KU Basketball Legends Jazz Playlist


A couple of weeks ago it was announced that to celebrate the Lied Center’s 25th Anniversary, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis would compose a new piece celebrating Jayhawk basketball — with each movement capturing “the spirit of a KU basketball legend”: 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. Each of the 15 members of the orchestra will compose a movement to represent one of 15 KU basketball legends, with the new composition planned for being unveiled during the Lied Center’s 2018-2019 season.

Are you kidding me?! Way. Cool. Even how this idea came up to begin with is cool – three years ago the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra were shooting hoops onstage at the Lied Center before their performance.

“Where else would that happen? Where else is there a hoop onstage at a performing arts center (except) the University of Kansas?” – Lied Center Executive Director Derek Kwan

I could use this forum to talk about the similarities between jazz and basketball, but hearing this news really got me thinking: What jazz works would I choose to represent each of the 15 KU basketball legends?

I fully admit to having only a maximum level of an  “advanced layperson’s” knowledge of jazz, with my personal preference being the bebop, cool, hard bop, and modal styles prevalent in the 1950s and ’60s. Rediscovering music I hadn’t listened to in a long time from these periods while simultaneously trying to branch out in an attempt to pick songs that I thought represented each of the KU basketball legends was…fun, very fun.

With one exception, I restricted each legend to not just their own song, but to their own artist. I tried not to just mirror the timelines of the KU basketball legends to the jazz music, but it was tough. With that aside, here is what I came up with as a KU Basketball Legends Jazz Playlist along with a few notes as to why I chose to match the legend with the music:

James Naismith: The Original Dixieland Jazz Band – “Livery Stable Blues”

It seems pretty straightforward to select the first jazz recording for commercial release to represent the originator of the sport. The origin of both jazz and basketball created a worldwide sensation.

Phog Allen: Louis Armstrong – “Heebie Jeebies”

Phog Allen didn’t invent basketball, but as “The Father of Basketball Coaching” he arguably pushed its evolution forward more than anyone else in the sport – much like Louis Armstrong’s impact in the jazz world. As an added tie-in to the song, Phog got his nickname due to his distinctive, foghorn voice; in “Heebie Jeebies”, legend has it that Louis Armstrong dropped his lyric sheet during its recording and then improvised his vocals – creating scat singing.

Charlie B. Black: Coleman Hawkins – “Body and Soul”

Somehow, despite its greatness, Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” doesn’t usually show up on the Top 10 Jazz Songs of All Time lists, but it should. Maybe it’s a victim of recency bias, much like Charlie Black who played at Kansas just after the song was recorded in 1939 and who is the only four-time All-American in KU’s storied career. Fun fact: Both Charlie and Coleman had the same nickname – “the Hawk.”

Clyde Lovellette and Bill Hougland: Duke Ellington – “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”

Okay, here’s where I cheated a bit by using not just the same artist, but the same song for two, Kansas legends who played together to win the 1952 NCAA Championship. In 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival, Duke Ellington, one of the most important and influential jazz artists of all time, was struggling – then they took the stage and performed this gem. As tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves started his solo, a woman by the name of Elaine Anderson leaped out of her chair and danced along. The crowd was electrified, Gonsalves fed off their energy, and Ellington was sage enough to egg the entire spectacle along, moving the performance to one of legend and rejuvenating the band’s career. Now, even though Clyde Lovellette is in the Hall of Fame and the “Duke” of this analogy, it’s not like teammate Bill Hougland is some no-name player – he did become the first player to win two gold medals in basketball, after all. Still, I’ll let you decide whether Hougland is the dancer or the saxophonist in this analogy…

Wilt Chamberlain: Benny Goodman – “Sing, Sing, Sing”

There’s nothing subtle or quiet about this song – it’s big, loud, and one of the most dominating jazz standards of all time. Kind of reminiscent of a certain #13 who roamed the court for KU in the late 1950s…

Walt Wesley: Count Basie – “Jumpin’ at the Woodside”

Although Count Basie seems to come in third when measured against his contemporaries Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, that doesn’t mean he’s somehow a lesser artist as evidenced by his classic, “Jumpin’ at the Woodside”. Walt Wesley suffered by a similar comparison as he was originally called “New Wilt” and then “Not Wilt” during his time at KU, but he was a spectacular player in his own right.

