Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Grand Rapids Symphony Open Summer Concert Series

When the Preservation Hall Jazz Band took to the stage in the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, it had been 667 days since the last performance of this venue’s summer concert series: A Life, in other words. A good-sized audience sits on chairs or blankets. Several wore jazz t-shirts, sun hats, or both. It had been too long since we had sweated together.

The nicely dressed group took to the stage. A single trumpet note played. The first number was instrumental, really a series of solos. Show-off? Absoutely. This appearance served a purpose, showing the public that he was in professional hands.

Throughout, instrumental songs (all bright, muscular and fun) alternated with songs with lyrics. The latter were sometimes earthy, sometimes not; the first category included “Tootie Ma is a great fine thing.” The main character is a problem, but she’s also the best girl you’ve ever seen. Who could blame the narrator for knocking on his door?

“Big Chief,” a carnival-era New Orleans staple, was noteworthy. It was possible to stay still while listening, but not easy; several participants gave up the fight and danced. The lyrics (“Me got fire, can’t put it out / Drink fire-water will make me scream”) were better ignored. Someday someone will organize a successful campaign against them. Anyway, the heart of the song is in the catchy piano and the punctual brass.

After three quarters of an hour, the band left the stage and the Grand Rapids Symphony got on it. The perfect red disk of the setting sun began to sink behind the trees as Leroy Anderson’s “Belle of the Ball” played. A short and well-performed piece, it was imbued with a sweet optimism. Anderson’s “Jazz Pizzicato” followed, as did “Maple Leaf Rag” by jazz precursor Scott Joplin.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band took over the stage, this time supported by the symphony. The group embarks on “Come With Me”, its power and beauty amplified by the symphony. Green and purple lights appeared on stage, and rightly so; after all, these are the colors of New Orleans.

Sometimes the symphony has served as a safeguard; at other times it was totally integrated, as if the jazz group had swelled with dozens of musicians. It was a cohesive and well-planned partnership, resulting in an evening that was never less than fun, and at times thrilling. Which was right. After all, we had waited 667 days.

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Henry R. Wright

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