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HBCU musicians vying to open for Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is 'amazing opportunity'

Rob Cross: 'We’re going to do this every two years'
Jazz at Chrysler Hall
Wynton Marsalis Norfolk 2023
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Posted at 3:45 PM, Feb 26, 2023

NORFOLK, Va. -- Nine jazz ensembles from Historically Black Colleges and Universities competed in Norfolk, Saturday, for the chance to open for jazz great Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

The competition inside Chrysler Hall was judged by Marsalis and other musicians from his group, including trombonist Vincent Gardner, a native of Hampton. Of the groups competing, three represented the region's local HBCUs: Norfolk State University, Hampton University and Elizabeth City State University.

It came after a day of workshops and breakout sessions where the young musicians had the opportunity to play with the professionals.

The partnership was born two years ago, during Marsalis' last visit to the area.

"We had some time to talk and I said, ‘I have this idea for this project. Would you be interested?’ He said, ‘Let me talk to my team.’ He actually texted me back and said, ‘Come backstage between concerts.’ He said, ‘Yeah, let’s make this happen,'" said Rob Cross, Artistic Director for Virginia Arts Festival, the organization behind Friday's and Saturday's events and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's Saturday evening concert.

For Norfolk State drummer, Roderick Williams, a senior music major, it's the pinnacle of his collegiate career.

"Just to be on a platform to represent the university in a great way, you know, Wynton Marsalis (and) the opportunity to be judged by him and possibly open up for him if we win, is just an amazing opportunity," he said.

Hours later, Norfolk State University was announced as one of the winners, along with Benedict College.

Cross said he intends to keep the partnership going — connecting the next generation of jazz musicians, from the country's historically Black institutions, with the best jazz performers right now.

“We were lucky enough that this year it fell during Black History Month. We’re going to do this every two years," said Cross. "2025, it’ll actually be in May, right in the middle of the festival.”

Virginia Arts Festival has a series of events scheduled through March before the festival itself begins in May. Click HERE for more information.

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