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

Franz A. Matzner By

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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 Festiva 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.

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