Kenwood jazz band's emotional performance at Symphony Center

Students perform in world premiere of pianist Jason Moran's "Looks of a Lot"

The jazz band at Kenwood Academy, a high school on Chicago's South Side, gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- the chance to play original compositions from internationally renowned composer/pianist Jason Moran at Chicago's hallowed Symphony Center.

Fourth in an occasional series

The Kenwood Academy Jazz Band gathers on the stage of Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, a gilded, 110-year-old edifice many of these young musicians never have set foot in before.

Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins and uncounted other jazz eminences have played this room. The place echoes with musical history, and the young musicians from Kenwood are attempting to write its next chapter.

They're all eyes as they take the stage and scan the enormous space, 2,000-plus red seats rising several stories high. In a few minutes the dress rehearsal with noted pianist Jason Moran will begin, and some of the students are clapping their hands to check out the room's reverb. Others riff on their instruments, playing snippets of the piece Moran has created for them, “Looks of a Lot,” which they will present with him in its world premiere the next day, May 30.

Once Moran steps up and welcomes them, it's clear they're not in Kenwood anymore. Though they've been rehearsing with Moran on and off since February at school, the expression on the pianist's face shows no smile, the tone of his voice sounds more stern than anything they have yet encountered from him.

“I'm not playing today — at all,” Moran says to the students, referring not to his pianism but to horsing around.

“No jokes from me. Because I need us, everybody, to be really focused. … When I get into this mode … ain't no games no more. This is really touching music for me, it's really personal, and you all help make it personal.”

Indeed, Moran's opus deals with searing emotions: sorrow, pain, despair. Many of its brooding passages are based on Franz Schubert's tragic song “Der Doppelganger,” about loss and anguish. Other aspects deal quite specifically with life in Chicago, from Moran's hip-hop-tinged arrangement of Chicago trumpeter Roy Eldridge's 1937 “Wabash Stomp” to percussion passages Moran has developed with the Kenwood drum corps.

Even the title of Moran's epic, “Looks of a Lot,” touches this city. The phrase was uttered by Chicago rapper Lil Durk, who once noticed police swarming a venue he was playing and observed, “Looks of a lot of blues” (referring to the lights on the squad cars).

These young musicians know about police and crime. Less than two weeks earlier, 15-year-old Kenwood band guitarist Aaron Rushing was killed by gunfire, his absence now a part of their lives and, inevitably, a factor in the forthcoming premiere as well.

The students have plenty to say in music, but once they start rehearsing in the famous hall, they don't sound nearly as bold as they had during the last rehearsals with Moran at Kenwood, and he notices it immediately.

“You see that door all the way up at the top?” says Moran, pointing to the gallery seating way up high. Meaning that the people up there need to hear too.

Then Moran leans in toward one of the saxophonists: “Playing that small on that big a horn? Come on, man. … There's people sitting up there too. … You all started off so impressive when I first met you all. … We need presence there. You have the melody at the moment. So just — bring the lights.”

Maybe the band is understandably a bit intimidated by this place, the home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, or maybe the young musicians are just getting their bearings, trying to figure out what to do.

Over the next couple of hours they indeed turn up the dial a bit. But the next day's performance looms.

At about 1:45 p.m. Friday, the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band piles into a yellow bus parked in front of the school. Some of the students have hung garment bags with their dress clothes on the inside of the bus windows; most are looking at their smartphones or laptops or conversing quietly. A kind of hush has fallen over them.

The driver slowly pulls away from 5015 S. Blackstone Ave. to head to 220 S. Michigan Ave., a geographically short journey that represents a potentially huge step for these students. If they can play Moran's tricky music well, they'll have racked up an achievement few high schoolers could match. If they blow it, they will have missed an opportunity unlikely to come again soon, if ever.

Once they arrive at Symphony Center, they unload their gear and take in a matinee performance by the CSO. They're seated way up in the gallery, where the piano always looks like a matchbox and the musicians like tiny, toy soldiers.

“At the matinee concert, I was a little bit intimidated,” 17-year-old trumpeter GianCarlo Jerry, a junior, says later. “It was like, wow, this is really huge.”

After the performance, they briefly leave Symphony Center to grab some food and then head back to put on their concert clothes: dark slacks and powder blue polo shirts decorated with a musical staff, treble clef and, in red, the phrase “Jazz at the Wood.”

“I'm ready — kind of a little nervous,” says 17-year-old saxophonist Aisha Turay, a senior who has been struggling with the big solo she has to play.

“It's like an overwhelming feeling: Oh my God, it's Symphony Center, and we're minutes away,” Jerry says. “Trying to stay calm.”

Adds 17-year-old saxophonist Jamie Steen, a junior: “I definitely feel like mom is going to be out in the audience crying. I just feel like a lot is going to change tonight.”

Once everyone's dressed, they all convene in the men's dressing room, where Moran, wearing a dark suit and sneakers, decides to say a few words. Before he can, an announcement rings out over the P.A. system: “Five minutes onstage till show time. Five minutes onstage till show time.”

Then Moran starts to address the musicians, teachers and parents who have crowded into the dressing room.

“This is it,” says the pianist, looking at the young faces gathered around him. “I live for these moments, like right here, like right before it starts. Like the tension, the nervousness. …

“And then once it starts, once you're onstage and once you're playing, it don't stop. We don't start over. It keeps going. You mess up, you recover. It feels good, and you keep going. And you know the next song is a banger, anyway.

