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West Side Story: How two jazz artists continue to reinvent the Bernstein classic

Leonard Bernstein at rehearsal for West Side Story. Carol Lawrence (who played Maria) is at his left, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is playing the piano, 1957.
Library of Congress, Music Division
Leonard Bernstein at rehearsal for West Side Story. Carol Lawrence (who played Maria) is at his left, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is playing the piano, 1957.

Thanks to the new Steven Spielberg production, West Side Story is back in the popular discourse. Its Broadway debut in 1957 set the standard for what was possible in the merging of socially conscious storytelling, exhilarating modern dance and genre-bending musical exploration — care of composer Leonard Bernstein and the late Stephen Sondheim.

It was the original 1961 blockbuster film that first captivated the two subjects of this week's episode of Jazz Night in America: saxophonist Ted Nash and drummer Bobby Sanabria. They were kids when they saw it in the early 1970s, Nash on TV with his family in Los Angeles and, 3,000 miles east, Sanabria on the big screen at his hometown cineplex in the Bronx. About five decades later the two, well into their professional lives as individual world-renowned jazz artists, revisited Bernstein's score separately with fresh minds and ears.

Around 2015, Ted Nash — along with bassist Ben Allison and guitarist Steve Cardenas — formed a drummer-less trio rooted in the sparse but rich sound akin to groups like the Jimmy Giuffre / Jim Hall Trio. For their project Somewhere Else: West Side Story Songs, each member of the band contributed Bernstein "arrangements" that served more like sketches or improvisation launchpads. "We're not trying to recreate anything," says Nash "we're just trying to use this beautiful music to create something new. And if that means that we're not playing it like the original, that's just how it is."

Sanabria's journey to West Side Story is more personal. "It's my story ... It's a Nuyorican story." Sanabria says he uses his Multiverse Big Band to tap into what he calls the "kinetic energy" in Bernstein's score. The group packs a punch on the Latin sections of the music, of course, while the drummer and bandleader also puts his stamp on the jazz portions, giving pieces like "Jet Song" a bit of rock-and-roll flare.

And more than 60 years since the musical debuted on Broadway, jazz musicians like Nash and Sanabria remain fascinated with West Side Story. "The way [Bernstein] honored Latino culture, especially Puerto Rican culture and jazz culture was beyond, beyond the pale," says Sanabria. "He was just amazing to me. It still amazes me today."

Musicians:

Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band

Bobby Sanabria, musical director, drumset, percussion; Kevin Bryan, Shareef Clayton, Max Darché, Andrew Neesley; trumpet; David Dejesus, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute; Andrew Gould, alto saxophone, flute; Peter Brainin tenor saxophone, flute; Yaacov Mayman, tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet; Danny Rivera, baritone saxophone; David Miller, Tim Sessions, Armando Vergara, trombone; Chris Washburne, bass trombone; Gabrielle Garo, flute, piccolo; Ben Sutin, electric violin; Darwin Noguera, piano; Leo Traversa, electric bass; Oreste Abrantes, Matthew González, Takao Heisho, percussion.

Ted Nash, Steve Cardenas, and Ben Allison

Ted Nash, tenor saxophone; Steve Cardenas, guitar, and Ben Allison, bass.

All music written by Leonard Bernstein

Set List:

  • Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band - "Prologue" (arr.  Jeremy Fletcher) 
  • Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band - "Jet Song" (arr. Niko Siebold)
  • Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band - "America" (arr. Jeff Lederer) 
  • Ted Nash, Steve Cardenas & Ben Allison - "Cool"
  • Ted Nash, Steve Cardenas & Ben Allison - "Tonight"
  • Ted Nash, Steve Cardenas & Ben Allison - "A Boy Like That" (arr. Ted Nash)
  • Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band - "Somewhere" (arr. Jeremy Fletcher) 
  • Credits: Writer, Producer, and Senior Producer: Alex Ariff; Host: Christian McBride; Assistant producers: Sarah Kerson and Sarah Geledi; Consulting Editor: Katie Simon; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Senior Director of NPR Music, Keith Jenkins; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand.

    Copyright 2022 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

    Corrected: December 12, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
    A previous version of this post incorrectly stated it has been over 70 years since the Broadway debut of West Side Story. It has been over 60 years.