Uptown String Quartet concert Sunday caps series of local events
An all-Black, all-woman quartet of conservatory trained string musicians known for incorporating jazz elements to the highest levels of classical music — not to mention being featured in a 1997 episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” — will reunite in Southern Oregon after a two-decade hiatus.
The Uptown String Quartet has performed over its storied career in locations as distinguished as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., but members will reunite in concert at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5, at the Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall, 450 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland.
Local performing arts nonprofit Anima Mundi Productions is playing host to a brief residency for the quartet, composed of violist Maxine Roach and violinists Diane Monroe and Lesa Terry. Marika Hughes, a Juilliard-trained cellist will fill the shoes of the late Eileen Folson.
According to Ethan Gans-Morse, executive director of Anima Mundi Productions, the group’s residency is the product of two years of grant writing and fundraising.
“We’re super-honored,” Gans-Morse said.
The quartet got its start with the help of famed jazz percussionist Max Roach, father of violist Maxine Roach. Members started performing at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City before being signed on with top-level managers in 1988. By 1990, the quartet was performing at the Kennedy Center and drawing reviews in The Washington Post hailing the performers’ repertoire as “delightfully eclectic and often daringly arranged.”
Gans-Morse said that the quartet brought together classical training with the skill of jazz improvisation.
“In the past, when we said they played jazz, that’s kind of an oversimplification,” Gans-Morse said. “It’s really amazing to see how much of the music was drawing from all of these cultural traditions.”
The members all went on to careers in music education, including violinist Lesa Terry, who teaches music at Santa Monica College and is a member of Anima Mundi’s board. In a telephone interview from her home in California, Terry said she’s eager to reunite with her colleagues.
“This is some of the greatest work I’ve ever done, being part of this quartet,” Terry said. “This string quartet is really at the core of who I am and what I am — I think others would agree.”
Terry became active in the Rogue Valley’s performing arts scene after a series of stops in Southern Oregon performing at First Presbyterian Church of Medford’s Jazz Vespers series between 2016 and 2018.
“I played three times at this series,” Terry said. “I became familiar with the area, and I loved it.”
With the exception of an August rehearsal and a film appearance in the 2019 Fred Rogers biopic “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” — the Uptown String Quartet appeared on a music-themed episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” that aired on Aug. 27, 1997 — the group hasn’t been together for more than two decades.
Terry said everyone at the rehearsal was “a little bit older, a little bit wiser.” She said playing abilities decreased from their youth, but each member’s intuition and knowledge “increased exponentially.”
Terry does a lot of work on motion picture soundtracks and records in Los Angeles. One example, she said, was a symphonic recording with Michael Jackson that called on strings to improvise sections usually driven by the rhythm section.
“I just had a ball,” Terry remembers. “My solid knowledge of it comes from my experience with Uptown String Quartet.”
Other members have also worked on film soundtracks. Maxine Roach, for instance, performed on soundtracks for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” along with Spike Lee films “Do The Right Thing” and “Malcolm X.”
Tickets for Sunday’s reunion concert are $25-$39, with discounts available at the door for students and Oregon Trail Card holders. For further information or to purchase tickets, see animamundiproductions.com or call 541-833-3066.
The Quartet will also perform live on Jefferson Public Radio at noon Friday, Nov. 3, on JPR Classics Live with Don Matthews.
The general public is invited to join them at a free community conversation event on starting with an informal reception at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, downstairs in the Ashland Elks Lodge. Details at AnimaMundiProductions.com/uptown.
Reach reporter Nick Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 458-488-2036. This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.