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2003 East Coast Jazz Festival, Feb. 13-16, 2003

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On 'Christina', magic occurred... It was the aural equivalent of watching a sunrise over a mist-filled meadow. Beautiful.
Neither the drumbeats of war nor the warnings about terrorism could stay Washington, D.C.-area jazz lovers from the 12th annual East Coast Jazz Festival Feb. 13-16. Nor could the lurching economy, or the forecast calling for a snowy holiday weekend - a forecast that proved all too accurate.

No, in spite of these potential pitfalls or pratfalls, a couple of thousand devotees of swing, bop and blues spent the better part of four nights and two days ensconced in the Doubletree Hotel in Rockville, Md., where hundreds of hours of live music ensued on a half-dozen stages.

This is a festival well matched to its audience. In the main ballroom, where several hundred mostly middle-aged and up fans paid up to $200 for reserved seats, the performers more often than not were older, too, and steeped in the music of the Great American Songbook and of Ellington, Monk, Gillespie and other great jazz composers.

Other stages were for aspiring artists and college and high school bands, and were free of charge, attracting younger crowds.

Of course, some of us older folks did cross the generation gap to enjoy what the youngsters were putting down - and that was mighty impressive, especially when last year's scholarship winners and this year's dozen finalists got their chance to shine in the spotlight of the big stage. The festival's raison d'etre is to encourage young talent to pursue the study of music, and scholarships of $3,000, $2,000 and $1,500 are awarded each year.

The big ballroom's seats were never all filled. It might be a nice gesture to invite some of the high school band performers to enjoy a set or two for free, exposing them to the masters. Just a thought.

The opening night "big band blast" led off with perennial favorite Ernie Andrews singing out front of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts jazz ensemble. His "Old Man Jazz" is a tasty tip of the hat to jazz greats past and present. After two Afro-Cuban bands from the D.C. area, Orquestra La Leyenda and La Jazz, turned up the heat, the U.S. Army Blues from Fort Meyer, Va., snapped off another salute to heroes of America's classical music with invigorating new arrangements of works by Miles Davis, Gillespie, Monk and Coltrane. The sassy Marlena Shaw was the band's "girl singer," wrapping up the night with her inimitable half- sung, half-recited account of a no-account boyfriend, "Go Away, Little Boy."

Singers, especially women, are featured at this festival, perhaps because its organizer, Ronnie Wells, is one herself. On Valentine's Day, Philadelphia songstress Miss Justine's selection of romantic standards and D.C.'s Pam Bricker's more adventurous set - she scatted convincingly, recast "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" as a samba, growled like a muted trombone and howled monkey-style - both were impressive.

The instrumental sets were even better. Drummer Ricky Loza's Latin-flavored quintet was joined by Jon Metzger, whose vibes shimmered on blues and ballads. The closing set was by the great pianist Dick Morgan's quintet, conjuring up memories of Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson in their heydays.

Noted bassist Keter Betts introduced a young singer, Queen Aishah, in an early afternoon set on Saturday the 15th. She quickly captivated the crowd with a couple of standards, then cut loose with a back-to-church feeling "See See Rider." This whetted appetites for more blues, and the leather-lunged Linda Hopkins served them up big time, with tenor man Buck Hill pouring on some juicy obbligatos. Trumpeter Valery Ponomarev's pyrotechnics (speaking figuratively, not literally) and his English-as-a-second-language anecdotes recalling his days with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers were enthralling.

Bassist Buster Williams is another favorite at this festival. He had superb support from drummer Lenny White, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and keyboard player George Colligan. On "Christina", magic occurred, starting with barely audible synthesizer tones, then the gentle thrum of the bass, the whoosh of brushes on skin, and finally the mallets, sketching out the melody. It was the aural equivalent of watching a sunrise over a mist-filled meadow. Beautiful.

Singer Stephanie Nakasian was next up, bright and bouncy on some numbers, warm and tender on others, scatting uninhibitedly on a Horace Silver gem and doing her own mouth trombone shtick.


Sunday's closing schedule was thrown a curveball - or better yet, a snowball - as the President's Weekend Storm shifted into overdrive. A number of performers were unable to travel, leaving organizers and musicians scrambling to put together the eight mainstage sets. But jazz is improvising, after all, and some wondrous music evolved, especially when vibraphonist Harris pinch-hit in the impish organist Lonnie Smith's quartet. Richie "Alto Madness" Cole zinged a few bars of "Jingle Bells" into one tune, and Linda Hopkins was drafted for an encore set, even bluer and bawdier than the day before, with Davey Yarborough wailing away on tenor like a throwback to the Ray Charles or Fats Domino bands of the early '50s.

Then it was time to skedaddle out of town, a daunting task given that subways, buses, taxis and airplanes were all stuck in two feet of snow. Our nation's capital may be good at winning wars, but it's no match for a blizzard.

Photo Credit
Ronnie James

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