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Orbert Davis on Inventing a Genre of Jazz and Paying Tribute to the Greats

The Chicago Jazz Philharmonic artistic director talks about the uniqueness of his orchestra and how it’ll honor Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk.

Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

For 11 years, the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic has been the only professional symphonic jazz organization in the country. Ahead of the premiere of a new set celebrating three jazz greats on April 29, artistic director Orbert Davis talks about how CJP cooks up something new and asks the audience to “taste the music.”

The Monk Meets the First Lady celebrates Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. How have they been inspirations for you?

As a trumpet player, it’s Gillespie. I remember all the years struggling to play what he played. My alter ego as a composer is definitely inspired by Monk, but it’s hard to be in the world of jazz without being inspired by Ella. She really sent [me] practicing.

Monk’s compositions are so particular to him. Does that make his music difficult to arrange?

My goal is not necessarily to incorporate the musicianship of Monk, but more so the attitude. He’s a man without a time. Bebop was theatrical, and Monk comes along and breaks the rules.

How do you present these ideas for an orchestra?

At the core it has to be jazz. If you go to hear Beethoven, you expect to hear what Beethoven wrote. In jazz, once you get past the composition, it’s really about the moment.

What opportunities are created when you play jazz with a full symphony orchestra?

We are the only professionally symphonic jazz organization in the country. Many times people say “jazz orchestra” and they immediately think we’re a big band. We’re not a big band. It’s a symphony orchestra, it’s just expanded to include more flavors, more colors, and the essence of the symphony orchestra. It’s funny, John Faddis, who is Dizzy Gillespie protégé, when he heard us for the first time he paid us an incredible compliment. He said even when he plays “third stream” music—classical and jazz—one moment is classical and one moment is jazz. But he said we created a new genre because it is both and the same.

Does it create new opportunities for classical instruments that audiences don’t typically associate with jazz improvisation?

Most definitely. It always is going to depend on the soloist. Most classical musicians have never ever been challenged to improvise. That’s something that is born into the pedagogy of classical training. Now we have string players and French horn players who are willing to say, “let me try this, let me do this.”

I just think it’s time for new experiences. It’s like food. A new chef comes along and takes a traditional meal and totally changes it based on their creativity and their willingness to break rules. It calls on the audience to taste the music. In our 11 years we have proven that it tastes good.

How do you gauge the jazz scene in Chicago today? Jazz has such a deep history in Chicago, but how do you keep it thriving?

Right now Chicago jazz is in incredible shape. There are some incredible musicians in Chicago and some incredible musicians coming out of our schools. I give credit to places like the Jazz Institute of Chicago and Ravinia has a great jazz school. That’s the key. Education eventually shows itself in society.

Many of your compositions are inspired by Chicago. What do you get by being here and not elsewhere?

One is visualization. I love taking pictures and translating them into sound. Whether moving pictures or still pictures. So my piece “Mississippi River” was all composed through visuals. The Mississippi River became an extension of that project which started in Chicago and ended conceptually in New Orleans. The second is the people. There’s a spirit of Chicago that’s so different from New York or any other place. Not only the people as a subject, but I think a lot about the people that are playing my music. So when I’m writing I think about specific members of the orchestra and their personality and how it comes across when I compose.

The third thing is emotion. Just the raw emotion of life in Chicago. We had a meeting about a new project that I’m writing that is based on Chicago neighborhoods and the people of those neighborhoods. Especially now there’s such a big stink about not letting in any more immigrants. Let’s celebrate our differences. That’s why I like jazz. Music never sets up a barrier. It really can’t.

Go: The CJP premieres The Monk Meets the First Lady on April 29 at 8 p.m. at Governors State University, 1 W. University Pkwy. $28 to $38. csjazzfestival.org

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