Hamburg – start of tour with NDR BigBand!

We arrived in Hamburg to do the final rehearsals for our new Duke Ellington program. Hamburg’s heading into fall and winter, so it was expectedly overcast and grey, and could have given us a real good sprinkle of rain, but not quite yet. The trees hadn’t moved into their autumn golds and reds yet, but it was on the way soon. The first time I came here, in 1976, I had been a Californian for more than ten years, and even then, looked forward to the changing seasons, like at home in Wisconsin. I was enjoying this cool fall weather, with leaves about to change, and in my mind, bringing on a kind of early pre-Christmas season (in high school, the acapella choir helped all this notion by rehearsing Christmas music, which would make you feel the spirit of Christmas for a long long Christmas eve starting the first day of the fall semester). So here we were again, I was beginning to have a bit of that spirit in me, but this time we would be rehearsing the Ellington program.

It seemed like such a long way off when we began those first exploratory rehearsals with arrangements which were still in formation, back sixteen months ago… but abracadabra. Here we were, three rehearsal days from the opening night. The NDR BigBand (Nord Duetscher Rundfunk) and it’s organization has been around since 1946. They fell in love with American jazz, and studied it, and practiced it, and played it, and you would think these guys from little towns in Germany were all from Chicago, Harlem, or St. Louis. That’s how well they play  jazz. I became deeply aware of this when Joe Sample and I did a tour with them a few years ago. They did Joe’s entire album called “Children of the Sun”  (a poetic name for slaves), and I did songs from Porgy and Bess. It was a big success. When someone suggested that we think about doing the Ellington songbook, I was shouting, “Let’s go!” And here we are, just finishing opening night, tired and out of breath, but thrilled with the reaction of my home audience in Hamburg.

They opened the doors for me in all of Europe, and as a matter a fact, helped open up a lot of doors in America during my early career, when the U.S. began to get word that one of their very own was knocking it out of the park in Europe. Berlin, Paris, Rome, Madrid, etc. And so we arrived to put the finishing touches on rehearsal stuff and start the tour. I’ve been doing this stuff for fifty years, boys and girls, but let me assure you, this had me shakin’ in my boots! Ellington was not entirely new to me, but these arrangements are a real challenge. Jorg Keller, our arranger and conductor for the program, really set his genius and brilliance to work, and came up with some show stopping beautiful stuff. Every band solo was accompanied by interesting and new cordial voicings, and then big band shouts and hits, and the soloing is as good as it gets! If I can just get me to cooperate, remember lines, entrances and exits, we will be ok. I would have been happy if that opening night in Hamburg was just “ok.” Well, it was over the moon. It was out of sight, and Hamburg welcomed me back home with their own NDR Big Band, with thunder response. I had worried and fretted about how I would make that journey from the stage door, twelve yards down stage, towards the audience, down two steps, and then fifteen yards across the stage. That was Mount Kilimanjaro for me! I was exhausted by the time I got to position for my note, except they applauded me the whole way, making me feel good about the “the effort”… making the effort. I’m aware of all of this now as we sit here and talk, but at the time, it was a bit clouded by the fact that I was praying so hard, “Oh, dear God, let me sing this stuff correctly tonight.”

I don’t want to give away the entire program for the evening, but we did do “Drop me off in Harlem”, and “Take the A Train”, and included a Brubeck composition called “The Duke”. It was an intermission program, and I was stunned how quickly the intermission came and went, and we did a second half of great adventuresome arrangements of Jorg Keller, with wonderful solos, and by then, I could feel and had a sense of the audience being in a “wow” mood and mode.

At the end of the program, they stood up and wouldn’t stop clapping until we were obviously headed toward and encore. Well, we did a few, including “Take 5”. The audience response was as much as I’ve ever felt for any performance. I can still feel a real return of love to this audience and Hamburg. I can’t find the words, but suffice it to say that I’m thrilled with this reunion. I couldn’t sleep. Grinning all night long. I did some autographs backstage and said hello to Werner, and to Gerrit Glaner from Steinway & Sons… but it didn’t stop there.  Just before boarding the plane the next day, I met with Petra. She had been at the concert, and she could not stop grinning and smiling and laughing, and gave me such a strong, heartfelt, warm handshake, I thought, “wow! I can’t wait to get on stage and do it again!” Ok… I’m done with superlatives… for now! Thank you, Hamburg. I love you so much! Next stop, Norway!

-Al Jarreau

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