February 25, 2008
It was a swinging good time at the Pyramids this past week and no, we’re not talking about a bluesy New Orlean’s juke joint, we’re talking the real thing, the Great Pyramids of Giza.
The 17-member Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO) is just back from a whirlwind, seven-night festival that took them to Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt.
“It was the big experience of everyone’s life in the ensemble,” enthused John Hasse, the National Museum of American History’s curator of American music, who said that the event was broadcast on the Arab language news network, al Jazeera.
Called “Jazz on the Nile,” the tour was pegged almost to the day when Louis Armstrong, himself, raised his trumpet and performed in front of the sphinx in 1961. A famous photograph recalls the moment.
The orchestra, conducted by the renowned David N. Baker, professor of music at Indiana University and NEA jazz master, was accompanied by singer Delores King Williams and two swing and tap dancers Chester Whitmore and Shaunte Johnson. Playing a repertoire selected from the museum’s collection of Duke Ellington and Benny Carter, the ensemble hit a note of perfection when it ripped into Ellington’s “Take the A Train.” Whitmore and Johnson in full swing reinacted choreagraphy of the period.
“The audience just went wild” said the museum’s director Brent Glass, “one couple danced in the aisle.”
“It was quite an extravaganza,” said Ken Kimery, SJMO’s executive producer, “we performed at the pyramids and did two concerts in Cairo and finished it off at the Alexandria Opera House.” Band members also conducted workshops with school children. “We bridged the language barrier. We were all speaking just one language,” Kimery said. “Music.”
The tour was sponsored by the Ministries of Culture and Tourism of the Egyptian government and the U.S. State Department.
(Photographs of Director Brent Glass, and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, courtesy of the National Museum of American History)
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