The Valley Line: Orchestra brings the heat

For all of you summer lovers, at last you have been able to revel in the heat. The beginning of the week was exactly as August should be — HOT!

Last Saturday night a sliver of a moon shone brightly with the planet Jupiter twinkling nearby, when the Pasadena Pops orchestra presented "All that Jazz," conducted by Maestra Rachael Worby.

Opening up the jazzy night was vocalist Valarie Pettiford, who began her set with her sizzling rendition of the John Kander/Fred Ebb song, "And All that Jazz." Pettiford is not a newcomer to the Pops stage and once again she wowed the audience with her powerhouse presentations of "Le Jazz Hot," "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Life is just a Bowl of Cherries."

Next up for more serious jazz lovers, Worby conducted the orchestra in three pieces by jazz great Thelonious Monk arranged by Pops musician Alan Steinberger. The three Monk compositions played that evening were: "Blue Monk," "Mysterioso" and "Midnight Special."

An interesting side note about Monk is that he is only one of five musicians to appear on the cover of Time magazine — the others being Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis.

Just before the intermission, the orchestra paid homage to George Gershwin and his great masterpiece, "Porgy and Bess," that is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its Broadway opening.

At its 1935 opening the Broadway cast was made up of classically trained African American singers — a daring and visionary artistic choice at the time. The music incorporated blues and jazz idioms fashioned into the classical art form of opera. I can't think of a person that I know who doesn't love at least one of the songs from "Porgy and Bess."

After the Pops' musical break, when concert-goers table-hopped to chat with friends about their summer stories, everyone settled in for more beautiful music that began with a Duke Ellington medley. Prominent in this tribute was "Take the A Train" written by Billy Strayhorn. Ellington was so impressed with the song that he made it his orchestra's theme song.

As to how the song got written: The first time Ellington heard the young pianist Billy Strayhorn was when his band passed through Pittsburgh in 1938. The bandleader promised to stay in touch, but neither called or wrote. Finally, Strayhorn called Ellington's office and was told the band was playing in Harlem. The directions to the club were very specific: "Take the A train to Sugar Hill." In 1939, Strayhorn made the trip from Pittsburgh to New York and took the A train up to Harlem. Ellington was impressed both by the young man's initiative and his musicality, and put him on the payroll. It was from this experience that "Take the A Train" was born.

The concert ended with George Gershwin's famed "Rhapsody in Blue," featuring Cuban-born jazz pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, who was making his Pasadena Pops debut.

Rodriguez, a promising pianist, decided to leave his birth country and his family to pursue his music dream. He defected from Cuba in January 2009.

It has been difficult for Rodriguez to be away from his family, and he said, "Everyone has a destiny; mine is music. I decided to come here for better or for worse because of music and only for music. Of course I miss my family and my country, but I'm following my music, which is what I've done my whole life."

Rodriguez honored Gershwin's "Rhapsody" beautifully and dramatically. I'm certain we will be hearing so much more from this young man who is so passionate about his music.

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