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Duke Ellington Jazz Fest 2008: The Evolution of a Jazz Festival

By Published: December 16, 2008

Hopefully the festival will continue to put artists like Leong on the forefront of its schedule, keeping the festival's image vibrant and helping to draw in new, younger audiences reflective of Washington, DC's diversity.

Appearances can be deceiving. On the surface, the 2008 Duke Ellington Jazz Festival looked very much like its predecessors, relying on familiar names and a thorough leveraging of Washington's local acts to form the core of its line-up. But stepping away from the more traditional signature events and digging a little deeper revealed the festival has once again evolved in both depth and breadth.

This year's festival extended to more venues, showcased several new experimental events, and—in keeping with an emphasis on education—expanded its student-focused program over the week and established yearlong outreach efforts through the DEJF Education Program.

"It's gotten harder, bigger," explained festival founder Charles Fishman, laughing. "We're more diverse now, with 100 events at 47 venues. People are now calling us."

All of this marks significant progress as the festival continues to stretch towards the goal of becoming a world class jazz showcase. Perhaps most encouraging of all, however, is that when you talk to the crowds that now pack the shows it is clear that what began four years ago as a small, ambitious experiment has grown into something locals now look forward to and are proud to house in their city.

"We always loved the music. How could we stay away? This is my town. I'm a Washingtonian—several generations' worth." explained one repeat festival patron. "We come from back in the sixties and seventies when we did this as a natural routine. There was always something going on on the Mall, until the country changed."

"I think it is fantastic!" responded new DC resident Nicole Gentile, when asked about the Duke Festival coming to Washington. Sounding a common theme that the nation's capital deserves a major jazz festival, she continued, "I'm from Vermont and there's been a bigger festival there for years! That just seems wrong. So it's great there's one here now."

"I don't see why it hasn't happened up until now. It makes perfect sense," echoed local musician Janelle Gill as she watched her children bounce to the Conrad Herwig Latin Side Project, one of the diverse acts to present at the festival's annual free concert on the National Mall. "This is Duke Ellington's home town. I think it's the perfect opportunity for my children to be exposed to great music, while not having to sit down in the Kennedy Center, really quiet. They can hear music and meet great musicians."

While the concert on the Mall has always anchored the festival, with its high profile performers, like this year's roster of McCoy Tyner, the Christian McBride Quartet, Taj Mahal, and Dee Dee Bridewater, the festival also has made a point of venturing into the city's ever growing number of clubs, restaurants, museums and theaters. This not only allows the festival to present a wider variety of music, but also reinforces its role as a community focused, multi-cultural event.

Three examples of these smaller events illustrate how the festival grew in 2008.

Step Afrika

Founded in 1994, Washington, DC-based Step Afrika is a non-profit dance troupe dedicated to the tradition of step, a uniquely African-American dance form born out of the music and dance rituals of African-American sororities and fraternities. Since its inception, Step Afrika founder Brian Williams has brought his innovative choreography of stomps, claps, shouts, tap, and spoken word to audiences around the globe. For the Duke Festival, Fishman commissioned Step Afrika to work with local composer, band-leader, and educator Dr. William Smith to explore the jazz tradition through step.

"It totally fits the spirit of the festival because stepping reflects the historical perspective of African American history, the development of arts and culture from the African American community. And that's what jazz came from. So it's the merger of two genres," explains Dr. Smith. "It's about reclaiming African ancestry and bringing it to a modern format. So I was asked to write a piece for the festival—its called "Trane"—of course, John Coltrane...[and] a play on the "A-Train," and also "train" is a step in the fraternity that I'm a member of, that Duke was a member of, and that Brian is a member of. So it all comes together."

As explained by Williams, the endeavor represented a challenge for Step Afrika as well, which had not previously worked from a commissioned piece or within the jazz tradition. Williams need not have worried.

Clad in black the dance troupe—both male and female performers—hit the stage with force, using bodies and voices as instruments as they marched, glided, and stomped in interaction with Smith's band—even at times engaging in trading with slapped thighs, hands, or taping canes. For those unexposed to the form, one of the most intriguing elements is the lack of any clear leader, each dancer taking his or her turn directing the show. At other times, the whole splits into smaller cells, creating a swirl of flowing activity around the stage as the various combinations of dancers divide and reconfigure in constant rhythmic motion. At one point, the entire dance troop surrounded Smith in a fluid circle as he embarked on a long, expressive solo, highlighting visually the concept of solo artist within an improvisational group.

This mesmerizing display of physical movement and eloquent music left the audience amazed at the troupe's power, strength, humor, and grace. In addition, the choice to feature an experimental work by prominent Washington artists enhanced the festival's vitality and underscored the often-overlooked talent "hidden" in DC.

