Swing Low

A band of young lions tells the gospel truth about jazz.

The timing of Saturday's "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Centennial Hall seems perfect: A performance that will pay tribute to jazz's roots and subsequent history follows a highly anticipated, 19-hour TV documentary that had a similar purpose. But whereas Ken Burns' Jazz series on PBS illuminated through an outsider's journey backward, "Spirituals to Swing" will offer a jazz sextet's improvisations that look inward.

"Many of us as musicians grew up playing in the church," said Carl Allen, who plays drums in the "Spirituals to Swing" ensemble. "Many of the musicians' fathers and grandfathers have been ministers. The concept of the concert is bridging the gap between jazz and gospel, which I've felt strongly about for many years. We've done that with our individual records. That's where we come from musically and spiritually."

The concert takes its name from a legendary 1939 event at Carnegie Hall that brought together an array of African-American music styles: spirituals, folk and blues, boogie-woogie, Dixieland and swing. Musicians from Kansas City swing legend Count Basie to folk blues king Big Bill Broonzy performed at the concert, arranged by producer John Hammond, which was especially significant for being an early event that brought together blacks and whites on the bandstand and in the audience.

"Jazz has been a bridge between the races for several years," Allen said. "In the '30s, it brought everyone on the dance floor together. During those times (dancing), race became a non-issue."

Although racism continues to affect the music business, it manifests itself in much more subtle ways in 2001 than it did in 1939, Allen said.

"There have always been black bandleaders that have had predominantly black musicians and white bandleaders that have had predominantly white musicians," Allen said. "(Racism) is an undercurrent. My primary concern is can the individuals that I bring to the table give me what I need. Part of it has to do with social comfort with musicians. Every musician I play with, we get along off the bandstand as well."

Allen and his band mates, who include pianist Cyrus Chestnut, tenor saxophonist Craig Handy, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, bassist Robert Hurst and trumpeter Terell Stafford, all have extensive backgrounds despite their billing as "young lions" of jazz. Their appearances in a variety of musical settings have given them the versatility needed to tackle material ranging from spirituals, such as "Amazing Grace" and "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho," to classic jazz, post-1939 material such as rhythm and blues, and band members' original compositions.

Chestnut has performed with Jon Hendricks and Betty Carter, among others. Handy has recorded with several top musicians, such as Wynton Marsalis and Roy Haynes. Harrison was a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the early 1980s and went on to lead several of his own sessions.

Hurst was in Wynton Marsalis' band from 1986 to 1991, later joined Branford Marsalis' band and was a member of the Tonight Show Orchestra. Stafford spent five years in Bobby Watson's quintet Horizon and has led his own recordings.

In addition to leading his own dates, Allen has performed with such luminaries as Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard and Donald Byrd. Ten years ago, a recording session with Byrd drew Allen closer to an understanding of jazz's roots.

"I had been hearing about this concept of jazz and gospel, but I couldn't put it into words," Allen said. "During the session, (Byrd) had a more classical singer, and we talked about what it meant, the spirit of jazz and gospel.

"A lot of people refer to jazz musicians as spiritual: 'John Coltrane was spiritual.' Sometimes you don't know what they mean, but with Coltrane, what he would do would be to play parts of hymns, so his playing was literally spiritual. During that (Byrd) session, I was able to put my finger on that spirit."

As a composer, finding "that spirit" isn't a calculated endeavor for Allen. "I really just write what I hear," he said.

As a performer, he said he has a specific goal.

"What I want is for people to feel something," he said. "I would ask, if you have a choice, a) to have somebody think about something or b) to have somebody feel something, you would have to pick b."

And the audience should take that feeling home with them, Allen said.

"What I'm really concerned with is I want people to feel mo' better than when they got there."

"Spirituals to Swing" will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday, February 3 at Centennial Hall. Tickets range in price from $16 to $28; discounts for University of Arizona students and employees are available. A free "Arts Encounter" will be held 45 minutes before the performance in Room 102 of the UA's Center for English as a Second Language, 1100 N. Campus Drive. For information, call 621-3341.