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Bucky Pizzarelli Performing at the Smithsonian Under a Cloud

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One would expect the Smithsonian Institution, above all, to recognize the value inherent within this indigenous American art form.
The Statesmen of Jazz with Bucky Pizzarelli
Smithsonian Jazz Café
Washington D.C.
April 6, 2007

Washington, D.C. consistently limps and trips from scandal to outrage. It is never surprising when yet another committee is formed to investigate the depths of the city's shallow political waters. The venerable Smithsonian Institution is not immune from such controversy. Although the rest of the country may think that the almost $700 million in annual government funding is utilized to promote American culture in an unselfish and uncompromising manner, the Smithsonian has recently illustrated that it is not immune to scandal and profit mongering. Whether Lawrence M. Small's recent resignation from his $915,698 annual position as the Institution's Director, or the receipt of corporate funding to (allegedly) influence the content of exhibitions, the group of museums has recently illustrated that it, too, is seeking its share of—to use Dave Frishberg's colloquialism-"Long Daddy Green.

One of the many worthwhile efforts of the Smithsonian emerged six years ago in the form of the Smithsonian "Jazz Café." While traditional Washington media outlets may blithely declare the city to be a great jazz city with an exciting live music movement, those with any sense of history and attention to the industry know otherwise. Located in the National Museum of Natural History on the "National Mall," the Jazz Café has been a most welcome addition to the city scene and has consistently presented top notch local and international musicians in a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere. It is organized by Smithsonian Business Ventures (SBV), the Smithsonian's profit-making division, which organizes museum vending and gift shops and restaurant sales. One cannot fault them for seeking another avenue of fund-raising to support the museum.

Over its six-year tenure, the Jazz Café has attracted stunning musicians at its weekly Friday evening concert series. The individual responsible for booking the club is a guitarist, so the venue often focuses on this instrument. Jimmy Bruno, Mundell Lowe, Jack Wilkins, Howard Alden, Russell Malone and Joe Cohn, as well as Barry Harris, Scott Hamilton, Houston Person, Buck Hill, Mickey Roker and Arturo O'Farrill have all been featured. The festivities start at 6:00 pm, just as people begin to emerge from their offices downtown, and continue to 10:00 pm. The cover charge is ten dollars.

So how in the world can controversy touch the Jazz Café? The SBV recently announced its intention to close the venue in June, as it is allegedly a money-losing proposition. When the venue charges $39 for a cheap bottle of wine and $15.95 for a quesadilla, it is difficult to imagine that a profit is not possible. Moreover, it is doubtful that all the monies are being paid to the performing musicians. The museum's official spokesman, moreover, recently expressed surprise at the revelation; he thought that the venue was indeed profitable. Oddly enough, the Smithsonian has yet to explain its findings or provide any details concerning the alleged monetary loss.

The Jazz Café is housed in a large and architecturally modern circular room consisting of two concentric circles seating approximately 500 listeners. In one end is located a cafeteria serving salads and lite fare. Two bartenders are situated at opposite ends of the room, attending well-stocked bars. The inner circle of tables is populated by those who arrive early and usually consists of serious jazz listeners. The outer circle often seats those government workers and Washington professionals who merely seek a pleasant place to have a drink, talk with friends, and listen to inoffensive music somewhere in the distance. And therein lays the inherent problem with the venue, perhaps inevitable in this city: a conflict between the serious music listener and the incessant talkers with the steadfast belief that their conversation is more important than the music being expressed.

My wife and I have attended many shows; it is always crowded. A recent birthday celebration for Buck Hill, simulcast on WPFW FM (the local jazz station Pacifica affiliate) attracted a full house. Other concerts routinely bring several hundred people. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago the group consisted of Bucky Pizzarelli, Warren Vaché, John Bunch, Jay Leonhart and Mickey Roker, a stellar and truly stunning collective of legends. My wife arrived in line at 5:00 p.m.; by the time I appeared at 5:45 there were many hundreds of people waiting in line to enter. After 6:00 p.m., the line had added many more expectant listeners, many of whom were turned away.

The festivities began with "In a Mellow Tone." Vaché's muted cornet and Pizzarelli's guitar stated the jaunty theme in octaves at a brisk pace. Roker subtly moved the pace along. Although Pizzarelli and this identical group recently released 5 for Freddie, a tribute to Basie's great rhythm guitarist, Freddie Green, Pizzarelli did not use the evening to promote the CD. Rather, Pizzarelli—perhaps to the gratefulness of the audience—demonstrated his legendary and characteristic style on his seven-string instrument; he created long and flowing lines, plucked as well as strummed in a muted fashion, tastefully employing his ample and diverse resources as a musician.

In the second set, Jay Leonhart stepped forward and explained that Pizzarelli had instructed him to sing with his bass as the only accompaniment. He began with "It's Impossible to Sing and Play the Bass and, after a few verses, the boisterous crowd of 500 suddenly stilled. It was a humorous song about—just that. He followed it with a truly ingenious tune entitled "Me and Lenny," originally on his album Life Out on the Road: A Jazz Journey. In an almost sprechstimme manner of singing, he relayed a story of how he sat next to Leonard Bernstein on a flight from New York to Los Angeles during which the convivial pair share stories of music and similar lives, followed by the lesser luminary's feigned sense of injury when Lenny never keeps in touch.

Having played with Mel Torme for some years, Leonhart next delivered a story about sneaking off to play a gig in New York during a one-week stint at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. Foul weather threatened the flight, and the plane landed, albeit very late, at 7:30 p.m. Although overjoyed when "we made every light, the bassist ran into the club at 8:00 sharp, fully expecting to be fired for his tardiness. However, it was Leonhart who was early—the only musician present, in fact; Tormé's crew didn't arrive until another 30 minutues had passed. The crowd roared its approval and cheered his seemingly indomitable spirit.

Following Leonhart's solo turn, the crowd heartily welcomed the full group upon its return to the bandstand. Throughout the evening five legendary, masterful musicians educated and entertained hundreds of people for several hours. Even those in the audience unaware of the musicians and their status in the music no doubt departed for home with a greater appreciation for jazz and hearts filled with the joy of being.

It's hard to think of cultural events more worthy of government support. One would expect the Smithsonian Institution, above all, to recognize the value inherent within this indigenous American art form, and to present these current musical legends while edifying a willing and eager public. Apparently, the Smithsonian, in its effort to seek profits, feels otherwise. For the present, listeners can only look for more great music from the Smithsonian while they still have the opportunity.

Personnel: Bucky Pizzarrelli: guitar; Warren Vaché:cornet; John Bunch: piano; Jay Leonhart: bass; Mickey Roker: drums.

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