Inside DC Jazz
The first time I ever encountered jazz in the sense that somebody told me I was listening to jazz was in Times Square in New York when I was a callow 19-year-old youth fresh from small-town Ohio.
It was a place called the Metropol, and inside, you could stand and milk one drink for a couple of sets, listening to the great and legendary vibist Lionel Hampton. It was 1960, and it was love at first sound and sight, and not for the last time either.
Not bad occasion for a first encounter, and I was fortunate enough to have quite a few ever since—to see the best, the legends, the Ellingtons and Basies and Fitzgeralds.Perhaps predictably, I loved the sound of the saxophone, in flight or as solos in a late-night group set at Blues Alley or a bar that I can’t remember in San Francisco.
What you get over time is the diversity of jazz, and what you should get in a jazz festival is that rich texture, that sheer volume of playing, music, genres, and personalities. A festival embodies both the history of the music, and the sense of place where it’s played and the DC Jazz Festival which we’re about to enjoy once again has all of that in abundance.
While the legends—those vivid stars whose lives were as attractive and charismatic as their musical gifts like Basie, Ellington, Billie and Bird, Miles and Dizzie—are less evident in today’s jazz world, there’s no question that jazz is bigger than ever, that there more jazz musicians, and venues in more places all over the world. More people are listening, (but in ways less easy to measure given the explosions of easy delivery systems), and more people are playing the music or training to do so, one of the legacies of the reigning family of jazz, the Marsalis clans, who emphasize music education.
One of those incomparable memorable occasions for me was the 2009 DC Jazz Festival—then called the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival—where I had occasion to hear the great New Orleans style jazz player Buckwheat Zydeco (with a little help from Paquito D’Rivera on sax) keep people dancing and jumping and dancing on the mall, and later I was present at a gathering of the entire Marsalis clan to honor patriarch Ellis Marsalis, in the company of the late, great Billy Taylor.
That was also my first contact with the DC Jazz Festival, which embodies the virtues of any great jazz festival.
What a great jazz festival reminds of us—in addition to the legacy and history of jazz—is that jazz—like all sorts of music, like theater and dance—best consumed and experienced in a live setting. With jazz, that can be anything at all and anywhere.
We certainly have the names in this festival, the prestige events, the legends—this year it’s the masterful jazz piano Kenny Barron and the master of all music bassist, cellist composer educator and author Ron Carter receving the festival’s lifetime achievement award and gathering up with the Classical Jazz Quartet (Stefon Harris and Lewis Nash), to perform in Jazz Meets the Classics, at the Kennedy Center, the festival’s premier event, which will also feature Paquito D’Rivera, the saxaphone’s master internationalist.
At the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in DC’s downtown, you’ll find young jazz and virtuoso whiz rising star Anat Cohen, adept as a saxophonist but also playing the clarinet and leader of her group. Cohen is emblematic of the world –wide reach of jazz: the Israeli musician explores jazz through all the myriad gardens of music, from classic, to Brazilian choro, the Argentine tango and Afro-Cuban styles.
But festivals are all about place too, where stars and emerging stars, and local musicians, of which the city has a multitude and here the innovative Jazz in the Hoods program—growing by leaps and bounds—is at its richest, with a reach that stretches through every corner of the city.
The Jazz in the Hoods program includes 10 days of 80 performances. You’d expect to find some of this in jazz clubs like the thriving Bohemian Caverns on U Street or smaller clubs like Twins or Columbia Station in Adams Morgan. But Jazz in the Hoods also reaches into restaurants, hotels, galleries, and museums, most notably, but not exclusively like the now annual family oriented Jazz ‘n Familes Fundays which features free performances by on June 2 and 3 at the Phillips Collection.
Jazz in the Hoods has breadth, depth and focus—21 neighborhoods will take part, giving you a real sense not only of the popularity of jazz, but of the diversity of life in Washington DC beyond the monuments and the White House and Congress. Included are Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom, Georgetown, the H Street Corridor, Southeast, Southwest, Takoma Park, Adams Morgan, the U Street Corridor and other places.
Everyone knows the stars at the festival, but if you make your way through the Jazz in the Hoods program, here’s some performers to look for—the Mark Turner Quartet, Rodney Richardson with Lena Seikaly, Marcus Strickland Quartet, the Randy Weston Trio, the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Octet, , the Kenny Rittenhouse Quintet, the John Scofield Trio, and at the Phillips the Paul Bailey Quaratet, theHerman Burney Trio, the Xavier Davis Duo, Janelle Gill, the Elijah Balbed Quartet and Michael Bowie and Sine Qua Non String Quartet, among others.