Music beyond category
Evan Arntzen

Music beyond category

Vermont Jazz Center’s own big band celebrates Duke Ellington — ‘the most significant composer of his genre’ — in a scholarship fundraiser

BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Jazz Center's Big Band will present its annual Scholarship Gala on Friday, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m. This event is the primary fundraiser for the Vermont Jazz Center (VJC) Scholarship Fund, which grants an annual average of $27,000 in scholarships to students, offsetting fees for VJC ensembles, private lessons, and its summer jazz workshop.

This year, the band will feature clarinetist/vocalist Evan Arntzen in a tribute to one of America's most important composers, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, as well as raffle off some exciting items.

Almost all the original material was composed and arranged by Ellington or Billy Strayhorn, his musical partner of 30 years. Concertgoers will hear music that was transcribed note-for-note from the original recordings.

These charts were later made available by Essentially Ellington, a nonprofit educational program that was established and funded by Jazz at Lincoln Center to distribute initially among schools and they have now been made commercially available.

The VJC Big Band, under the leadership of musical director Rob Freeberg, is made up of area professional musicians who come together to enjoy the rewards of playing invigorating, challenging, and historically significant repertoire while raising money for the scholarship fund.

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Duke Ellington's music is widely loved. Jazz standards represent only a small portion of his immense catalog, but his imprint goes much deeper. His impact on the history of modern music cannot be overemphasized.

According to music historian Gunther Schuller and musicologist Barry Kernfeld, Ellington was “the most significant composer of his genre.” Ellington's Wikipedia entry confirms that he “wrote or collaborated on more than 1,000 compositions; his extensive body of work is the largest recorded personal jazz legacy, and many of his pieces have become jazz standards.”

Ellington gifted the world with a repertoire that includes hundreds of popular songs including “Satin Doll,” “Do Nothing till You Hear From Me,” “It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got that Swing),” and “Mood Indigo,” as well as symphonic works, movie soundtracks, music for ballet and opera, and three sacred concerts.

The Ellington Orchestra remained together for over 50 years and featured legendary artists such as tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, trombonist Lawrence Brown, bassist Jimmy Blanton, and many others. Ellington earned nine Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Pulitzer Prize for music.

The U.S. Treasury and Postal Service have issued commemorative quarters and stamps, respectively, with Ellington's image. His achievements and persona have catapulted his presence into the world of myth and legend, earning him a star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame. He has been immortalized in songs and compositions written by Stevie Wonder, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis.

Ellington was recognized for his gentle manners; he was a man of grace who was wined and dined by government leaders throughout the world. He charmed Queen Elizabeth and composed “The Queen's Suite” for her alone - a single pressing of its recording was given to her and was not commercially issued during his lifetime. Ellington was a complex individual who often composed throughout the night, greeting the day at 2 p.m.

He was a deep thinker, who despite his image as an entertainer, composed music that was ahead of its time, breaking down barriers and challenging expectations.

For example, in numerous interviews, Ellington expounded on how he was not a fan of the word or concept of “jazz.” He claimed that pigeonholing the music was a marketing tool detrimental to its perception, that because it was “beyond category,” it would be better described using the phrase “free expression.”

When asked by Edward R. Murrow in 1959 how he described his own music, Ellington said “we try to capture the natural sounds of the people, the people who are around us, walking down the street, whistling a tune or working while humming. We want to absorb what's natural with the people.”

Ellington raised the sounds of life to the level of art. He distilled and musically conveyed the qualities of those “natural sounds,” encapsulating their essences and presenting them to the public (who he adored) in the context of swinging big-band music. Ellington's compositions sensitively evoke the spirit of places and people, but they also embrace the value of bringing together people to dance and socialize.

While accomplishing these grand feats Ellington simultaneously asserted activist statements that molded people's conceptions about the Black experience. Even in the early years of his career, Ellington was a leader who was cognizant of the power of his place as a prominent artist. He strategically used this energy and positioning to became a spokesperson who used media to raise awareness of the plight of Black Americans.

