For the past six years A Sign of the Times of the Carolinas, a local jazz group, and musicians from the Charlotte Symphony (myself included) have presented a collaborative performance at The Historic Excelsior Club, the first African-American nightclub in Charlotte, to mark MLK Day.
Among the goals of this collaboration for the Charlotte Symphony is to expose audiences who may not necessarily have been to a Symphony concert to classical music in a setting other than the Blumenthal, and I applaud that. However, I feel that these concerts have served as outreach in both directions, helping symphonic musicians expand our horizons too.
An attitude trend among some classical musicians is that classical music is the apex of musical art; however, I have learned that this can be a rather tunnel-vision view.
The Excelsior experiences have been extremely beneficial to me because they take me out of my classical comfort zone. When the Symphony ensemble performs with A Sign of the Times, Tyrone Jefferson, the leader, encourages us to improvise; for most classical players, if you ask us to improvise a tune by ear, we freeze because there are not notes on a page! This is a skill which is second nature to jazz players...basically composing on the spot, which actually used to be an expected performance practice for classical musicians back in the 18th and early 19th centuries. To do this is both rather frightening and liberating, and I am grateful to the fact that Tyrone is very accepting and encouraging of our baby steps in that direction, no matter how tentative.
We are so fortunate to work with Tyrone, who served as the music director for the great James Brown. The things he learned about music (rhythmic feel, improv, etc.) from Mr. Brown he shares with his band, the young people who sit in on their rehearsals and with the Symphony players. Jazz has been called, on more than one occasion, "America's Classical Music." It is one thing for the Symphony to play arrangements of jazz works on a pops show, led by a classically trained conductor; it is a completely different level when one gets to play these pieces in a group which is steeped in that tradition and led by someone who thoroughly understands the style.
The performance venue and format of "Bridging Musical Worlds" at the Excelsior is quite different than a concert hall, but we Symphony musicians are given an extremely warm and gracious welcome by the audience and the jazz musicians. When we get into the jazz pieces, the classically trained musicians can be ducks out of water, but everyone from the band members to the people in the audience help us to swim.
There is a feeling of fellowship, mutual respect and goodwill that can be quite a rarity, and that has touched me deeply.
Martha Geissler has been a violinist with the Charlotte Symphony since 1981. This year she is joined by fellow Charlotte Symphony musicians Jane Hart Brendle (violin), Joseph Meyer (Associate Concertmaster) and Matthew Lavin (extra/substitute cello).