Canadian Brass

Have you ever heard the Canadian Brass play? Not only do they play wonderful classical chamber music, they also play great jazz, and Luther Henderson is the man reponsible for hundreds of their “jazz” arrangements. I am working on a biography of Luther’s life, and I didn’t know much about his relationship with the Canadian Brass unil after the fact. Here’s a brief excerpt from my introduction — I was describing a memorial concert/gathering that took place in Los Angeles almost a year after his death:

The most amazing performance of the afternoon came from the Canadian Brass, a primarily classical ensemble of five musicians. They began their tribute to Luther with an appropriately jazz-tinged rendition of Amazing Grace, after which Billie playfully called out, “Who’s arrangement was that?” knowing full well that it was Luther’s. And Anne Edwards called out, “I bet he’s listening to you out there.”

Chuck, one of the trumpet players, spoke about how Luther was their “link between the [jazz] tradition and five guys who went to classical music school and studied Bach.” He explained how Luther’s belief in what was jazz differed from that of Wynton Marsalis. “Wynton made a statement that I think he subsequently softened – ‘if it ain’t improvised, it ain’t jazz’ – and Luther felt like the improvisations he could do for us would be an organized cogent improvisation that would then be codified. It would become the classical music that could be handed down.”

But Luther also loved what is commonly referred to as classical music, music in the European tradition by the old masters. Introducing their second piece, Chuck said, “Bach being very important to Luther, he requested somewhere along the line that it was our duty to perform the Toccata and Fugue in D minor in his honor, which we will fulfill this afternoon.”

The piece in question is a keyboard work, one with which Luther was totally familiar, and Chuck added, “I think he was amazed that we would play this at all on brass instruments.” Hearing a Bach piano piece rendered by two trumpets, a French horn, a trombone, and a tuba was certainly different, and Luther’s arrangement was both clever and delightful.

“We play Luther Henderson’s music every night,” Gene, the trombone player, told us. “He hasn’t missed a concert for at least twenty years. So we feel an attachment to him, and you can imagine it’s sort of emotional. Without Luther, there would have been no Canadian Brass. We feel that strongly.”

And with that, they launched into their final selection, an arrangement Luther had written for them early on, called Saints Hallelujah. Despite the fact that it was a memorial service of sorts, the atmosphere was festive, and I heard Billie say, “My favorite.” In this arrangement, the trombone leads off solo, and is then joined by the tuba. Meanwhile, the other three horns execute a few choreographed steps across stage, followed by an elaborately gesticulated preparation for what we anticipate to be their next musical entrance. They moved their horns toward their lips, but it’s a fake out, and instead of brass notes we heard them shout, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah.” The audience roared. Smiles were wide, even through an occasional tear, and that was how Luther would have liked it.

Creating a medley with When the Saints Go Marching In, a traditional New Orleans funeral parade song, with the classic Hallelujah Chorus, not only illustrates Luther’s humor and mischievous pleasure in tickling an audience, but it also epitomizes his desire to bridge the jazz and classical worlds. Luther agreed with his dear friend and collaborator, Duke Ellington, when Duke said that there are only two kinds of music: good, and the other kind. I thought about the work that Luther had done for Duke in the 1940s, and the monumental symphonic Ellington project he had completed for Sir Simon Rattle and the Birmingham Symphony in Great Britain just a few years ago. On the surface you might say that it began and ended with Duke, and while to limit it thus would be a disservice to the outpouring of Luther’s talent that filled the decades in between, it is true that Duke did play an elemental role in Luther’s career.

When I’m working on a piece about a musical artist I like to listen to their work while I’m writing. One CD that is now often playing in my office is the Canadian Brass’ Take the A Train: The Best of Duke Ellington You might also enjoy reading the tribute to Luther on the Canadian Brass web site.