Ellington was known for composing music for the people he cared for (such as his mother and the Queen of England) and for writing songs dedicated to the musicians in his band, some of whom stayed on for decades. He said, “it's a wonderful thing for me to write for an individual person when you know who the guy is who's going to be playing it.”

He composed Jeep's Blues for Johnny Hodges, Yearning for Love for Lawrence Brown, Trumpet in Spades for Rex Stewart, and Concerto for Cootie for Cootie Williams; there are numerous other examples as well. In perusing Ellington's original scores viewers can see the nicknames of the artists (like “Rabbit” for Hodges) scrawled in beside the staves of the manuscript.

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Audiences at this show will listen and dance to the authentic musical arrangements that were played by the Ellington orchestra. The arrangements will be embellished by improvised solos from the members of the VJC Big Band, including Arntzen.

Arntzen, a clarinetist, saxophonist, and vocalist, was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, about as far away from New Orleans as one can be in North America, and yet it is the music of the Crescent City that sparked Arntzen's musical journey.

A third-generation musician, he began learning New Orleans-style clarinet from his grandfather, Lloyd Arntzen, at the age of seven. The first melodies he learned to play were blues tunes from great Black American composers, such as Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton.

After studying in Vancouver, Arntzen moved to New York City to perform and attend graduate school. He recently received his graduate degree in clarinet performance from Manhattan School of Music.

Arntzen has performed at venues throughout the United States and Canada. Arntzen held the lead saxophone chair in Vince Giordano's Nighthawks from 2016–2021, and was a regular member of Terry Waldo's Gotham City Band and David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Eternity Band.

In 2017, Arntzen was the musical director of Jazz at Lincoln Center's Jazz for Young People program on Louis Armstrong. His discography includes notable recordings by Bria Skonberg, Kat Edmonson, Loudon Wainwright III, and the award-winning soundtrack for HBO's Boardwalk Empire. He has also released three critically acclaimed albums as a leader: Evan Arntzen Meets La Section Rythmique, Jazz Crush, and Countermelody.

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Musical Director Rob Freeberg is a seasoned trumpeter and big band conductor who leads the VJC's large ensemble with finesse and skill, drawing on his respect for the jazz legacy, an unerring ear, and decades of experience leading his own big band in the New York City region.

Freeberg moved to Dummerston in 2012, after retiring as director of bands at New Rochelle (New York) High School, where he taught for 30 years. He is also the musical director of the VJC Sextet and also performs with the Windham Orchestra, its brass quintet, the Bennington County Choral Society, and the Keene Chorale.

Band manager and baritone saxophonist Sherm Fox's continued persistence and organizational efforts have provided the glue that has held the band together since 2004 - organizing 16 jazz cats is no small task. The band was initiated by Fox and Howard Brofsky (a.k.a “Dr. Bebop”), the VJC's mentor and former board president who died in 2013.

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Members of the 2022 VJC Big Band include trumpeters Don Anderson, Rick Anderson, Haneef Nelson, and Rob Freeberg; woodwind players Michael Zsoldos, Sherm Fox, Matt Steckler, Carl Clements, Evan Arntzen, and Donna Morse; trombonists Bruce Eidem, Dave Sporny, and Caroline Cole; and rhythm section members Eugene Uman (piano), Wes Brown (bass), and Steve Rice (drums).

Since the pandemic, the VJC educational program has been picking up steam. This year's summer workshop, Emerging Artist Festival, and fall semester have all been successful. Your attendance and contributions to the scholarship fund will go directly toward benefitting students who otherwise wouldn't be able to pursue their musical objectives.

This Ellington-feature concert will offer both live stream and in-person components. Live-streamers can create dance parties in their homes or choose to come to the Jazz Center to dance to the sounds of a 16-piece big band.

All attendees and musicians and everyone who is not actively playing wind instruments or singing will wear masks.

No table seating is available this year to maximize social distancing and dancing space. Dancing is encouraged, and chairs may be fewer than attendees.

The livestream for home viewers can be accessed on the Vermont Jazz Center's website or via its Facebook Live page. Livestream viewers are encouraged to make an online donation to the Scholarship Fund in lieu of purchasing a ticket.

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