"Take the "A' Train" was one of the Duke Ellington Orchestra's signature tunes, and Ellington's 1956 appearance in Rhode Island at the Newport Jazz Festival was one of that event's defining moments.
The A Train Ellington refers to runs beneath Central Park West on its way north to Harlem. It's also the quickest route to the apartment of Lew Tabackin.
Tabackin, a flutist and saxophonist, lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side with his wife Toshiko Akiyoshi, herself an accomplished composer, arranger and pianist. For 21 days in March, however, Tabackin will be on the road, touring to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival.
"These things are quite successful," he says of the Newport outings, "mainly because they're audience-friendly. If you're really hardcore, you might be a little frustrated. But for the general public, it's a great introduction to jazz music. It doesn't scare them off."
Tabackin will join an all-star band that includes clarinetist Ken Peplowski, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, pianist Cedar Walton and guitarist Howard Alden. They will travel across New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the breadth and width of California, charged with providing a connection between the modern music fan and the jazz performed at the famed festival over the past half-century.
"The first time I played Newport was with [flugelhornist] Clark Terry," Tabackin remembers. "I think it was around '67. It was very exciting. I mean, I'd always heard about this place. I was so intrigued I came within a millimeter of missing my ferry and I would've been stranded there."
Tabackin had moved to New York in 1965 after being released from the Army; he was close to broke. To find paying work as a musician, he would sit in with local jazz players at clubs like Jim and Andy's, over on 46th Street.
"It was almost like a private club," Tabackin recalls. "One Wednesday... Zoot Sims was there. He was having a good time. He says, "Clark is rehearsing at the Half Note-I don't feel like doing it. Why don't you do it?'"
Tabackin took him up on his offer, making sure he returned next Wednesday just in case Zoot didn't feel in the mood. As luck would have it, Zoot was at the bar again. And again, he asked Tabackin to take his place.
The routine continued until Terry's alto player Phil Woods finally admitted, ""I've got a feeling that Zoot's not into this. And you've been rehearsing, so why don't you be with the band?'
"So that was it," Tabackin says. "I mean, in those days I hadn't established myself in any way. I was just trying to find who I was-trying to find a way to create my identity, to find my soul."
Tabackin is 63 years old now ("People tell me, "If you can hang in there until you're 70 then you'll really be busy,'" he jokes), and while his breathy approach to the flute is both classical and Far Eastern, his sax style is reminiscent of the hard-bop approach of Sonny Rollins. For a guy who was the main soloist for the Danish Radio Orchestra and has played on two Tom Waits albums (Nighthawks at the Diner and Small Change), the limitations of the Newport Festival tour aren't ideal. But Tabackin's compliant, if only for the diversity of the job.
"The frustration," he says, "is that we're players. I'd like to be doing a two-hour concert, you know, but that's not the way this is set up. So we put that away and say, "OK, in the context of what we're doing, you have to create some music.' One of the interesting parts of it is that we're playing with people we don't usually play with."
The Newport Anniversary shows call for familiar tunes, as well as instructive stage patter designed to bring jazz neophytes and casual listeners into the fold. Ellington will be referenced and his music will be performed. Yet because Tabackin is on stage, players like saxophonist Coleman Hawkins are likely to get a mention or two.
"This is Hawkins' 100th birth year," Tabackin says. "If I talk about Hawkins, I'll try to educate them to the fact that [he] was a true avant-garde musician. You know, he was the first in so many ways. He was the first real jazz saxophone player, the first guy to actually expand the harmonic material. In a way, he's almost responsible for bebop. He was the first one to actually recognize and hire Thelonious Monk, and the first guy that played unaccompanied saxophone solos.
"I'll play in the spirit of somebody like Coleman Hawkins," he says with reverence. "In a way, I feel some kind of spiritual connection. I would never dare try to play one of his solos. I play the way I do, which is influenced by what he did.
"The secret," Tabackin says, "is to be respectful to the great icons. Be respectful and try to capture the essence of the music without just ripping it off.
"Because if jazz isn't personal, it's nothing."The Newport Jazz Festival comes to the East County Performing Arts Center, 7:30 p.m. on March 15. $27. 619-440-2277.