It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

That was just one of the lessons imparted by Pulitzer Prize–winning jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis during Friday’s Jazz for Young People program, held at the regional high school Performing Arts Center. The program lasted one hour but contained enough swing and spark to keep audiences tapping their toes all day.

Mr. Marsalis, who was in town to perform at the Tabernacle the following evening, was joined onstage by the full jazz orchestra from the Lincoln Center in New York city. Together they presented “Who is Duke Ellington?”, a program that guides the crowd through the late Mr. Ellington’s life, from his early years in Washington, D.C., to his importance as a composer.

Mr. Marsalis is the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and frequently takes the Jazz for Young People programs on the road as part of his larger commitment to musical outreach and education. The goal is to “nurture the spark of [musical] interest” in younger generations, said Alex Knowlton, manager of programming and touring at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Besides the Duke Ellington curriculum, Mr. Marsalis has also presented “Who Is A Jazz Singer,” “Who is Dave Brubeck?”, “What is Improvisation?” and “What is a Big Band?”

The programs are essentially concerts, but include a few life lessons, as well. In the case of Friday’s program, they were drawn from Mr. Ellington’s own philosophies.

Be the world’s greatest listener.

Be a number one yourself and not a number two somebody else.

“I really want y’all to repeat this,” Mr. Marsalis said at one point. “I want you to carry this with you — be yourself.” The audience loudly repeated the directions.
Jazz for Young People is intended for those in second grade and older, and most of the crowd fit the bill. More than 70 campers from the YMCA were in attendance, and more than 700 people in total.

The jazz orchestra performed several Ellington compositions during the program, but each was broken down first by Mr. Marsalis. For Mood Indigo the background lighting changed to a bright blue and Mr. Marsalis explained the typical structure of a jazz song.  

The clarinet plays “up high” in the registers and the heavy trombone plays down low, he said. “The greatest of all instruments, the trumpet, plays in the middle, so everyone can hear it,” he said to laughter from the audience and exaggerated exasperation from the orchestra on stage. Three musicians stepped to the front of the stage to demonstrate.

But it didn’t sound right, Mr. Marsalis said. The clarinet sound was lost.

“So Duke created a new color,” Mr. Marsalis said. “I hate to say it, but he muted the trombone and the trumpet . . . he brought out the [sounds] hidden in the clarinet — he brought it out!”

The musicians played again and now the rich clarinet tones filled the auditorium. The crowd clapped and cheered.

“That was beautiful — have mercy,” Mr. Marsalis said.

The trumpet got its chance to shine during the program as well. Mr. Marsalis demonstrated an improvised solo and explained what a riff was. He pulled “the great Marcus Printel” up from the orchestra so Mr. Printel could demonstrate how to mute a trumpet and make its sound change.

Mr. Printel moved the mute so the trumpet wailed. Then he changed the mood and made the trumpet laugh.

A girl in the audience poked her friend. “That really sounded like a laugh,” she said. “That was awesome.”

Mr. Marsalis later encouraged the audience to help him and the orchestra out with the Big Four jazz beat: “One, two, three, four; one, two, three, FOUR,” he demonstrated, clapping his hands and stomping his foot loudly on the final word.

The audience tentatively clapped along, and Mr. Marsalis kept up the encouragement.

“You all got to do better than that!” he said. “More clap on that second beat.” The crowd clapped louder, ramping up the enthusiasm.

“That’s beautiful, okay — we’re going to take you on the road with us,” Mr. Marsalis said.

“I really liked the music, it was really groovy,” said Emmanuel Butler, 8, of Schenectady, N.Y., who attended with his cousins David and Gabrielle Hill and Millicent Day.

David, who used to play clarinet, said he hadn’t know the instrument could play such high notes. He knew Duke Ellington’s name before the program, he said, but wasn’t familiar with the music itself.

“They did such a marvelous job,” said David and Gabrielle’s mother, Lynn Moore Hill. “I liked the fact that he broke the pieces apart so they could hear all of the parts.”

“We want to do it next year,” said Sing Lathan of Black Line Productions, who produced the show through collaboration with Jazz at the Lincoln Center. She said the groups reached out to the YMCA summer camp this year, and hoped to include more summer programs in the audience next year.

“It was great to fill that space with just kids, and seeing both the kids and the musicians smile,” she said.

For photos from Mr. Marsalis' concert on Saturday night, visit the gallery: Wynton Marsalis Performs at the Tabernacle