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Wynton Marsalis Takes Concertgoers Through a Symphony of Blues

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By Breanna Edwards, The Root

Taking their seats, the symphony orchestra begins with a wave of the conductor’s baton, led by the cheerful sound of the piccolo and the rhythm of the drums—which the program notes is supposed to signify the American Revolution and the birth of the possibility of the blues.

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On Wednesday night, the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Md., played host to Wynton Marsalis’ Blues Symphony for hundreds who turned out—filling the expansive hall all the way to the balconies—to witness the premiere of the award-winning musician’s ambitious journey to chart the history of the blues throughout America.

No ordinary piece of work from the renowned trumpeter, the six-movement piece, a fusion of different types of music, bestows the feel of the blues, all through the use of orchestral instruments.

Of course, Marsalis isn’t the first to fuse different genres of music together, but what makes his piece unique, he says, is his insider knowledge of both classical and jazz.

“I think I may be the first one who really is in the inside of jazz and the inside of classical music the way I’ve been since I was a kid,” Marsalis told The Root Tuesday during a dress rehearsal before the performance. “People have tried to put the two forms together, but I’m trying to be inside of the actual reality of it from a jazz musician’s perspective.”

Wynton Marsalis playing with his quintet. CHRIS BURCH

Wynton Marsalis playing with his quintet. CHRIS BURCH

The piece was years in the making, Marsalis having partially unveiled it in 2010 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. However, the commitment required significant rehearsal time to pull off with an entire 100-piece symphony orchestra, often a luxury for a top-tier professional group, thus delaying the work’s premiere.

With Marsalis partnering with the Shenandoah Conservatory, its symphony orchestra and Washington Performing Arts, the debut was finally made possible. The piece was made part of the orchestra’s curriculum, allowing for the grueling practice needed to see the symphony’s full potential. Even as the musicians practiced, the piece was edited here and there and fine-tuned. Marsalis is under no impressions of grandeur. Music to him is living and ever ongoing.

“Every piece is ongoing,” Marsalis said. “I work on the pieces, and they come and we continue to work on them and they improve over time.”

Even with this symphony, which he worked on for years, he wrote it in such a way as to allow some other musician down the line to be able to learn and take from him.

“I put enough of the ideas down to give them just a blueprint. It covers a wide range of music, from church music to Brazilian choro to Cuban danzón to ragtime to different types of jazz … spiritual … New Orleans counterpoint,” the nine-time Grammy Award-winning artist said. “[There are] many different questions in it.”

Many different questions, and many different answers, and as the audience sat there Wednesday in the vast hall listening to the students play for a little over an hour without a pause between movements, they were transported to the streets of New Orleans, Cuba and Brazil, even to the streets of New York, for which the sounds of bustling traffic came through via the orchestra.

Jan Wagner conducting the Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Blues Symphony. CHRIS BURCH

Jan Wagner conducting the Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Blues Symphony. CHRIS BURCH

It begs a mention that before the orchestra wowed the audience, Marsalis brought out his quintet, consisting of Walter Blanding (tenor saxophone), Dan Nimmer (piano), Carlos Henriquez (bass) and Ali Jackson Jr. (drums), to start the show with a bang. They blew through piece after piece in a full set lasting about an hour, with Marsalis engaging the audience, at one point even leaving the stage to play among the attendees.

When the show was over, some 1,800 people rose to their feet, whistling and cheering. The students in the orchestra had done Marsalis proud; but of course, he had expected no less with the work they put in.

“For me it’s a learning experience, I want [the students] to enjoy themselves,” Marsalis said. “I want them to feel great about all the experiences they have in music ….They practiced a lot [and] I’m pleased with the effort.”

“The type of respect they’ve shown me and that they’ve shown to the music, and the seriousness they’ve brought to it? Yeah, I’m proud!” he added.