“And so I want us to maintain all of that focus that got us here, because it's been a lot of focus that got us to this point, all of us together. … And remember that there's always people all the way up in the back — or not,” he jokes, finally relieving the tension a bit.

Everyone in the room listens intently, knowing they don't want to let down Moran, who has taken such a big chance on them.

“We don't have the power to control how they think about this,” Moran continues, referring to the audience. “But what we do know is what we expect of each other and how good this can sound and how powerful it can be. That's all I'm looking for.

“That's my power: It's y'all's truth.”

Then Moran asks everyone to stand up and hold hands for a moment. The students spontaneously let out the Kenwood Broncos cheer, then file out to where they'll enter the stage.

At a few minutes past 8 p.m., Chicago Symphony Orchestra President Deborah Rutter steps into the spotlight first, welcoming the audience and dedicating the concert to Rushing and to Vaughn Holeman, another Chicago 15-year-old killed by gunfire in May. As Rutter speaks of these losses, pointing out that Rushing was to have been on this stage on this night, she breaks down.

After Rutter exits, wiping away tears, Moran and his trio, the Bandwagon, take the stage and begin the dark, slow, ominous music that opens “Looks of a Lot.” Rutter's words hang over the performance, a sense of loss pervading the scene.

But about 20 minutes in, it's time for the Kenwood band to make some noise, and Moran has crafted an entry for them clearly designed to alleviate pain and give hope. The stage left door opens, and saxophonist Steen — a marching band drum major — blows a whistle several times from offstage, the piercing sound ricocheting through Orchestra Hall. Then she marches in, stepping high, followed by the horns of the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band, blasting for all they're worth. The house goes nuts, the screams from parents, relatives, friends and everyday Chicagoans very nearly overwhelming the music itself.

The musicians, directed by bandleader Gerald Powell, are hitting a riff they've crafted from Eldridge's “Wabash Stomp,” hammering it out as they take their seats. For the next hour or so, they'll negotiate the many twists and turns in music and stage movement that Moran has created for them. In some passages, they dare to trade choruses with Moran and the Bandwagon, something they'd never done in the rehearsal room. In others, the Kenwood brass section will stand up and sway their horns in sync to the music, another gesture they hadn't done before. They're on fire.

But there's darker music yet to come. When Chicago bassist Katie Ernst sings a translation of Heinrich Heine's lyrics to “Der Doppelganger,” practically crying out her lines, the Kenwood students provide plaintive accompaniment. When Moran straps himself into a larger-than-life contraption that looks like an electric chair (designed by Chicago artist Theaster Gates), the band sits silent, as instructed. And when Chicago reedist Ken Vandermark improvises freely on Moran's dirgelike reworking of “Der Doppelganger,” the students wail on their horns while marching alongside an elongated music stand, as if in a procession before a casket.

As the piece comes to a close, Moran offers a final touch of optimism, in the form of “Shoulder to Shoulder,” an anthem in which the composer cunningly has quoted Elgar's “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1, the tune played at graduations everywhere. Some of these students soon will be leaving Kenwood, and Moran clearly is tipping his hat to their futures.

“Play it right. Your parents will be crying,” he had said during a rehearsal at school. Surely he was right.

Toward the end of the piece, Moran heads to a pump organ positioned up on a platform and plays a radiant, church-tinged version of “Shoulder to Shoulder,” the students leaving the bandstand to gather around him.

When he plays his last chord, they let out a shout that shakes the room: “Ken-WOOOOOOOD!”

It's doubtful that Riccardo Muti and the CSO have earned noisier ovations in this room.

As the students stream backstage, they pump fists in the air, jump up and down, smile big, hug each other, take selfies, shout.

It's true that they'd never played this music better, but, then again, they'd never played it all the way through before either. This wasn't just a personal best. It was a first.

“I think everything went really good,” says Turay, who played the most intricate solo she had yet attempted in this music. “It went as we practiced, and maybe even 10 times better.”

Says Steen, “I kind of wish we could do it again.”

Many of students say that as they were playing they thought of their fallen colleague and friend, Rushing, and many felt he was there with them.

The experience is profound for Moran, as well.

“After Deborah (Rutter) made her remarks, and Deborah Rutter walks off the stage crying, and so we walk out and, and I don't know,” says Moran, searching for words to express what he felt. “The places where I got choked up were the kids walking in front of the music stand,” in the tableau that evoked a funeral procession. “That was tough. …

“And climbing into the chair after playing whatever music we had played also was a very different kind of execution. It wasn't what I was anticipating feeling once I got up there. … This was an execution and not anything other than that.”

As for the students, they “were on it,” Moran says. “The kids just, they brought it. … The room knows that we were there and that they were there.”

Indeed, the room where Miles and Herbie and Sonny played now had heard from the students of Kenwood.

Yet one question lingers: Beyond the toil and the excitement of it all, beyond the rush of playing new music with a great artist in a famous hall, did these last three months really change anything? Will the memory of all this matter next week or after summer vacation or when they're adults with kids of their own?

Or will it all just fade away?

Perhaps Steen sums it up best.

“I was bullied a long time ago, in seventh grade. It just made me doubt myself a lot,” she says after the performance. “And tonight it was kind of like a jab to anyone that ever had anything bad to say about me, that told me I wasn't going to be anything.

“Tonight it was just like: ‘You are going to be something.' And I feel like it was just a glimpse of everything that's going to come for me in the future.”

And maybe not only for her.

For the first three stories in the series, "Kenwood's journey," plus video and photos, go to chicagotribune.com/kenwoodjazz.

hreich@tribune.com
Twitter @howardreich


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