Joan Wilder: Journalist, Writer, Editor

D.C. fete gives band a grand stage

Wynton Marsalis and the Foxborough High School Jazz Ensemble at Lincoln Center

Boston Globe

By Joan Wilder
Globe Correspondent / January 8, 2009

Playing with jazz icon Wynton Marsalis at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2007 was a thrill for Maria Navedo and the Foxborough High School Jazz Ensemble. As it turns out, it was just a warmup.

The ensemble, led by Stephen Massey, is about to share the stage with Marsalis again. This time, the venue will be Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C., and the invited audience of 1,100 will include President-elect Barack Obama.
The Jan. 19 event will coincide with Martin Luther King Day and the eve of the presidential inauguration. The Foxborough musicians will be the only amateurs among the artists performing in a live, televised program titled “A Celebration of America.”
The show, hosted by Marsalis and former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, will look back on King’s life and forward to an era under America’s first president of mixed race. And the uniquely American story will be told through the uniquely American musical art form: jazz.
“We’re all really excited about the Kennedy Center performance,” said Na vedo, a senior who plays alto sax and clarinet and is deciding between music education and animal behavior as a college major.
“It’s such a huge opportunity and it also validates Mr. Massey’s years and years of teaching,” she said. “He’s actually dedicated to music education, but also to teaching social issues, current events, and life.”
Marsalis, who is artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, chose the Foxborough musicians because they have been finalists in the center’s annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival more times than any other school.
“We’ve been finalists at Essentially Ellington 11 times out of the 13 years of the festival,” said Massey, the Foxborough school district’s music director for 30 years.
Each spring, 15 schools nationally are chosen as finalists on the merits of recordings each submits. The finalists are invited to spent three days at Lincoln Center, where, among many activities, they have a Q&A with Marsalis, take master classes, jam with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and perform.
Of the 15 bands, three are chosen as the top seeds, winning the opportunity to perform with Marsalis at the competition’s finale. Foxborough has had that honor four times, most recently in 2007.
“Foxborough is notorious for winning the festival,” said Eric Wright, assistant director of programming at Jazz at Lincoln Center, adding that Massey “is one of the great unsung heroes of jazz.”
According to Massey, the idea for “A Celebration of America” evolved out of a conversation Marsalis had with O’Connor, a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation, a program sponsor.
“Wynton has long been a proponent of the philosophy that jazz represents the democratic process,” said Massey. “Intelligent conversation, listening to others, and coming to consensus are all parts of jazz improvisation. They are also the basic principles that guide the democratic process. So apparently, Wynton was discussing this last fall at some sort of dinner with Sandra Day O’Connor, and she got very excited about the whole idea.
“Wynton’s such a believer in jazz education not only because he thinks studying this music helps kids learn about this American art form, but also about the democratic process that in a way fostered it,” said Massey.
Similarly, Massey’s love of music and teaching has strong philosophical roots. In an open letter written in September to students, staff, and parents, Massey touched on them.
“Real learning is not a study about things, but rather an experience inside things,” the letter said. “Making music can be one of life’s most expressive and creative experiences. The goal is not to win awards, it’s to have an experience.”
And, now, the 22-member ensemble is preparing for an experience that Massey called “the opportunity of a lifetime.”
The ensemble doesn’t yet know what it will play. Initially, Marsalis suggested that it be something by Duke Ellington, but that may change as producers flesh out the story they’re telling through jazz, as well as Foxborough’s role.
“We have a fairly extensive library we’ve been working on this year, so whatever style or period they’re looking for, I think we’ll have something,” said Massey, who will lead his band on stage.
“The band clearly gets what an opportunity this is musically,” said Massey. “But they also perceive what an opportunity it is culturally and historically – to be part of an inauguration as significant as this is.”
© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

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