Anat Cohen

Though multi-reedist Anat Cohen played the 2007 festival, her return in 2008 was anything but repetitive, and her performance highlighted the festival's approach to building its strength by expanding throughout the city's diverse venues. In 2007, Cohen delivered a brilliant performance at Bohemian Caverns, a tavern in the U Street historic district which has been a source of music for generations. In 2008, she brought fresh music and new excitement to a more formal but equally creative venue, appearing downtown on stage at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Possessed of a natural, easy stage presence, Cohen's obvious joy in playing is infectious and drew listeners into her world of vibrant, far-ranging music straight from the first tune—a humorous rendition of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz". Full of clever twists and rapid solos, Cohen deployed her trademark tone on clarinet to mine this tune for all its worth and to start the show with a bang.

As appealing as her variations on traditional tunes are, or her straightforward genre pieces like the night's sparkling roadhouse blues, "J-Blues for Jason," Cohen's greatest moments come when she delves into her more ecstatic compositions and draws together the multiple musical influences that define her palette. These pieces overflow with passionately constructed themes and rhythms and provide a fertile platform for her virtuosic and volatile solos.

The evening's crowning achievement, "Washington Square Park," illustrates this side of Cohen's work. Dedicated to the famous square, the composition plunges its central theme through multiple genres and musical heritages, from middle-eastern, to blues, to rock, to what sounded distinctly like circus music, painting an aural portrait of the park's kaleidoscopic reality. Handled deftly by Cohen and her band, each permutation of the theme, each rhythmic shift, stood individually like a snapshot—first a juggler, then a blues band practicing, then a jazz trio. And yet despite this rush of musical imagery, Cohen's eventual soaring solo managed to draw these pieces together into a cohesive, vivid whole.

Also captivating was a slow ballad that, like "Washington Square Park," took advantage of Cohen's facility in multiple musical spheres and perhaps best showcased her prowess as a soloist. Begun as lament, Cohen's solo expanded on the waves of the tune's cascading rhythm into a soaring bloom of light, only to return again to the tune's original mournful seed, creating an elegiac paean blurring the divide between sorrow and spiritual celebration.

Dana Leong

Like Cohen, cellist/trombonist Dana Leong participated in last year's festival, playing both as a member of festival artistic director Paquito D'Rivera's trio and as a member of the Sibusiso Victor Masondo ensemble. But audiences who came to coffee shop/art house Bus Boys and Poets expecting the same Leong were in for a surprise.

This time Leong arrived with his hip-hop influenced group, complete with MC, keyboards, laptop, kicking beats, and an audacious sonic blend that knocked audience members out of their seats and kept them shouting for encore after encore.

Opening with an intense, heavy rhymed tune thick with distortion titled "Bonefied," Leong pulled no punches throughout the night as he jumped from original compositions like the soaring crescendo of hope "One Life," to a politically pointed cover of Sam Cooke's, "A Change is Gonna Come," to a cacophonous, brand new tune called "Across the Line".

On each tune, Leong and band mates Aviv Cohen (drums), Adam Platt (keyboards), and MC Core Rhythm, unleashed a seemingly endless array of technical and technological surprises, with Leong taking the lead as he alternated between cello and trombone and adding various layers of effects to both.

Though tremendous on trombone, especially as he interacts with MC Core Rhythm's freestyle, Leong's experimental shock is most stunning on cello. Plucking, strumming, bowing, and tapping the strings, Leong manipulates an instrument most often associated with the precision and emotive clarity of classical quartets, into a blistering medium of astonishing tonal range—sounding like everything from its traditional sonorous voice, to the most distorted of electric guitars and everything in between.

A prime example of this was Leong's improvised slide into a Jimi Hendrix inspired "Star Spangled Banner" in the middle of the evening's highlight, Leong's reworking of the punk band Firewater's "Another Perfect Catastrophe". As he shredded away, the crowd cheered the political cleverness, musical virtuosity, and unbridled energy on display in one of many rapid-fire moments of inventiveness.

Built around modern beats and infused from top to bottom with cutting edge sounds, Leong's music embodies a new bohemia, a culture of collision that disavows boundaries. And the crowd loved it.

Booking Leong's highly experimental, innovative group into a hip, politically charged venue perfectly suited to his brand of hard-hitting, challenging music is an example of the Duke Ellington Festival's savvy in leveraging existing relationships and past successes to strengthen the festival's appeal within the still limited resources it has to work with. Hopefully the festival will continue to put artists like Leong on the forefront of its schedule, keeping the festival's image vibrant and helping to draw in new, younger audiences reflective of Washington, DC's diversity.


The above sampling represents the evolving fare available at the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival. On the main stages and in the clubs a growing cross section of the contemporary jazz scene can be found—from McCoy Tyner, to Christian McBride, to the Duke Ellington Orchestra, to Dana Leong. With each passing year, this picture is becoming more complete as the festival secures a place in Washington, DC's cultural scene. Or, in the words of local business owner Anne Chashin, who runs Jonny's Half Shell and has hosted events for two years, "Something that is an important cultural event that people can look forward to year in and year out, I think that strengthens the community... We're in our fourth year, we're just getting started. I hope over time it becomes a new Washington tradition that people look forward to and helps them enjoy their own city. That's what [the festival] is really about for me."

Photo Credit

Jean-Francois Kalka

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