Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center jazz orchestra to compose new music celebrating KU basketball

Wilt Chamberlain plays in his first game as a Kansas Jayhawk against Northwestern University on 1956. Wilt had 52 points and 31 rebounds in his debut.

The Lied Center announced on Wednesday a partnership that will pair the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with, of all things, legends of KU basketball.

The orchestra, helmed by acclaimed musician Wynton Marsalis, will compose a new piece celebrating Jayhawk basketball — with each movement capturing “the spirit of a KU basketball legend,” according to the Lied Center’s news release. The work, to be penned by each of the 15 members of the JLCO, has been commissioned by the Lied Center in celebration of its 25th anniversary, and will premiere during the Lied Center’s 2018-2019 season.

“There is arguably no cultural phenomenon that has had a greater impact on the University of Kansas, and the entire state of Kansas, than the game of basketball,” Lied Center executive director Derek Kwan said in the news release. “This unique pairing of college basketball’s most storied program with the world’s greatest jazz orchestra is certain to create an unforgettable moment in Lied Center history.”

Kwan later told the Journal-World that the commission had been nearly three years in the making. His initial inspiration behind the project, he said, came from a behind-the-scenes moment witnessed right before the JLCO’s September 2014 performance at the Lied Center.

“Right before he went onstage to perform, Wynton and the other members of the band were shooting hoops onstage,” Kwan recalled of the memorable image. “Where else would that happen? Where else is there a hoop onstage at a performing arts center (except) the University of Kansas?”

Marsalis, who serves as the JLCO’s artistic and managing director, has noted in interviews the similarities between high-level jazz and basketball. These include virtuosity, teamwork and learning to make the right individual choices “in heated moments of pressure,” the Lied Center’s news release said.

“Wynton and the JLCO are avid basketball fans and knowledgeable about the history of the sport,” Cat Henry, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s vice president of concerts and touring, said in the news release. “They’re excited and honored to be ‘teamed up’ with some of its greatest practitioners for this creative project.”

The “KU Legends” who will receive their own musical movements as part of the commission are Phog Allen, Charlie B. Black, Mario Chalmers, Wilt Chamberlain, Nick Collison, Bill Hougland, Clyde Lovellette, Danny Manning, James Naismith, Paul Pierce, Darnell Valentine, Walt Wesley, Jo Jo White, Andrew Wiggins and Lynette Woodard. Those among the legends who are still living will be invited to the world-premiere performance, Kwan said, as will as current KU basketball players and staff and KU Athletics administrators. Kwan also hopes to arrange a meeting between the orchestra and KU Athletics staff, along with a tour of Allen Fieldhouse and the DeBruce Center, which houses Naismith’s original rules of basketball. That way, Kwan said, musicians can “get a real sense” of the history behind their compositions.

Each movement of the piece is sponsored through private donors, according to the Lied Center’s news release. Net proceeds from the project will benefit the Lied Center’s Performing Arts Access Endowment, enabling each student in Lawrence Public Schools to attend an age-appropriate performance at the Lied Center every year.

Details regarding the JLCO’s world-premiere performance at the Lied Center will be shared at the center’s season announcement next spring, though Kwan said the goal is early fall 2018 — before the start of basketball season.

The new composition will mark the first time the JLCO has been commissioned to work on a piece collectively, Kwan said. He’s not 100 percent certain, but he’s guessing the “jazz-meets-NCAA-sports” concept is fairly unique.

“The great thing is that I don’t think you could really do this anywhere else, considering the history of the game and the legacy of KU basketball,” he said.