Honoring the greats, past and present

Photo by Robin James Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performed Marsalis’ “Swing Symphony” (Symphony No. 3) with the Minnesota Orchestra.

There’s a lot happening on the jazz front both nationally and locally. Recently, in just a span of a few weeks, we’ve lost several of our jazz greats, which can be particularly hard as few are still with us.

 It’s good to pause, acknowledge and remember those who have made and are making significant contributions to the jazz community. 

Pianist Ramsey Lewis, jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and Sue Mingus have passed. Their legacies will live on. 

Lewis, a Chicago native, was not only a pianist and prolific composer, he was also a radio personality. Probably he’s most known for his album, “The In Crowd,” which garnered a 1965 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance. 

The song and album “The In Crowd” received plenty of critical praise and topped the R&B charts for several weeks according to BillBoard. Another one of his famous tunes, “Sun Goddess”, was and remains quite popular. The band Earth, Wind, & Fire recorded a beloved version of the song. 

Lewis was 87 when he passed. NPR said that throughout his career, Lewis was the embodiment of jazz crossover. He grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing project and started playing piano at age four.  

Lewis also grew up hearing jazz, classical and gospel in his home. He played organ and piano in his church. Lewis recorded over 80 albums and won three Grammys. I recall listening to his longtime syndicated radio show “Legends of Jazz” which went on to become a public television series back in the mid-2000s. 

Jazz journalist Aaron Cohen co-authored Lewis’ memoir, “Gentleman of Jazz,” which will be out in 2023. 

DeFrancesco, who performed with Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, and Houston Person, was a renowned jazz organist, composer and bandleader. He is well-known for jumpstarting the popularity of the Hammond B-3 organ. 

DeFrancesco also played trumpet, piano, saxophone and synthesizer. His father, acclaimed organist “Papa” John DeFrancesco, bought Joey a B-3 organ when he was four years old. As a bandleader, DeFrancesco released over 30 recordings. DeFrancesco’s 2019 album, “In the Key of the Universe”, received a Grammy nomination. He died at age 51.

Sanders, who the New York Times called a “Force of Nature”, died at age 81. He was celebrated for his spiritual voice and for starting his career with Sun Ra and John Coltrane. Sanders’ tenor saxophone sound was distinctive, which helped him to have an impactful career. Before Sanders played saxophone, he played clarinet. 

According to The Guardian, “Amid a ferment of innovation in the new jazz avant-garde, Sanders formed his own quartet. The poet LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) was the first to take notice, writing in his column in DownBeat magazine in 1964 that Sanders was “putting it together very quickly; when he does, somebody will tell you about it.” 

Coltrane took notice, too, and invited Sanders to record and join his regular group. He appears on albums by Alice Coltrane, Randy Weston, Don Cherry, and Ornette Coleman. 

Mingus was married to bassist/composer Charles Mingus. She is responsible for forming tribute bands to perform his music after his passing. Not only did Mingus champion her husband’s legacy, but she also published books and produced Grammy-nominated albums during her four-decade salute. Mingus died at age 92. 

I met her at the Playboy Jazz Fest in the early 2000s. We talked jazz and about our mutual friend Bob Protzman. 

Speaking of great legacies and local happenings, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performed Marsalis’ “Swing Symphony” (Symphony No. 3) with the Minnesota Orchestra on Friday and Saturday, September 23 and24 at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. 

“Swing Symphony” is written from a jazz musician’s perspective and captures the sound of American music eras and the evolution of the swing rhythm. This performance featured a beautiful and swingin’ conversation between two amazing orchestras. 

It was a historic meeting between conductor William Eddins and composer Marsalis, who both happen to be Black. That sort of thing is a rarity in the classical world.

Among the seven movements, Midwestern Moods and Manhattan to LA stood out, and it was multi-instrumentalists Sherman Irby, Julian Lee, and bassist Carlos Henriquez that gave the most adventurous solos on Friday night. 

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