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Art

Poet Laureates Provides Poetry That Heals the Soul

The City of Richmond’s 2021– 2023 Poet Laureate, David Flores was joined by fellow poet laureates including Eevelyn Mitchell of El Cerrito, Jeremy Snyder of Vallejo, Ayodele Nzinga of Oakland and Tongo Eisen-Martin of San Francisco to celebrate Flores’ installation. Each poet shared some of their work with the audience. A laureate is a person who has been honored for achieving distinction in a particular field.

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The poet laureates are not connected as a group but are part of a community that supports each other with our craft.
The poet laureates are not connected as a group but are part of a community that supports each other with our craft.

By Clifford L. Williams

Poetry is a universal language…it’s the song of the heart that feeds the soul.

That was the message shared by five poet laureates from the Bay Area last week at a gathering to introduce the City of Richmond’s 2021– 2023 Poet Laureate, David Flores, during an Open Mic event at CoBiz Richmond, in collaboration with Richmond’s Arts and Cultural Commission.

Flores was joined by fellow poet laureates including Eevelyn Mitchell of El Cerrito, Jeremy Snyder of Vallejo, Ayodele Nzinga of Oakland and Tongo Eisen-Martin of San Francisco to celebrate Flores’ installation. Each poet shared some of their work with the audience. A laureate is a person who has been honored for achieving distinction in a particular field.

Flores, an 11-year former schoolteacher for the Richmond Unified School District, submitted a few poems and some of his writings to a panel of commissioners last May, who reviewed his work and eventually selected him as the city’s newest poet laureate.

“To me, this is an opportunity to really highlight poetry as an art form accessible to everyone in our city,” said Flores. “I will use this appointment to actively engage young people and adults to allow them the opportunity to not only hear art but to also inspire them to share their work.”

Flores said that since COVID 19, people have been disconnected and now need community bonding to express themselves through art and poetry. “As a poet laureate, I want to grow as an artist and share my work,” said Flores. “It’s fulfilling as a shared humanity to connect and inspire people and a way to spark communication with one another. Once you have that experience, you feel confidence and there’s no going back.”

The poet laureates are not connected as a group but are part of a community that supports each other with our craft. Laureates help to bring awareness of poetry and literacy through the arts to their respective communities during their two-year appointments. Each laureate goes through a process involving several steps, outlined by a panel of commissioners, who make the final selections.

“One of the main things we do as poet laureates is to encourage unity within our community through the arts,” said Mitchell. “Our specific responsibilities are to highlight poetry as an outlet to allow people to express themselves.

“As poet laureate, we put on events to encourage our community to become more involved and aware, and to be more unified in bringing awareness, unity, respect and love within the community. Because of the pandemic, we are all trying to figure out our new norm.

“With everything that has been going on for the past two years, I firmly believe it’s important that we as a community, and I as a poet laureate, need to bring harmony back into our lives,” she said. “It is my quest and priority to promote that. We are neighbors, we are friends, we are a community, and we need each other to survive.”

The general public can learn more about their city’s poet laureate events and activities by contacting their Arts and Cultural Commission.

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Activism

IN MEMORIAM: Celebrating Wenefrett P. Watson

Her greatest contribution was as a parent to James, a father and successful actor, Cynthia, a mother and contributor of many social and political events, Janet, a dedicated daughter who assisted her in the travel agency, Geoffrey, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a father and a dedicated and revered physician and Gary, an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood. As a world traveler, Wene invited and hosted international exchange students in her home to educate them and her children about the world.

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Wenefrett P. Watson will be laid to rest at Mountain View Cemetery on Friday, November 26, 2021, with services held at the Church By the Side Of the Road, 2108 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA at 1:00 P.M. (COVID-19 Protocols Observed). For more details and in-person/Zoom registration go to www.CBSOR.org/announcements.
Wenefrett P. Watson will be laid to rest at Mountain View Cemetery on Friday, November 26, 2021, with services held at the Church By the Side Of the Road, 2108 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA at 1:00 P.M. (COVID-19 Protocols Observed). For more details and in-person/Zoom registration go to www.CBSOR.org/announcements.

