Wallmann and Ellington: Jazz Notes from UW-Madison

Jazz fans, take note. It’s time for some opportunities and remembrances.

This Thursday, June 20, jazz pianist and UW Director of Jazz Studies Johannes Wallmann will be performing live on Wisconsin Public Radio with tenor saxophonist great Eric Koppa, playing an hour of duets on Norman Gilliland’s Midday show. The concert airs live from noon to 1:00 pm on WPR’s News and Classical Music network (in Madison, WERN-FM 88.7).

Johannes Wallmann
Johannes Wallmann
Photo by Mike Anderson.

Wallmann and Koppa will be premiering two new compositions by Wallmann, “Water Music (for People without Aquariums)” and “A House for Men and Birds,” written for an upcoming recording session with his New York-based quintet and a tour of New England in July. The duo will also explore a couple of jazz standards, “Stella by Starlight,” and from My Fair Lady, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” as well as Eric Koppa’s “Regions.”

Meanwhile, this year’s Isthmus Jazz Festival has a strong UW component. The UW Jazz Orchestra under Wallmann’s direction will play at the Memorial Union at 6 pm on Saturday, June 22. Following that, festival headliner Carmen Lundy will perform at our own Mills Hall, Saturday, June 22, at 8 pm.

The Jazz Orchestra will be accompanied by special guest composer and bassist Marcus Shelby, of San Francisco.  Wallmann, a pianist, will perform as a special guest with the Edgewood College Big Band and with the Madison Jazz Orchestra.

Last but not least, the UWs connection with jazz great Duke Ellington was explored recently in a Wisconsin Public Radio segment that aired on May 24, the anniversary of Ellington’s death. Written and recorded by Dean Robbins, editor of Madison’s weekly, Isthmus.

Duke Ellington’s Portrait of Wisconsin

by Dean Robbins

“It’s hard to imagine a time when Duke Ellington was underrated. Almost 40 years after his death, we take it for granted that Ellington is one of America’s greatest composers. Arguably the greatest. He explored the possibilities of a jazz orchestra, taking it far beyond dance music. His records proved that such humble sounds as growling trombones and wailing saxophones could figure into a grand artistic vision.

“But in Ellington’s heyday, the cultural gatekeepers weren’t used to seeing jazz as art. To them, it sounded too earthy to be important. Duke would receive no Pulitzer Prizes when he created his masterpieces in the 1930s and ‘40s. He would receive no federal grants when his band fell on hard times in the 1950s. Instead, he was forced to play background music at an ice show to pay the bills.

“This was also the era of segregation, of course, when a black musician like Ellington couldn’t even walk in a nightclub’s front door. Duke was a gracious man, and he took such indignities in stride. But the rest of us can be outraged on his behalf.

“Thankfully, Ellington did receive his share of official recognition late in his life. And believe it or not, one of his most glorious triumphs came in Wisconsin.


“In the early 1970s, the UW-Madison made an extraordinary gesture for the time. It granted Ellington an honorary doctorate and mounted a weeklong festival of his music. It even gave Duke and his band members the rare opportunity to conduct master classes. Best of all, Governor Patrick Lucey proclaimed Duke Ellington Week throughout the state. Ellington considered this one of the greatest honors he ever received. In his 70s, he was gaining long-overdue recognition as an American treasure.

“Duke proclaimed his undying love for Wisconsin – the beer, the cheese, and the people. He expressed his gratitude in a suite written just for us, called “UWIS.” It’s Duke’s musical portrait of the state, painted in a dazzling range of colors.

“The old master wasn’t resting on his laurels. He was still experimenting with jazz form, even scoring his first polka. The polka, as you can imagine, surprised and delighted the Wisconsin crowd when Ellington performed it at the UW festival.

“About ‘UWIS,’ Ellington said, ‘I tried to evoke some of the happiness that Wisconsin and the inhabitants of that state had given me.’

“Now there’s something to be proud of, fellow Wisconsinites. We made Duke Ellington happy.”

Click here to hear Dean’s commentary on WPR.

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