Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
Members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra gather for a photo with students from the Goleta Union and Santa Barbara Unified school districts. (David Bazemore photo)

In advance of UCSB Arts & Lectures’ 60th anniversary season-opening performance by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra last Saturday night, the ensemble also opened A&L’s season of outreach and learning programs.

The full orchestra spent an hour educating 1,400 K-12 students from the Goleta Union and Santa Barbara Unified school districts, as well as several parochial schools, about the career and music of bebop jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.

The band opened with a swinging “Epistrophy,” and Marsalis delved into the story of an exceptional artist. He shared how 6-year-old Monk taught himself to play piano after his family moved to New York City.

He also explained the ways that Monk’s style was unique in jazz (in summary: “Expect the unexpected”), and showed how, as a luminary composer and father of a musical movement, Monk is a still-relevant inspiration.

Marsalis synthesized two main lessons from Monk’s story. “Surround yourself with people who believe in you,” and use the courage it takes to be who you truly are: “[Monk] wasn’t looking for Facebook likes.”

Marsalis used serious scholarship, as well as a loving, commanding tone, to engage the kids and make them shout, whisper, sing and show their learning in response to repeated questions.

“How old was Thelonius Monk when he taught himself to play piano?”

“What are the three components of jazz?”

“Expect the, what?”

The assembled pupils learned how music is developed via theme and variations by singing parts from “Stuffy Turkey” under Marsalis’ direction.

The orchestra performed several more works from Monk’s repertoire, including “Lady Be Good,” “Blue Monk,” “Four in One” and an Afro-Latin clave that Monk wrote with John Coltrane.

In the end, Marsalis awarded the “class” a well-deserved “A-plus” for still listening after 45 minutes of spirited learning and music.

The event was only the first in a broad series of programs that A&L has slated to engage local students and the broader community in learning, art appreciation and skills development.

I told my high school son about it. He replied, “Oh, their trombone player did our clinic in jazz band. It was awesome!”

Each quarter, A&L hosts several public sessions with visiting artists that are free and open to the public.

Community members also attended a master class with UCSB students conducted by JLCO last week, participated in a South African song and dance workshop with members of the Soweto Gospel Choir, and can sign up to participate in an open dance class with members of Company Wang Ramirez on Oct. 12.

A&L’s Thematic Learning Initiative offers performances, films, lectures and group reading curated to offer varied perspectives on current issues to cultivate an educated community in thoughtful reflection and discussion. Topics for 2018-19 are “Borders and Bridges” and “Health Matters.”

This fall’s TLI opportunities include films by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and the International Rescue Committee, lectures on science and humanism, creativity and mood disorders, a listening party with a member of the Kronos Quartet, and a community read, with free copies available of David Miliband’s Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time. Events that enrich and educate local students from kindergarten to post-doctoral take place throughout the year.

A major vein through which UCSB supports learning for all in Santa Barbara County, A&L provides opportunities for those of any disposition and interest to engage with contemporary artists, thinkers, researchers and innovators for the benefit of the entire community. Take part!

Noozhawk contributor and local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act. She can be reached at news@noozhawk.com. The opinions expressed are her own.