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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Don Getsug

Photo by Don Getsug

This Friday and Saturday, May 16th and 17th, 2014, alto saxophonist Greg Ward will present a musical tribute to artist and mentor Preston Jackson as part of The Jazz Gallery 2013-14 Residency Commissions. Greg is the second artist to be featured in this year’s season of saxophonic commissions following Ben Wendel, who performed his commissioned work in February. Next month, we’ll be presenting both Godwin Louis and Ben van Gelder as the next two artists in the series.

We spoke to Greg last month as he was beginning his residency, and we followed up with him earlier this week to get a sense of how things went. We’re excited to hear what he’s come up with and hope that you’ll join us to welcome him back to our stage.

The Jazz Gallery: Last month, you mentioned looking forward to writing for septet; in writing for this medium-sized group, how did you negotiate a balance between spontaneous improvisation and preconceived, written material?

Greg Ward: Well, I try to just write the music: what I want to have set and written. Then when I want to begin to orchestrate the ideas for the ensemble, I try to find space where it would fit musically for people to explore. I try to find space where we can expand on what I’d already written, so once I had a clear idea of what I wanted written down and I began to put it together, I knew where it’d be appropriate to have some sort of solo section or other moments of improvisation.

Also, when we got a chance to get together and rehearse the material—that let me get a clearer picture of how the musicians would all sound together. Once you get an idea of how they respond to what you write, you can say, “Oh, this space would work well for this player and for his personality to interpret the music.” So that was the biggest factor after getting a chance to hear what I wrote down and seeing what they did with it. I want everybody to express themselves.

TJG: You also mentioned a film for the Preston Jackson project. Could you say a bit more about that aspect of the project?

GW: In February, I believe, we went down to Peoria, Illinois and did interviews with Preston. We got some footage of him doing some work, some painting, some welding, and we went around the city of Peoria and also Chicago and shot some of his work. My wife, Diana, put together an amazing film, so to be in the house watching it come together… we had a few hours of material that we recorded, but to watch her really edit it down to a cohesive story that’s about 12 minutes long was an amazing process to see.

We collected the material in February and now things are really coming together with other photos we received after the fact from Preston. We’re trying to decide from all the material how we can get across a picture of the person we’ll be paying tribute to in a very short amount of time.

TJG: Will the film be a part of the performances this weekend?

GW: Yes. We’ll show the film before the music for each set.

TJG: Without giving too much away, could you give our audience a preview of some of the material you’ll be performing?

GW: All the music is based on the life and the work of Preston, as well as our interaction as a friend and my mentor. There are a few pieces that I based the music off of, or they were inspired by some of his works. There are three works in particular:

One is a public sculpture called “Knocking On Freedom’s Door,” which is like a 20-foot high sculpture that commemorates the lives of two Peoria residents who had a house in the downtown area, which was a safe house for hunted slaves during the Underground Railroad. People would be traveling from the South and they could stay at the house as they headed north to recapture their freedom.

There’s a painting called “Strikebreaker,” which is about the stockyard strikes of 1904 in Chicago and how this was an opportunity. It allowed African-Americans into the workforce because the stockyard workers were striking and trying to get their work conditions made better with higher wages. To thwart their efforts to unionize across racial lines, the owners of the companies hired strikebreakers—specifically African-Americans—because they didn’t want them to unionize across racial lines. The owners were trying to keep their workers from unionizing, but it also gave African-Americans entrance into the work force.

The last piece is a bronze sculpture called “Who Am I?” and you’ll just have to see that. It’s a big bronze sculpture of a woman with these different masks, and she’s questioning who she is.

Another component of this project was working with Brianna Thomas on the lyrics; she’s doing lyrics on three songs. It was really great getting together with her to talk about our ideas of what Preston was trying to express and getting her perspective on what she saw in the pieces, and doing the research on the historical facts that Preston pulled from to create the pieces. That was a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to sharing that with everybody.

TJG: How would you define a “mentor?”

GW: A mentor is somebody who might notice something about you that maybe needs some nourishment or encouragement, and they provide that. Hopefully these mentors have the right spirit for it and they give freely and guide you, which is exactly what Preston did. He’s a great musician, and I think he noticed that I was hungry to play early on so he gave me many opportunities to work with him.

We practiced together, we talked about music, about recordings, and that moved onto more conceptual things through his art because he’s such a master artist. He really taught me how to see things visually or to hear things visually. He’d paint and describe the strokes he was painting in musical notes or different sounds, and these are different things that at an early age was great because I didn’t have anybody in school encouraging me to think this way. It was really a great mentorship for me and just at the right age where you could tell me something or have me do something, and I could jump right in and try it without hesitation.

TJG: What have you been checking out lately?

GW: I’m big into Game of Thrones, Mad Men…I was a huge Breaking Bad fan, but that’s over with. I’m really checking out Mahler’s 9th Symphony and I’m having fun reading this Bartok book that is basically a biography of his life when he moved to America. It’s not really much of a detailed history of his music, but he had a friend who he made when he moved over from Hungary, and this woman tells her story of her interaction with Bartok and his wife. It’s a fun book to read because you get to see the person rather than just a historical, detailed account of his music, so that’s what I’m into. It’s called Bela Bartok: The American Years.

Greg Ward will present a musical tribute to the life and work of artist Preston Jackson this Friday and Saturday, May 16th and 17th, 2014. Ward will appear as part of The Jazz Gallery 2013-14 Residency Commissions. Joining him will be Brianna Thomas on vocals, Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on tenor saxophone, Dave Miller on guitar, John Escreet on piano, Zack Lober on bass, and Kenneth Salters on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. $22 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here. 

The Jazz Gallery’s Residency Commission 2013-2014 is supported in part by a funding from the Jerome Foundation with additional supports from the New York State Council on the Arts and Department of Cultural Affairs of New York City.