Jo Jo White: Gil Evans – “La Nevada”

After way, too long, Jo Jo White was finally inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015 – a formal recognition of his greatness as a player. Similarly, Gil Evans is best known for his collaboration with Miles Davis, but his greatness as a pianist, composer and bandleader is evident on his album Out of the Cool, with the underappreciated “La Nevada” arguably just as good as anything off of Davis’ masterpiece Kind of Blue.

Darnell Valentine: Weather Report – “Birdland”

Much of the jazz fusion sound from the 1970s is…let’s just charitably call it “underwhelming.” Similarly, Kansas basketball had several years of mediocrity during the same decade and into the early ’80s. One, bright shining light of talent during those years however, was All-American Darnell Valentine represented by 1977’s “Birdland”.

Lynette Woodard: Lil Hardin Armstrong – “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue”

I really wanted to put the jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” here to represent Woodard since it is known as the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters, but that seemed too obvious. Instead, I went with Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Hot Five classic. Like Woodard, there may have been other female artists such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald that were more widely known, but Armstrong’s works were just as influential and pioneering.

Danny Manning: Charles Mingus – “Better Git It In Your Soul”

Amazingly, this is the one I struggled the most with despite it being the first player on this list that I truly watched closely. As a bit of a spoiler, you’ll notice a couple of prominent omissions to this list: I really wanted to associate Miles Davis’ “So What” as it is one of the greatest songs of all time, or Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” as it is arguably The Ultimate Jazz Standard. But as I watched highlights of Danny Manning, neither of those songs quite seemed to fit when playing alongside them. Manning’s game was so unique for the time – his mobility, his passing, his creativity – there was a joy, a surprise that needed to be reflected with his song. As a result, a player who’s style of game was ahead of its time seemed perfectly paired with the first song off of Mingus Ah Um.

Paul Pierce: Dave Brubeck – “Take Five”

Watching Paul Pierce play at KU was to watch someone make the difficult look effortless. What better association for one of Kansas’ all-time greats than one of the greatest jazz compositions of all time and the epitome of West Coast Cool – yet another parallel with Pierce hailing from LA.

Nick Collison: Sonny Rollins – “St. Thomas”

The Sonny Rollins classic is deceptively simple, but the more you listen to it the more you appreciate its elegance and complexity. This is a perfect match with Collison’s game – an “old school” sound that represents the completeness of his post play, but with modern rhythms and riffing that also represent his advanced footwork and more nuanced skills inside the paint. Even Max Roach’s drum solo around the 2:30 minute mark reflect the flickers of anger that would occasionally bubble up in Collison’s play when he set a hard screen, bodied his man in the post, or threw down a dunk with authority.

Mario Chalmers: Dizzy Gillespie – “Groovin’ High”

In the 2008 NCAA Tournament right up until the final moments of regulation in the championship game, one could have made a strong case for a couple of other Jayhawks to win the Most Outstanding Player award. Throughout the tournament, Brandon Rush led Kansas and scored 25 in the semi-final against North Carolina. In the title game, Darrell Arthur’s strong play included 20 points and 10 rebounds, with contributions at key times. But The Shot in the final moments, much like Dizzy Gillespie’s high note at the end of “Groovin’ High” despite Charlie Parker’s brilliance, is what mattered the most.

Andrew Wiggins: John Coltrane – “My Favorite Things”

Andrew Wiggins’ time at Kansas opened the door to some paradoxes as a fan. The hype surrounding him was something that very few players could ever live up to, however I key in on his incredible athleticism and times like how he took over in the second half against Duke in the Champions Classic. But still, I can understand how his time at Kansas and his style of play was something that Jayhawk fans weren’t used to. To represent this, I chose John Coltrane’s take on a Rodgers & Hammerstein classic – the contrast between the original composition and Coltrane’s burgeoning, stylistic embrace of free & avant-garde jazz styles is both mesmerizing and beautiful.

Rock Chalk!


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