All That Jazz
Charles Fishman kicks off newly minted DC Jazz Fest
It’s June. It’s summer. And you’re probably wondering: what happened to the annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival? Isn’t it about that time of year?
It is. And the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, sure enough, is on and going strong. Except that it’s not called the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival anymore. It’s called the DC Jazz Festival and right now it’s going on all over the city.
The name change is a big deal, along with a few other changes that are different from the previous five festivals, which have grown by leaps and bounds during that time.
The festival kicked off June 1 and runs through June 13, and includes new venues, new stars, an under-the-stars concert at Carter Barron, a tribute to James Moody and a major concert headlining major record star and jazz chanteuse Roberta Flack. It includes the ever popular and growing Jazz in the Hoods and the whirlwind presence of Cuban jazz star Paquito D’ Rivera, who will close the festival with what promises to be a unique concert at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.
There’ll be big stars, major players, young up-and-comers, and Washington local artists, established and rising. Jazz will be in the air and in the neighborhoods, and the festival will draw on all the resources, audiences and institutions this city offers and which are unique to it.
I visited Charles Fishman, the festival’s founder, year-round promoter and jazz kibitzer, and formerly the producer for the late jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie in his basement office in his home in Adams Morgan.
“We’ve got an official downtown office now,” he said by way of greeting. “But I still do most of my stuff out of here.”
If there was such a thing as a “jazz” office, it’s right here. Fishman, a thinnish middle-aged man, is on the phone trying to arrange travel arrangements on his computer for Flack, “a dear, long-time friend” who was a last minute replacement for Dianne Reeves, who had to drop out as the headliner for the Lisner Auditorium Concert on June 13, which also features the Roy Hargrove Big Band and a guest appearance by Roberta Gambarini. “She did me a big favor here,” Fishman said.
In between answering his cell and looking at his airline Web site, Fishman explained the name change and other changes.
“Number one, the festival had been growing every year. It was getting a growing reputation as a destination festival, we were expanding, we kept adding programs that were really all about the city, like Jazz in the Hoods and the Rising Stars, and working and partnering with other groups and institutions like mad,” he said. “Duke Ellington, for that matter, is very specific to this city, but that’s too focused on one person.”
“What we wanted to do, we wanted to brand the city,” he said. Fishman talks like an enthusiast, a traveling salesman, the guy you meet on a train who pulls out pictures of the wife and kids he loves madly, proudly. You sense that Fishman’s big loves — wife, family, jazz, city, with the order changing depending on who’s around or what he’s doing — are all-encompassing. He thrives that way. The office is as cluttered as an improvisational sax riff from out of the clear blue something: there’s a Grammy he won with Dizzy on a wall, there are stacks of New Yorkers, a poster of a big-cheeked Gillespie and, right in the middle of the floor, a shiny set of blue drums that belong to his precocious five-year-old son Moses.
“Every festival worthy of the name is about the place, that’s the way you know it — Newport, Monterey, the big cities and so on,” he said. “And we’ve got so much to offer here as a jazz town.
“Look around you sometime, the place is flourishing again, there’s places that have jazz musicians playing, like the revitalized Bohemian Caverns and all of its history on U Street. We’ve got local legends here, not just Duke, who lived and played down on U Street, Shirley Horn, Buck Hill and all the rest, and new people like Thad Wilson. There’s a glorious history here we can draw on.
“We’ve got cultural institutions who have concerts, we have support from the tourist business, we have the embassies. It’s no news that jazz is huge overseas. We have our museums, the Kennedy Center. We have a local history. We have terrific local musicians, young and up-and-coming, and they play here, they add to the richness of the music.
“So, basically,” he said, “we thought the festival should be about the city, and that the name should be about the national and international impact of the nation’s capital. There’s no better place to showcase and celebrate America’s singular original art than in Washington, D.C. This is not to say that we won’t continue to honor the enduring legacy of D.C. native son Duke Ellington.”
Not with all those jazz players coming out of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, that’s for sure.
Fishman is co-artistic director this year with Paquito D’Rivera, who will, among other things, headline the Paquito D’Rivera and the Jelly Roll Morton Latin Tinge Project June 13 at the Terrace Theater, a unique evening that arose out of a grant in which trumpeter and arranger Michael Philip Mossman added a Latin flavor to some of the legendary blues giant’s pieces, such as “King Porter Stomp,” “Wolverine Blues,” “Finger Buster,” and “Pearl.” It was Morton who reportedly said that “If you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning.”
The concert will include D’Rivera, Mossman, Pernell Saturnino and the string ensemble Quartette Indigo.
For complete information on schedules, tickets, times and dates and performers go the festival website at www.dcjazzfest.org.