Cleveland Jazz Orchestra Remembers 1968 in Music

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Cleveland Jazz Orchestra launches its new season with a history lesson featuring music by John Lennon, Carole King and Jimmy Webb, which help tell the story of a pivotal year in U.S.

"We celebrate 1968, which is really an iconic year in American history in terms of post-war politics and also some of the music from the late 60s. It’s a period in jazz that’s quite interesting, we just thought that this was the time to bring it to light,” said Cleveland Jazz Orchestra artistic director Paul Ferguson.

These opening performances, which the CJO is billing “Dreams from 1968,” will feature jazz arrangements of several pieces from that era, including “Natural Woman,” “MacArthur Park” and “Revolution.” Ferguson, who arranged “Revolution,” said that song was a particularly good fit “because it is already a shuffle blues to which I added some extra ‘blue notes,’ and we set up Dan Bruce to take a sizzling guitar solo.”

For Ferguson, one of the highlights of “Dreams from 1968” will be the Cleveland premiere of three sections of “The Kennedy Dream,” a suite that composer Oliver Nelson wrote in 1967 to honor the late President John Kennedy. Ferguson said he was inspired to include the piece as part of this year’s concert after playing a concert that featured another Nelson work that celebrated a famous politician.

“Last year, I participated in a concert that (trumpeter) Dominick Farinacci put together, which included a piece that Nelson wrote in honor of the election of Carl Stokes in 1967 titled ‘The Mayor and The People.’ I thought if we do the ’68 program, we can do Oliver’s ‘The Kennedy Dream.’ I’m not too worried about which Kennedy gets most of the credit. We can remember Robert, who died in 1968, or JFK, who died in 1963. The three movements of the suite we’re doing are preceded by narration from some of President Kennedy’s speeches, which is quite inspiring.”

Ferguson is also excited about the arrangement he’s written that fuses two pieces from the late 1960s that celebrate freedom.

“I transcribed a Thad Jones piece called ‘Ah’ -That’s Freedom,’ which has elements of the blues and marches, and we combine that with a piece associated with Nina Simone, ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.’ It’s such a great combination.”

The second half of the medley has a group of special guests joining the CJO, which Ferguson says allows the band to achieve a larger objective as it starts the season.

“We’re just delighted to have the (Cleveland) School of the Arts Choir, led by Dr. William Woods, assisting us. It’s part of my goal to make the opening concert of the year, not just a great musical concert, but also in some ways to be one of the major cultural events of jazz in Cleveland throughout the whole year.”

Ferguson realizes that decades separate the students from the events of 1968, but feels that the students have a solid grasp of the year’s importance.

“I think these events are part of their cultural memory, perhaps a bit more than other people,” Ferguson said.

The Cleveland Jazz Orchestra’s “Dreams from 1968” concerts take place Saturday, at 8 p.m., at Blu Jazz+  and Sunday, at 6 p.m., at the Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square.

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