Jazz trumpet player and School of Music Ph.D. candidate Longineu Parsons spent the end of the fall semester touring in Europe as conductor and a central figure in a concert entitled The Cotton Club Show.
The show attempted to recreate the iconic 1920s-1940s Harlem nightclub, The Cotton Club, which was a predominantly white establishment although it featured many of the best black entertainers and jazz musicians of the era. Combining tap dancing with jazz music, The Cotton Club Show took place in Poland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Spain.
“Having lived in New York and having played this music for so long, I played with some of the people who really would have been at The Cotton Club,” said Parsons. “I toured with Cab Calloway, for example, and other people from that era.”
Some of the era’s hit tracks that Parsons had the chance to play were Minnie the Moocher by Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong’s Hello Dolly, What a Wonderful World and You Rascal You.
Parsons, who has years of performances under his belt, said this show stood out to him because it was a hybrid between a revue and a theatrical production. This meant that he had more freedom in his performance than he normally would have had if it were just a theatrical production.
“In theatrical productions there is almost no freedom. You have to do it this way every time and that’s the only way it can be done, period,” said Parsons. “This time I could take some liberties and improvise some things, and that’s an important part of what I do. I feel the moment and sometimes my improvisations take us to different places.”
One example of Parsons “feeling the moment” during the tour was when he arrived in Finland. He immediately recalled Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ famous hymn Finlandia. The composition was originally titled Finland Awakes in 1899 and performed as a patriotic finale piece in a series of tableaux illustrating Finland’s past. The tableaux were presented later that year as a part of the Press Celebrations, which were celebrations that contributed towards the resistance of Russian influence in Finland.
The music made an even deeper impact later in the year when four of the parts, including Finland Awakes, were performed again in concert. Finland Awakes soon came to be in great demand as a separate concert piece and Sibelius revised it in the following year, giving it the title Finlandia, as suggested in a letter from an anonymous admirer.
“As we were getting ready for sound check, it hit me,” said Parsons. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we do the hymn from Finlandia? We can do it with the pianist and just the two of us.’”
The performance ended up evoking a lot of emotion in the audience. “When we played it, people were silent; they stood up and they cried,” said Parsons. “They were so thankful that we came from the United States on tour and we knew their hymn, which was so important to them.”
The moment also became one that Parsons will always remember. “The moment that made the biggest impact on me during the tour was that moment in Finland,” he said. “It became a high point of the show.”