Heads bobbing like buoys in the open ocean, Jimmy Heath and Antonio Hart smile softly as pianist Jeb Patton works through a chord progression on one of Flushing Town Hall's baby grands.
Patton's face crinkles slightly as his fingers pour over the keys, miles of music theory working their way from his brain down his arms, until one collection of notes breaks Heath from his trance.
"Yeah, yeah, all right, that's nice," Heath says, a look of childlike wonder suddenly enveloping his face. "What did you do there? Write that out for me."
At 82, there is little that Heath has not accomplished in his career as a jazz saxophonist. During his 60-plus-year run, he has performed on more than 100 albums, written more than 125 compositions and played with a cast of musicians that reads like a list of legends from Dizzy Gillespe to Miles Davis. In 2003, he was awarded jazz's highest honor: the National Endowment for the Arts' Jazz Master Award.
But Heath will be the first to tell you that he can always learn something new.
"Music is an experience that's ongoing. You can learn from any source if you're open," he said. "Jazz music is an endless search. I don't know of a jazz musician that's not searching."
Heath has no plans of slowing down, either. On May 16, at Flushing Town Hall, he will introduce the Queens Jazz Orchestra, a 17-piece ensemble celebrating the borough's rich jazz history. He said that while New York City's jazz identity as a whole is widely celebrated, Queens, home to musical giants such as Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and himself, is often overlooked.
"I think it's long overdue for the people of this city, for the people of the world that like jazz, or even those that don't, to know what Queens gave to jazz," he said, fingering his weathered saxophone. "The history of jazz in Queens will no longer be a mystery."
In its inaugural performance, the Queens Jazz Orchestra will perform a mix of songs that both reflect on the past, replicating famous performances by Queens jazz greats, and look to the future as Heath premieres a Flushing Town Hall-commissioned work.
Flushing Town Hall Jazz Producer Clyde Bullard called the formation of the Queens Jazz Orchestra a historic moment for Queens and said he expects the group to play across the city's five boroughs in the coming months and eventually perform abroad.
"This is just the beginning," Bullard said.
Hart and Patton, who studied under Heath during his 11-year tenure as a professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, are among the 16 musicians who will join Heath for the orchestra's debut performance, scheduled for 8 p.m. on May 16.
Hart, now a professor at Queens College, said he hopes the Queens Jazz Orchestra will play an important role in exposing the borough's youth to jazz the way Wynton Marsalis's Lincoln Center program does across the East River.
"There's a demographic of people here that aren't going to get to Lincoln Center. Some young kid is going to be inspired by this, I guarantee," Hart said. "It's an American art form. There's something special there that's important."
Hart said jazz is a unique being in the realm of music, because its improvisational style requires a group to remain connected to one another within an environment constantly in flux.
"You have to surrender to the music and the ego has to be let go," he said. "It's a constant circle. No one part of the group is more important than another. If one person is out of line, then that circle doesn't spin."
"The music is always new because it's a new day. We're bringing the past and presenting it in a new light," Heath chimed in. "Dizzy Gillespe said, 'You've gotta have one foot in the past and one foot in the future.' "
And with that barely within a breath of finishing his sentence Heath stood up, marched over to the piano and began working his way through the chord progression his student had shown him just minutes earlier.
If You Go:
The Queens Jazz Orchestra "Corona Kings." With Jimmy Heath, conductor; regular core orchestra members Jeb Patton, Michael Mossman, Tony Purrone and Antonio Hart; and more.
When: May 16, 8 p.m.
Where: Main Stage, Flushing Town Hall, 137-35 Northern Blvd., Flushing
Cost: Members: $32; Non-members: $40
©2008 Community News Group
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