October 29, 1921- November 9, 2021

Wenefrett P. Watson, Wene, born in Marshall Texas, October 29, 1921, graduated from Bishop College where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. She went on to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles securing a degree in Library Sciences (the same university where her daughter, Cynthia went on to become the first African American “Helen of Troy” at the Rose Bowl Parade). Ambitious and wanting to expand her horizons, Wene applied for and received, sight-unseen, a position with the Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C. Exposed to a bright life in Harlem, New York, she met powerful Black artists. They inspired her. In Los Angeles, on a dare, she sang for Duke Ellington and was shocked when “The Duke” offered her the gig of going on the road with his band.

In Washington D. C., she met Dr. James A. Watson at Howard University. While he expanded his medical practice, they married and started a family. In those early days, with a new husband and three young children, Wene, like most young mothers, was somewhat overwhelmed. Suddenly, her life was much different, compared to the slower and much more sheltered life she had known in Marshall Texas.

Spontaneous and zestful, she enjoyed entertaining friends at home. She liked to play cards, dance and go to the movies. When the good doctor wasn’t available, she would get a babysitter and sneak out to take her six-year-old son, James Jr.), to the movies! She visited with her friend, Jackie and Mrs. Robison, while Jackie was training at Howard University. As a kindness, Jackie taught James Jr. to swim! Jackie, Mrs. Robinson, and Wene had been friends during their shared college years, Wene at USC, while they were at UCLA.

After eight years in Washington D.C., the Watsons traveled to California, where Dr. Watson was a Captain and chief of staff at Edwards Airforce Base hospital. Meeting surgeon Doctor Robert Taylor and Mrs. Estella Taylor, the Watsons moved to Oakland where Dr. Watson helped to build a large medical practice at the Arlington Medical Center with Dr. Taylor and Dr. Benjamin Majors. Dr. Watson’s son, Dr. Henry Geoffrey Watson, now runs the center, serving the Oakland and Berkeley communities.

Most people know Wenefrett for her many notable, social and civic contributions in Oakland. With five children, James, Cynthia, Janet, Geoffrey and Gary, Wenefrett Watson was actively involved with five PTA organizations! Next was her involvement with the Links, Incorporated, an upper-middle class organization that networks their resources to look out for Black families who need support within the commonwealth, highlighting the education and social grace of young girls growing into young women. Eventually she became president of the Oakland Bay Area Chapter of the Links, Incorporated.

During her membership, Wene chaired the Links’ annual grand event which is the debutant ball. This event announces the “coming-out” of these young girls becoming young adults, ready to give back to the community. Simultaneous to these activities, Wene worked with the Oakland Bay Area Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc. organization to make sure her five kids, their friends, and all Black preteen children enjoy socially appropriate activities like dances, hayrides, summer camp, going to the ballet and other fun activities. She was also the founder and president of the San Francisco Chapter of The Smart Set.

In time, she worked with city officials to help Oakland partner with Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana in 1975 as a sister city. Supporting the direction of the city, she and her husband mentored Mayors Redding and Wilson, helping them to get elected. She was appointed to the Oakland Museum Commission and made serious contributions to its development. Wene supported the arts and organized “The Black Filmmaker’s Hall of Fame Awards” at the Paramount Theater in February 1977.

As a working actor in Hollywood, James Watson, her eldest son, was a co-host with Diahann Carroll. This event propelled the NAACP to begin the Image Awards. In 1984, Wene began and ran WenTravel Agency for eleven years. She worked with many large corporations creating jobs and generating wonderful experiences as well as providing a service. She and her husband traveled the world many times and brought back much enlightenment from their exciting travel. Continuing her many works, Wene served with the NAACP and the YMCA. She continued to support political candidates for the city and state. She met Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, twice!

