Black History Month Concert at Idyllwild Arts: Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is featured

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Sumi Onoe, Idyllwild Arts Academy senior music student, plays George Gershwin’s groundbreaking symphonic jazz composition “Rhapsody in Blue” at the Black History Month Concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at Lowman Concert Hall. Photo by Kelly Davidson

By Marshall Smith

Staff Reporter

Idyllwild Arts Academy honors Black History Month with a concert featuring the Idyllwild Arts Academy Orchestra and jazz faculty head Marshall Hawkins’ Seahawk Modern Jazz Orchestra.

Black History Month is observed in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom for remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. In 1976, as part of the country’s bicentennial, the United States officially sanctioned the annual observance of Black History Month. President Gerald Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often-neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Featured at the Saturday, Feb. 18, IAA concert are two groundbreaking American musical compositions — William Grant Still’s 1930 “Afro-American Symphony No. 1 in A flat,” the first symphony written by an African-American and performed for a U.S. audience by a leading symphony orchestra. The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra premiered Still’s symphony in 1931. It is written for full orchestra, including celeste, harp and tenor banjo.

In each of four movements, Still uses quotes from black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first African-American writers to establish an international reputation. The New York Times called Dunbar “a true singer of the people — white or black.”

The final movement includes this non-dialect quote — “Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul, Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll, In characters of fire.”

Just as groundbreaking, but probably more familiar to wider audiences, is George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” premiered by Paul Whiteman’s Palais Royal Orchestra on Feb. 12, 1924, at Aeolian Hall in Manhattan. It was intended to be a public introduction to a new form, symphonic jazz, and was part of Whiteman’s educational offering, “An Experiment in Modern Music.” 

With Gershwin at the piano and important composers, including John Phillip Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff, in attendance, “Rhapsody” was enthusiastically received.

At the piano at the concert will be IAA music senior Sumi Onoe. She just won one of two top individual awards at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival in Boston. She is a gifted and versatile musician. Onoe said she is thrilled to be playing Gershwin’s iconic piece with full orchestra. Originally orchestrated by Ferde Grofé for the 1924 premiere, Onoe and the IAA Orchestra, under the direction of Scott Hosfeld, will be playing Grofé’s revised 1942 orchestration, the one most familiar to American audiences.

Idyllwild’s own jazz legend Marshall Hawkins will be featuring many of his distinguished jazz friends at the concert, including vocalist Sherry Williams; pianist, arranger and conductor John Rodby; master drummer and singer Najite Agindotan, guitarist Bob Boss; Latin percussionist Roy Gonzales, tenor sax man Charles Owens; drummer Brett Sanders; and, of course, Hawkins himself on bass.

True to jazz tradition, Hawkins and Seahawk MoJO’s section will be free form and flowing. It will include the music of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and the late Daniel Jackson, renowned sax player, and San Diego gentleman of jazz. “Daniel’s the only man I know who has an entire week dedicated to him by a major city [San Diego],” said Hawkins. “So it’s especially meaningful that we’ll also be featuring his student Alvin Paige [tenor sax] of the International Academy of Jazz, San Diego.”

Hawkins said some of his MoJO musicians will be sitting in with the IAA Orchestra in their two pieces.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, in Lowman Concert Hall on the Idyllwild Arts campus. It is open to the public and admission is free.

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