Last night, in a one-of-a-kind evening at Coral Springs Center for the Arts, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Bands Director Alexander Kaminsky summarized the mood in the building when he told the energized audience, “Bad things happen in this world. The band at Marjory Stoneman Douglas has chosen how to respond.” After a hearty applause break, he added, “We have to make the world a better place, and this is going to do that.”
This, in Kaminsky’s statement, referred to the night’s three-hour concert—four hours, if you count the pre-show performance in the courtyard—called “What We Play is Life.” The MSD music department traditionally stages a public jazz program at the end of every school year, usually at the Heron Bay Marriott in Coral Springs. But this is not an ordinary year. Instead of canceling the performance in light of the tragic events of Feb. 14, the high school tripled down, transforming the jazz students’ showcase into a star-studded, sold-out concert at the area’s largest performing arts center.
The festive atmosphere began at 6 p.m. outside the venue, when the Coral Springs Middle School jazz band entertained an appreciate crowd that noshed on generously portioned apps from the Cheesecake Factory. Rarely are the hors d’oeuvres at an event worth mentioning, but the Factory went above and beyond the expected, delivering two slider options, two vegetarian options, salad and pot stickers and three cheesecake options. They were cooked and served by more than two-dozen members of an all-volunteer army of Cheesecake Factory staff, who donated their time for the good cause. (Monies raised from the event benefited the MSD and Coral Springs Middle music programs and the Alex Schachter Scholarship Fund.)
The loose conviviality of the event was obvious from the get-go, when I nearly bumped shoulders with Herbie Hancock, me leaving the VIP area, he entering it for photo ops, and looking a quarter-century younger than his 78 years. The 14-time Grammy-winning piano virtuoso would headline the event with a pair of his compositions, but he was far from the only marquee name to take the stage.
Following the first half of the program, which saw enthusiastic takes on numbers like Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” and Rodgers & Hart’s “Bewitched,” the organizers brought out the heavy hitters for nine tunes heavy on improvisational solos and harmonious cohesion alike. Supplemented by vocals from “Voice” contestant Karina Iglesias, the band performed a samba/bossa nova medley, with a conguero’s hands dancing swiftly across drums until they found the rhythms of “Tequila,” Tito Puente’s “Oye Coma Va” and other familiar, dance-able favorites.
Vocalist Bobby Rodriguez contributed a velvety, Vegas-ready rendition of “Luck Be a Lady,” and Lincoln Center jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon brought the house down with two of his original compositions: the swampy blues of “Somebody New” and “We’re Still Here—He’s Alright.” Paquito D’Rivera, a living legend of Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz, brought a playful spirit to Astor Piazzola’s “Libertango” and his own tribute to Dizzy Gillespie, “I Remember Diz,” frolicking across the stage with his clarinet for an audience-interactive excerpt from “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
Finally, it was time for Hancock, who preceded his performance with heartfelt comments for the students: “You know what I feel up here? Along with their creativity, it’s their courage and their compassion. The kids in this school are my heroes, and they will not stop until things are right in this country.” He then sat for one of his signature compositions, “Maiden Voyage,” his fingers gliding gracefully and mellifluously over the keys. The night concluded with an encore in which the future stars of MSD’s Jazz Band 1 each received a solo, conductor Matt Calderin took a dynamic turn behind the drum kit, and Hancock exchanged melodies during a sonic conversation with MSD guitarist Marcus Lecky.
One could feel nothing but love emanating from the stage, and the emotions went both ways. Wycliffe Gordon said, “I want to take this band with me on the road.” Hancock and D’Rivera were likewise impressed by the students’ abilities; they seemed to be as privileged to share the stage with them as the other way around.
This concert borrowed its name from a famous quote by Louis Armstrong: “Jazz is like life. It’s the melody of life, and what we play is life.” Music can’t bring back the 17 lives lost at Parkland. But I can’t think of a better way to honor their memory and celebrate life than at this lovely, exuberant affirmation.