Her greatest contribution was as a parent to James, a father and successful actor, Cynthia, a mother and contributor of many social and political events, Janet, a dedicated daughter who assisted her in the travel agency, Geoffrey, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a father and a dedicated and revered physician and Gary, an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood. As a world traveler, Wene invited and hosted international exchange students in her home to educate them and her children about the world.

People who knew Wene enjoyed her sparkling humor and joy for life. Friends and strangers alike, also could find themselves on the short end of her very candid rebuke or opinion. She was an honest and direct person when she spoke to you. Wene Watson was a bright and gregarious woman. Everyone who knew here felt better about themselves because of her. She was a devoted wife and mother. In the film “It’s A wonderful Life”, Jimmy Stewart’s character wonders if being born made any difference or gave anyone value. To everyone who knew Wenefrett Watson, imagine that she had not been in your life. Her value is in the love and appreciation you feel when you think of her. Thank God she was here.

Wene is survived by three sons and a daughter, James Watson, Cynthia Arnold (Larkin), Henry Geoffrey Watson (Carolyn), and Gary Watson. She is also survived by five grandchildren, Catherine (Max), Sara, Bryan, Angela, and Richard, and two great grandchildren and a niece and nephew, Jackie Jackson (Warren) and Wendell Phillips, along with a myriad of other family members, loved ones, and many friends. Wene was preceded in her heavenly journey by her husband James A. Watson, M.D., daughter Janet Watson David, her granddaughter Tiffany Washington (Cynthia) and her grandson Henry Geoffrey Watson, II (Geoffrey & Carolyn).

Wenefrett P. Watson will be laid to rest at Mountain View Cemetery on Friday, November 26, 2021, with services held at the Church By the Side Of the Road, 2108 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA at 1:00 P.M. (COVID-19 Protocols Observed). For more details and in-person/Zoom registration go to www.CBSOR.org/announcements.

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Arts and Culture

Voices & Visions of Change ™ Scholarship Fundraiser Online Art Sale for AAMLO

The Friends-Stewards of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (Friends-Stewards of AAMLO), a 501(c)(3) organization, is excited to host Voices & Visions of Change ™ Scholarship Fundraiser Online Art Sale from October 1–16, 2021.

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Friends-Stewards of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland/Facebook

The Friends-Stewards of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (Friends-Stewards of AAMLO), a 501(c)(3) organization, is excited to host Voices & Visions of Change ™ Scholarship Fundraiser Online Art Sale from October 1–16, 2021.

East Bay award winning painter and sculptor Lawrence H. Buford will present individual Giclee (18” x 24”), Limited Edition, S/N-25, prints of the Honorable Shirley A. Chisholm, U.S. House of Representatives, rendered in graphite and the Honorable John Lewis, U.S. House of Representatives, rendered in watercolor. 

Each beautiful portrait is unframed, printed on conservation grade paper, and accompanied with a Certificate of Authenticity.

For your viewing pleasure, the portraits will be on exhibit starting October 1-16, 2021, at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO), 659 14th St., Oakland, CA 94612, during the hours of operation Mon. – Thurs. 10:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.; Fri. Noon – 5:30 p.m. and Sat. 10:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.

Buford’s art work was recently displayed in the exhibition titled “Men of Valor” held at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO), January 2019 through September 2019.

This Online Scholarship Fundraiser will help to protect and preserve our cultural and artistic treasures and the stories of our shared history. Your support will enable us to establish pathways to lifelong learning, to inspire, uplift, and educate our community about African American History & Culture for present and future generations.

To support our scholarship fundraiser, please visit https://www.artbylawrence.com/scholarship-fundraiser/ for more information about the portraits available for purchase.

To DONATE or to become a member of the Friends-Stewards of African American Museum and Library at Oakland (Friends-Stewards of AAMLO), please visit our website at www.friendsstewardsofaamlo.org

Please join us to make this event a success!

The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.

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