The Black Swan Classic Jazz Band brings ragtime, Dixieland and blues to the ‘Sundays@3’ concert series
The Black Swan Classic Jazz Band is guaranteed to put a sanctified pep in your step — twice, even! — on Sunday, Sept. 30, at the Church of the Good Samaritan in Corvallis.
First, the combo leads the congregation’s 9 a.m. Harvest Festival service. A decidedly unmissable highlight: vocalist Marilyn Keller’s spellbinding a capella rendition of the spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” A 3 p.m. showcase unfurls a rousing bill of ragtime, Dixieland and blues as wept from the pens of such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller.
In addition to Keller, Black Swan’s lineup for the Corvallis date includes founder and tuba player Kit Johnson, John Bennett (piano), Ron Leach (drums), Alan Phillips (banjo/vocals), Pat O’Neal (trombone), Garner Pruitt (trumpet) and OSU Jazz Ensemble director Steve Matthes (clarinet).
Johnson launched the unit in 1989 specifically to celebrate the form’s pioneers. “I gravitated toward the earlier style (of jazz), where there was more focus on melody, space and musical nuance and less on technical expertise,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “Those things were attractive to me. The style of music we play is a good balance of major elements. It leaves a lot of space and flexibility, and provides an energy for people to solo over. The type of solo you get in this sort of music is different from later styles.
“It lent itself to my instrument. I enjoyed pop and folk styles, but as a tuba player, there aren’t a ton of opportunities out there.”
The mighty tuba should always know a home in jazz (see Marcus Rojas in Dave Douglas’ Brass Ecstasy), where it serves a vital function as a bass, with the banjo weaving a steady, sturdy rhythm.
“In early jazz there was sometimes a tuba and sometimes an upright bass, depending on the band or the situation,” Johnson explained. “Much of the style of music is a blending of the old sound — military marching bands (Black Swan’s take on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” manages to stir both the soul and the feet) and some gospel music and ragtime players and that sort of thing. It’s a melding of those styles and originated really around the New Orleans area and the Deep South.”
Among the vast Black Swan repertoire (which also features originals written and arranged in the venerable flavor) is gospel as steered through jazz and constructed around Keller’s incomparable scales. It’s a curious blend, especially when one considers that for all of its innovation and melting-pot flexibility, this now-august (but never hoary) American institution was once lambasted by civic leaders as a subversive entertainment.
“There’s no question,” Johnson said. “It’s interesting, because Marilyn grew up the daughter of a Baptist minister, and as she started to get out and play in a nonreligious setting, with pop and R&B, she had to do her own soul-searching. She had discussions at home as to why that wasn’t a bad thing.
“Jazz music itself originated in a fairly seedy environment. But as much as dance music does, it quickly moved out of that into a broader array. The influence of gospel music, songs that influenced the blues, became very much a core part of jazz. It reverted back to one of its roots, if you will.”
Despite that early notoriety, the music is an essential connective thread from past to present, responsible at its heart for the structures we recognize today. There’s no sound, no form it hasn’t touched. Therefore, it remains a timeless diversion a century after its sensational rise.
“I think it is absolutely the foundation for pop styles today,” Johnson said. “It runs the gamut from rock fundamentals to jazz itself to R&B. This is really their roots. All of the pop music we would have listened to in the last 60 or 70 years, including today, came out of this branch of the tree.
“It is a tremendously appealing music from its universality: bouncy, rollicking, fun, and not so intellectually off-putting. We have people well into their 80s and 90s coming to our performances or dances, as well as Lindy hoppers in their 20s — even little kids bopping around. There’s a good rhythm to it and a balance that people find infectious.”
Black Swan’s engagement is part of the church’s “Sundays@3” concert series. A reception follows in Simpson Hall. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged.
The cultural tour continues with an Albert Tiu piano recital on Oct. 21, followed by “A Festival of Lessons and Carols” (Dec. 9), Oregon String Quartet (Jan. 20), Alexandre Dossin (March 17), Justin Preece (April 14) and Antonio Pompa-Baldi (May 26).
The month of February recognizes the 60th anniversary of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s (“Romeo and Juliet,” “Peter and the Wolf”) passing with piano sonatas as performed by Julianne Shepard, Priscilla Dantas and Arsen Gulua (Feb. 17); and Ednaldo Borba, Asya Gulua and Gabriel Neves Coelho (Feb. 24). All nine pianists have studied with Dossin at the University of Oregon.
For more information on “Sundays@3,” call 541-757-6647. To hear the Black Swan Classic Jazz Band in action, visit www.bscjb.com online.