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Friday, September 29, 2023


Jazz band to play vibrant tunes at concert


Broadcast veteran Donna McKenzie is working with the UH Jazz Orchestra for its upcoming show, “The Great American Songbook,” to be performed April 16 at 7:30 p.m. to celebrate National Jazz Month. | Courtesy of Jill Bays-Purtill

The performance will feature popular American jazz songs written by composers such as Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Harold Arlen. Alongside the band, local broadcast veteran Donna McKenzie will provide live narration to provide a complete immersion into the history of American jazz.

Jazz Director Noe Marmolejo said he was inspired to create an event that would entice the local community to come out and have a good time with the Jazz Orchestra.

Selecting classic jazz tunes from the early 20th century, Marmolejo said he has chosen songs that are well known — music that he feels everyone has heard at some point in their lives.

“I wanted to play music for the audience where the music was accessible,” Marmolejo said. “Maybe at some point they have heard the music in a movie or in a musical or play. Each of the four people I focused in on individually contributed in their own way to the landscape of American music, primarily built around the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.”

The event will also provide audience members with an insight into the historical significance of these classic tunes. Marmolejo cited Alec Wilder’s book about the Great American Songbook canon that was influential in helping him pick the tunes.

“America had been dominated by opera, but (Wilder) was trying to find an American image,” Marmolejo said.

“So I thought it would be good to pick the popular tunes played at parties, tunes by Kern, Porter, Gershwin and Arlen. I have played those tunes before in a jazz setting. They have great melodies, and they have great harmonies that lend themselves to performing in a jazz medium.”

In the beginning stages of developing “The Great American Songbook,” Marmolejo recognized the need for something else to complete the performance and capture the essence of what Wilder conveyed in his book.

He knew that playing popular tunes could draw crowds and that he had to find a way to provide the audience with the songbook’s history.

“It’s one thing to listen to a piece of music that people recognize, but it’s another thing to maybe get the storyline behind it,” Marmolejo said.

“I had heard a whole bunch about these tunes that I had never known about before. There are all these stories of how the guy wrote, what he was thinking, what he felt and there is a sentimentality.”

McKenzie was able to help Marmolejo convey the rich history to his audience.

“The opportunity appealed to me on every level,” McKenzie said. “First of all, I love jazz. I was raised on jazz. Secondly, the program is exceptional. Thirdly, the kids are amazing. The players are so good and really talented.”

While McKenzie has experience working in radio, she also has a history of collaborating with artists, hosting music concerts and lending her voice to commercials for popular artists such as James Taylor and Elvis Costello, performing as an artist herself in dramatic readings and poetry collectives.

“I’d heard her voice, and I thought, ‘That’s a great voice,’” Marmolejo said.

“She has a great instrument, and she conveys pretty well. She can convey all types of different things, whether it’s a rock song on the radio or doing commercials. She’s really adept and malleable in terms of her voice. What I wanted to do in my writing (of the narration) was make her an instrument of the ensemble.”

Usually when guest artists come to perform with the orchestra, there are only one or two rehearsals before the big event.

“I like being in this environment where there is so much collaboration going on,” McKenzie said. “We are all collaborating really beautifully.”

McKenzie said she relished the idea of being able to rehearse alongside the orchestra, and she has rehearsed several times with the students.

“I could stay home and practice my lines, but (at rehearsal) what we’re doing is weaving a dance between the music and the narrative,” McKenzie said.

“I can run my lines all day, but if I’m not working with the band, then we’re not doing the dance together. In one of the last rehearsals, we were riffing on each other; we were jamming. I could feel it. I could play off of the energy in the room.”

“The Great American Songbook” will take place at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Moores Opera House, and the Moores Orchestra will play sections of “The Great American Songbook” as part of the free Da Camera Jam at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Houston’s Discovery Green.

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