express Ellison’s thoughts through the music he loved. For instance, after Roxane Gay explained Ellison’s secret to life, “is to make things swing” the band immediately played Count Basie’s Jumping at the Woodside – which is the definition of swing.
Throughout the night, three singers rotated on and off the stage to accompany the orchestra. Will Downing added his smooth, sophisticated vocals while powerhouse females Quinana Lynell and Nona Hendryx contributed soulful and mesmerizing performances. Lynell’s performance of Come Sunday was a highlight of the night. As narrator Roxane Gay puts it, “She can sing. She has range. And she sings Come Sunday in a way that makes you want to slap somebody.” The audience definitely felt the sting as they gave it a rousing ovation.
It’s hard to believe I’ve gotten this far into the review without mentioning Grammy–Award winner Nicholas Payton. Payton is known as one of the best trumpet players of his time and boy did he show off on Friday night. He would unassumingly walk out on stage and then blow the roof off the hall with his flawless playing. Towards the end of the show, he joined bandleader Andy Farber for an epic horn duel on a Thelonious Monk tune. Farber blew on his saxophone and Payton answered with his trumpet; their musical back-and-forth delighted the crowd and was probably the best song of the night.
The night and the performance reminded us of what is great about our society. Ralph Ellison believed that jazz music was America’s truest art-form. It represents the best of us. Neither jazz nor America could exist without blending the diverse cultures that came before it. It wouldn’t sound so sweet without all the parts working together, as individuals, but as one group. According to Ellison, jazz is a nod towards the perfect democracy. And we can always use a reminder about that.
Photos provided by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.