‘United We Play’

Bringing jazz and classical music together: a talk with Leon Botstein, musical director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra

| 09 Feb 2021 | 12:36

On March 12, 2020, the American Symphony Orchestra, along with pianist and composer Marcus Roberts and The Modern Jazz Generation, were set to take the stage at Carnegie Hall for a celebration of the work of Duke Ellington and the premiere of some of Roberts’ latest arrangements and compositions. They’d rehearsed together for months, tickets were sold, and anticipation was high. Just a few hours before the curtain was to rise, Carnegie Hall had to shut its doors, due to the pandemic.

Undaunted, and firm in the belief that music heals, Leon Botstein, ASO’s musical director and conductor, along with members of the orchestra, Roberts and The Modern Jazz Generation, created their way out of a corner. They figured out how to play together remotely and produced not just a Zoom meeting with music, but a moving, uplifting and beautiful concert film, “United We Play.” It’s available for free viewing through February 21 on the American Symphony Orchestra’s website.

“’United We Play’ is about bringing jazz and classical music together as a symbol of the need to bring our entire country together,” says Marcus Roberts in the film, adding, “Any time we truly listen to each other, we become stronger.”

Botstein, renowned musical director, conductor, president of Bard College, lecturer, and creator of the popular “Sight and Sound” series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art needs little introduction to New York music lovers. But he’s passionate about introducing talented younger artists to audiences. Here, he discusses “United We Play” and how music shapes our lives.

How did the collaborative performance with Marcus Roberts that was originally meant to be a concert at Carnegie Hall come about, and were the three compositions in “United We Play” meant to have been included in that concert?

Marcus Roberts and I worked together in the 90s. When we decided at the American Symphony Orchestra to feature Duke Ellington as part of our American Masters Series, we decided to combine the old and the new, and invited Marcus to extend Ellington’s work into his own. The concert that was canceled was therefore a mix of straight Ellington work and Marcus Roberts’s own original take.

In the film, both you and Marcus Roberts say that musical communication is connected to democracy. How?

Music is a form of human expression and communication that is different from language. But it also has similarities and advantages. Its character prevents it from being censored easily. Its meaning, in terms of language, is never quite fixed. That makes it the most protected sphere of human freedom and individuality, which are essential to democracy. And what is most important in these times is that although there can be bad music and even manipulative music, music can never lie. It always tells the truth, however banal and ugly that truth might be.

Would it be fair to say that you’re always reaching and trying to expand the possibilities of music?

Music is a living art. There is no point to play the music of the past if one is not playing the music of the present and pushing the boundaries of music.

No matter how many artists participate, what’s lost when the audience isn’t present, other than applause?

Music exists only in real time and in real space, in my opinion. Applause actually makes me uncomfortable, but it is a welcomed reminder that one has been communicating with neighbors and strangers in a common space, through a common experience that is at once public and shared, and yet private and personal. There is nothing that can replace the visceral sense of the audience in live performance. They are an indispensable part of the act of realizing a piece of music.

Why did you and Marcus Roberts decide to share “United We Play” freely with audiences?

I for one think that in this pandemic reaching people is an ethical obligation. Monetizing music for the benefit of musicians is important, but it takes second place in these troubled times.

Will it be performed with everyone all together when that’s possible?

I do hope that Marcus Roberts’s compositions can be performed within a live concert format. I hope to do so.

A work of art is an invitation to experience, but also, hopefully, when that experience is over, the audience takes something lasting away with them. What do you hope audiences will experience through “United We Play” and what do you hope remains with them long afterwards?

My hope is that those who listened to “United We Play” will remember the music and listen more than once. I hope audiences take away an appreciation for Marcus Roberts as a composer and performer, and sense the vitality of the traditions of classical music and jazz, and the rich possibilities that can be realized when they are merged in the form of new compositions.


“I for one think that in this pandemic reaching people is an ethical obligation. Monetizing music for the benefit of musicians is important, but it takes second place in these troubled times.” Leon Botstein