LifestyleYoung pianists honor Duke Ellington's music at Kennedy Center

Young pianists honor Duke Ellington’s music at Kennedy Center

Pianists Justin Kauflin, José André Montaño, and Matthew Whitaker showed the legacy of Duke Ellington’s music is in good hands, in their recent performance “Three Keys to Ellington,” on April 26 at the Kennedy Center.

Justin Kauflin performed for the “Three Keys to Ellington” concert on April 26 as a part of the Kennedy Center’s “Ellington 125” series. He performed “All Too Soon,” one of Ellington’s compositions. (Courtesy of Yassine El Mansouri, Elman Studio)
The artists are a part of the VSA International Young Musicians Competition, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability program of the Kennedy Center. The program focuses on identifying, amplifying, and celebrating the work of young musicians living with disabilities. For 23 years, the program has been headed by Betty Seigal.

 “I met these young men when they were beginning their careers,” said Seigal. “ I‘ve always thought it would be cool to have these three jazz musicians on stage in the same evening and see where their energy would take them.”

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Energy defines Kauflin, 38, Whitaker, 23, and Montaño 19. The three guys were upbeat and funny in an exclusive interview with the Washington Informer before their Kennedy Center concert. 

Each pianist performed a solo set of compositions by Ellington or music by other artists that captured the spirit of the celebrated artist. They all have specific feelings about the “Ellington 125” series that led to what they selected to play. 

Whitaker, who lives in New Jersey and tours regularly, made his musical director debut last year for the award-winning “Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For,” a musical about the life of the title character, a pianist, composer, and Ellington collaborator. 

The artist summed up what cannot be forgotten about Ellington. 

“He influences a lot of musicians, even those who are not into jazz,” Whitaker said. “I want people to know that Duke was not alone. Billy Strayhorn was also a huge part.”

Matthew Whitaker performs at the “Three Keys to Ellington” concert on April 26 as part of the Kennedy Center’s “Ellington 125” series. One of the Ellington compositions he performed was “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” In addition to playing the piano, Whitaker also performs with a Nord Wave 2 keyboard on top of it. (Courtesy of Yassine El Mansouri, Elman Studio)
Kauflin is a faculty member at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Virginia, where he teaches jazz ensemble and improv. He was mentored by the late trumpeter, flugelhornist and NEA Jazz Master Clark Terry. Kauflin was featured in and composed the film score for the Oscar short-listed documentary, “Keep On Keepin’ On,” (2014), which highlighted his friendship with Terry.

The teaching artist and musician acknowledged that Ellington’s influence is everywhere. 

“He’s omnipresent,” Kauflin said. “I was lucky enough to have spent time with a member of his band, Clark Terry, who gave me good insight about his body of work. It’s not just jazz. He was a part of sacred music and even Broadway productions. He was like an impresario with the personality behind it.”

Montaño is based in D.C. and is in his final weeks before graduating from Duke Ellington School for the Arts. He recently celebrated his birthday with a sold-out crowd at the historic Blues Alley in Georgetown. Between juggling gigs, Montaño is working on his decision about where he will go to college.

The Duke Ellington student spoke about his high school’s namesake and the jazz legend’s approach to big band music. 

“In terms of big band music, he definitely has influenced me and orchestra writing,” Montaño said. “I love how he used different voicings. He’s motivated me to direct my own big band in the future.”

Source: Washington Informer


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