The Monterey Jazz Festival is one of the most prestigious brands in all of music. Fortunately, for residents of Montgomery County, a “roadshow” jazz band from that California musical fete will perform the evening of Thursday, March 21 at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.
Called “Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour,” the ensemble features acclaimed vocalist — and brand-new Grammy winner — Cécile McLorin Salvant fronting a talented band led by pianist Christian Sands.
“Tim Jackson, the head of the Monterey Jazz Festival, asked me if I wanted to be the new musical director, I think, five or six times,” Sands said. “When people hire you for different things, whether to be a side guy or a band leader, [they] really [have to] do what they’ve hired you for: bring the music, bring the professionalism.”
It’s also a young band. Sands, a native of New Haven, Connecticut, is just 29, thereby emphasizing how jazz is an ever-revivifying artform. The musicians behind him on this tour include Melissa Aldana (tenor sax), Yasushi Nakamura (bass), Jamison Ross (drums) and Bria Skonberg (trumpet).
Skonberg native of Vancouver, Canada, Skonberg moved to New York, one of the historical hotbeds of jazz, a decade ago. But, she observed, ““If you’re standing still in New York, you’re moving backwards.”
“I think [Jackson] had a very clear vision of what they wanted to present in terms of musicality — obviously gender equality in the band,” Skonberg said of the touring group. “Being able to see women playing their instruments can be really inspiring for young girl players.”
However, Skonberg said that many young female players, despite initial inspiration, often give up practicing at a certain age. Thus, mentorships are vital. “I have a little Rolodex of what I call my ‘brass sisters,’” she said, adding that she often does outreach at various schools to connect with young people. “I pick up a lot of people along the way, boys and girls — ‘brass brothers’ — wherever I see them.”
Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour is also on the road to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the annual event in Monterey, California. The event has drawn the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington since its inception.
Sands said his traveling band is as diverse as the songs they are playing on tour, encompassing gospel and bebop and “avant-garde” stylings. Although the musicians have known each other for years, this is their first time playing together in this particular iteration. “We’re kind of covering the entire basis of jazz with this one group, which is interesting and fun,” he said.
Sands’ jazz education began at a young age, in a home where his father played records by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Robbie Coltrane. Soon enough, young Day tried to imitate that style on the keys, even when it came to centuries-old compositions. “When I first started playing piano, I would improvise on classical music, because I was a kid and I liked to create,” he recalled. “In the classical idiom, you’re not supposed to improvise on Bach. I didn’t know that you’re not supposed to do that.”
Eventually, he blew off his instructors’ admonitions and followed his heart into jazz full-tilt. Sands calls the piano both his “sole instrument and ‘soul’ instrument.”
His bandmate Skonberg said that her own influences included Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis, whom the Canadian has been privileged to speak to a number of times since she left Vancouver.
“My very first day in New York City, [a friend] asked ‘Do you want to go busk in Washington Square Park?’” Skonberg remembered. She wondered, less than 24 hours after her flight east, if she had in fact made the right decision to leave home. “I was a little delirious from the lack of sleep…and then like an hour in, Wynton Marsalis walked by the band. I was like, OK, we’re not in Kansas, British Columbia, anymore.
“This wouldn’t have happened if I weren’t here.”
Sands said he constantly tries to impress upon young people that jazz is a living, breathing artform, and not merely something they read about in history class. Therefore, exposing them to the always-improvisational musical genre is key to keeping the music going for posterity. “When they are seeing it or experiencing it, you really show them that jazz is an expressive music like hip hop or pop music,” he said. “When you put it in that way, they respond positively.
“I think when you help them understand that [jazz saxophonist] Wayne Shorter was just as important as Justin Bieber…When you make that comparison, kids really get interested in that.”
Sands said the music for the Strathmore performance will feature original works by members of his ensemble, including himself, as well as traditional jazz standards.
No two jazz concerts are identical, and Sands believes this is partly to do with the fact that no two audiences are ever the same; the audience, therefore, is a crucial ingredient in what makes jazz a living, breathing experience. “The intent is the same: to have fun and go on journeys and tell stories,” he said. “Now what those journeys and stories will be when we get there, that depends on the audience.
“The great thing about jazz is that it’s a warm, welcoming type of music, and so everyone goes on a journey. We don’t know what’s going to happen because the audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen.”
“Jazz is a vehicle for collaboration and inventiveness, [and] we will feed off [audience] energy,” added trumpeter Skonberg, who says she looks forward to Maryland crab cakes before or after the gig. “It’s going to be really thoughtful and joyous music that gets you moving in your seat, but also gives a really meaningful experience.”
“It’s going to be fun,” Sands concurred. “We’re an educative bunch, so as we perform, we also educate if you listen.
“I look like I’m the same age as the kids, so I’m sure they’ll identify with that.”
The Music Center at Strathmore & Washington Performing Arts co-present, Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Bria Skonberg, Melissa Aldana, Christian Sands, Yasushi Nakamura and Jamison Ross at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 21 at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. For tickets, ranging from $38 to $68, call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org.