Every few years UApresents brings in trumpeter Wynton Marsalis with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The audience has stayed solid and the programming is always fresh.

Marsalis makes it a point to never announce the evening's program in advance. Every afternoon before a gig he decides what to play that night. The band has no idea. His wants those players ready for anything.

"Because there's over 200 songs in our tour book, it's hard to predict what he'll call up," said cheerful Ali Jackson, drummer for the orchestra since 2005. This is Jackson's fourth trip to Centennial Hall, where the group is appearing Saturday.

But he has an idea about Saturday's performance.

"This year the tour is representing 25 years of Jazz at Lincoln Center," he said.

"For sure we'll play some Duke Ellington, some Count Basie and Benny Goodman, and others, too."

No matter what charts Marsalis picks, Jackson will be ready. He says it is his job to know the whole tour book backward and forward. Not just his part, but all the parts for all 15 musicians on the stand.

In every jazz group, the drummer is the heartbeat. Jackson agrees to that, then adds that the orchestra's drummer is also the quarterback.

"I have to know everything that's going on in all the parts, just like the quarterback knows everybody's position on every play," he explains.

"It is also important to know how the personalities of all the band members fit together. Beyond that, you have to provide poised leadership, be a problem solver. That's what makes the drummer the spiritual center of the band, as well."

It sounds like a tall order, but Jackson points out how the musicians are a health-conscience lot.

"These guys in this band are professionals going about their business," Jackson said. "They eat good food, they go to the gym every day - most of them do."

On the bandstand, as a down-to-Earth drummer, Jackson's intentions sound more like the enduring jazz artist you would expect. He begins with his daily objective of needing to feel free within the form of each song, not just keeping the beat but pushing on the envelope of sound around him. Finding new ways to stretch out.

"The best musicians can always express their personality within the particular form they are playing," he said. "No matter what form that might be."

Jackson's on the road a lot, but he doesn't mind.

"We perform over 100 services a year and tour all over the world. I'm getting a lot of education. Every time I go outside there's a million things going on. That's the beauty of life. You find something that resonates with you."

As he talked on his cellphone while strolling around lower Manhattan, he was resonating with a pair of vintage sunglasses spotted at an Eighth Avenue shop called Caserta Eye.

"I love this place," he laughed. "Put that in the story."


• What: Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in concert.

• Presented by: UApresents.

• When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

• Where: Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd., on the University of Arizona campus.

• Tickets: $40-$80, with discounts available.

• Reservations, information: 621-3341, uapresents.org

Chuck Graham is a Tucson-based freelance writer. Contact him at chuck@tucsonstage.com