Most Wednesday nights at Snug Harbor, the live music starts before any musicians walk onstage. Clustered at the top of the club’s mezzanine stairs, trombone slides and trumpet bells vying for space in the near-darkness, the dozen-plus-member Uptown Jazz Orchestra discharges a bright brass phrase, finds a parade beat and processes, single file, down into the main room as curious audience members turn their bodies toward the source of the music.
It’s an engaging way to start a show—and that’s intentional. Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, who formed the orchestra in 2008, wants to get away from the idea that jazz is a high art that must be enjoyed from a distance. “It’s not,” he says. “It’s a form of entertainment.” Marsalis wants the Uptown Jazz Orchestra to connect players and listeners alike by allowing them to participate together in something they enjoy. That may sound basic, but Marsalis worries that it’s falling out of favor in the jazz genre.
“Our strength is what you’d consider jump music, riff-based music,” he says, describing the orchestra’s sound. “And this is an idea that comes out of the communal aspects of African music and what is certainly missing in much of [today’s] jazz—or what is being pawned off as jazz by younger musicians. The strength of the orchestra is combining the New Orleans tradition with the riff-based material and groove. And this is so important today.”
Trends in contemporary jazz, Marsalis contends, are creating a generation of musicians whose priority is showing off their ability to do things like play lots of notes in an odd meter, regardless of whether that will engage their audience.
Conversely, the UJO generally plays a diverse mix of songs culled from a wide swath of jazz history, creating a variety of entry points to the music for both the audience and the band. At a recent show, the American Songbook standard “Autumn Leaves” followed Professor Longhair’s “Go To the Mardi Gras.” Later in the set, a complex and burning solo by saxophonist Khari Allen Lee offset the tune’s groove, giving it a whole new feel. Marsalis maintains that taking an audience out on a limb musically doesn’t have to mean losing their interest.
“You’ll read about the direction of jazz or ‘is jazz dying?’ and the reality is the music has to return to functionality,” he says, referencing an idea he wrote about in the liner notes to 2014s The Last Southern Gentlemen, his first full-length recording with his father, Ellis.
In one of the multiple essays and short stories Marsalis penned for the CD package, he argued that art in African culture usually serves a tangible purpose beyond simple beauty.
“The African idea of art is from a functional standpoint,” he says. “Items that can be used in rituals that will aid in the fertility of the land or ‘Let’s create a music that will inspire our people to celebrate and be joyous.’ The European design is more, ‘Let’s create a music that people will sit down and be forced to respect.’”
He laughs and adds, “I’m really going to the Africa kick for sure.”
Jokes aside, his argument comes at what many see as a critical time for the jazz industry. The number of jazz albums sold per year has fallen more or less steadily since 2011. And last year, jazz represented just 1.4 percent of America’s total music consumption, according to the 2014 Nielsen Music U.S. Report. (That percentage is on par with classical music consumption, but more classical than jazz albums were sold overall, putting the jazz genre dead last in music sales.)
“When Miles Davis or John Coltrane in the ’60s were playing what we considered a higher level of intellectual artist music, that was counterbalanced by Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Louis Armstrong was still playing,” Marsalis says. “Now we’re missing a variety in what’s called ‘jazz.’ [With the orchestra] we want to bring back that New Orleans groove, inspire more jazz musicians to expand their concept for what jazz actually is and should represent.”
Another part of the UJO’s appeal is its mix of players, who range from very experienced to fresh out of school and hew to a variety of musical tastes.
On any given gig, the horn section might include Dirty Dozen baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis, hip-hop-inclined Trumpet Mafia member Scott Frock and Berklee School of Music-trained saxophonist James Partridge, a regular on New Orleans’ avant-garde jazz scene.
“At first, I thought it was chaos,” Partridge says with a laugh. “I think it’s the only big band I’ve played with that’s purposely trying to do the old school Count Basie approach, as in constantly making up riffs—blues riffs—and coming up with arrangements on the spot, which Basie used to do. No one ever does that anymore, so it’s a unique experience.”
This summer, those riffs—along with the band’s trademark rendition of New Orleans second line and swing tunes—will be documented on the UJO’s first studio album, which they plan to record in June. Marsalis also has a batch of new compositions lined up for the project. Its theme, he says, is Africa.