Chris Crenshaw began playing the piano at age 3. At age 11, he earned a perfect score on his school’s musical aptitude test, and so was granted the privilege of selecting an instrument of his choice from the array provided by his school’s band program. He settled on the trombone.
“I looked at my long arms and said, ‘I can do that,’ ” Crenshaw said.
Thirteen years later, the trombonist joined the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. In 2007, he received his master’s degree in jazz studies from The Juilliard School.
Crenshaw, along with saxophonist Victor Goines — who first picked up a clarinet as a kind of therapy for his childhood asthma — and the rest of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will perform “Masterworks of Duke Ellington” at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater to conclude Week Nine, “Exploring Race and Culture with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center.”
After a week of “digging into and unpacking deep issues and conversations,” Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts, said she is excited for a “celebratory” finale for Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s week at Chautauqua Institution.
“We planned ‘Masterworks of Duke Ellington’ for Friday evening because we knew it would be a celebratory and joyful way to end the residency,” Moore said. “We wanted to end the conversation with music.”
Although, according to Crenshaw, the orchestra will not have a specific setlist solidified “probably until the night of,” Chautauquans can expect to hear a wide variety of pieces from Ellington’s expansive career — more than 50 years of music covering everything from his early Cotton Club era, to the recordings from the ’40s featuring bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, to 1968’s Grammy Award-winning Far East Suite, an album inspired by a State Department-funded trip to countries in Asia and Eastern Europe. Exploring the span of the composer’s oeuvre material requires agility, Crenshaw said.
“You have to get into different mindsets,” he said. “You have to be prepared for anything.”
For Goines, a composer with more than 50 original works to his credit and a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Wynton Marsalis Septet since 1993, Ellington “embodies everything that American jazz represents: celebration, swing, the blues, democracy and collaboration inside the music.”
“There are very few people who have studied (Ellington) as well as we have,” said Goines, who grew up with Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis. “It’s important to keep that thread alive. To be in that legacy is a tremendous opportunity.”
While Goines described Ellington’s work as all “extraordinary masterpieces” that are fulfilling to play, Crenshaw is partial to “The Mooche,” a jazz song that features the atypical “jungle style” that Ellington pioneered.
“In the ’20s, people heard a lot of hot jazz and sweet jazz,” Crenshaw said. “Duke had a way of combining the two (to develop ‘jungle style’). It was just a different color — Duke was really about colors. He was a painter, after all.”
As the leader of his own quartet, Goines admires Ellington’s democratic approach to producing art. The band was Ellington’s instrument, he noted, yet he gave his musicians the opportunity to impact the music.
“Duke Ellington was the master of originality,” Goines said. “You had to strive for independence and individuality — always be yourself and personalize your part.”
By featuring different members of the band with individual opportunities to ad lib, “Masterworks of Duke Ellington,” is a sparkling salute to a force of American music.
“Everyone will like it,” Crenshaw said. “You get most of what Duke was about, no matter what time period.”