The “Heather Report”: Heather Pinson Remembers 2010’s Jazz Poetry Concert

by    /  September 29, 2010  / No comments

Oliver Lake’s Big Band, Photo © Renee Rosensteel

“Ok fellas, listen up. My name is Heather Pinson. I have a Ph.D., and I teach at Robert Morris University; but tonight I’ll be taking out the trash and looking after you fine gentlemen. I’ll let you know when you go on stage, when your cues are, and the like, but I don’t respond to egos. Check those at the door. You’ve got fifteen minutes before places, so time to lock and load.”

These were the first words I spoke to a room full of the most talented musicians I have ever met. The seventeen jazz musicians comprised Oliver Lake’s Big Band and were scheduled to perform that night for City of Asylum’s annual Jazz Poetry concert. I had asked to work backstage, as I had the previous year, in order to rub shoulders with some of the most famous jazz musicians of our time. Besides, I had just recently published The Jazz Image (University Press of Mississippi), a book on jazz photography, and perhaps I had earned the right to hang with such esteemed performers. By dropping names of their predecessors and current critics, I might be able to pick their collective brain on the state of jazz today–a plaguing question for those in the modern jazz world. After all, these are musicians who are living models of success, capable of sustaining a career on their musicality alone.

My confidence was wiped clean, however, upon my arrival at Pittsburgh’s New Hazlett Theater where I read a brief bio on each musician found in the concert program. Many of the performers are full time music professors who teach at well-known universities such as Columbia, the New School, and CUNY in New York. In addition, they win awards, obtain endorsements from major music labels, tour regularly–nationally and internationally–and have performed with such pop stars as Aretha Franklin, Lionel Hampton, Lenny Kravitz, Rufus Wainwright, and Queen Latifah, not to mention jazz greats like Sun Ra, Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, McCoy Tyner, Billy Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Clark Terry, the Count Basie Orchestra, the Mingus Big Band, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Oliver Lake’s Big Band, Photo © Renee Rosensteel

I felt a lump rise in my throat as I entered into the green room where the musicians dawdled around, blowing through spit valves and rustling sheet music. Some were wolfing down dinner when my abrupt speech caught them in mid-bite. Some froze open-mouthed while I barked out orders in an attempt to shroud my intimidation through attitude and sass.

After my brazen announcements, the musicians perked up and began to sass back with endearing names as the “trash lady” or the “Heather Report.” Once on stage, the light and charismatic mood of the instrumentalists yielded to the serious nature of this evening’s program.

The mixture of five spoken languages intermingling with musical improvisation sparked a moment of the sublime in everyone in attendance. Words filled with imagery inspired the mind while sound filled with purpose inspired the soul. “What a night,” I thought. “What a gathering of talent.”

At 2am that same evening, I found myself promising to visit in New York and hugged my new friends as they headed back to their hotel. We exchanged books for CDs, words for jazz licks, and laughs for deep appreciation. I am not sure when I will be able to hear the majestic grooves of Oliver Lake’s Big Band again, but I know I will remember this night for a long time.

Heather Pinson, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Arts at Robert Morris University
And author of The Jazz Image: Seeing Music Through Herman Leonard’s Photography.

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