It's all around, the sound of jazz, leaking from half-open windows, spilling out of doorways, flowing down the street in little pockets of music escaping restaurants, bars, and clubs. Couples wander in and out, patrons call for drinks over twanging pianos and swinging beats, intent listeners bend forward to catch every note, and lines of guests wait outside for the next show to begin.
It's not New York in 1940. It's 2005 in Washington, D.C. and the U-Street Corridor has been transformed for the weekend by the first annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, a four-day event honoring the career of the legendary artist and D.C. native.
With jazz festivals now dotting the four corners of the globe and many cities and resorts in between, establishing a new, successful event is no small undertaking. Particularly when the envisioned result is as ambitious as what festival brain-child Charlie Fishman had in mind. Formerly Dizzy Gillespie's manager, Fishman clearly set out to do more than drag a few bands into town and sell some tickets and t-shirts. What Fishman and fellow organizers evidently intended was to found a significant event not only shining a spotlight on one of jazz's leading historical figures, but also bringing a major celebration of jazz to the nation's capital.
While it will take more than one year to become firmly established, the successes of the inaugural Duke Ellington Festival bode well for the future, as does the D.C.'s status as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.
Spread over four days and over a dozen venues, the festival revolved around three major events supplemented by performances at all of Washington's major jazz clubs, as well as various other restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. Given Washington, D.C.'s early role as a historic center of jazz and African-American art and entertainment, particularly the U-Street Corridor, it was appropriate that this model placed the focus of the festival on the community as well as the music.
And since politics permeates Washington life, it was inevitable that the opening event of the festival-a VIP reception-took place on Capitol Hill and was hosted by a joint committee of U.S. Representatives and Senators. Following this VIP reception, the festival kicked-off in earnest with two nights of consecutive concerts at the historic Lincoln Theater, the first by veteran pianist, composer, and living legend Dave Brubek, the second a rousing show by the Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra that turned out to be one of the festival's major highlights. Not only did the O'Farrill Orchestra put on its usual display of energetic, rhythmically vibrant music, it also transformed the night into one of distinct artistic achievement with its debut of an overture and suite commissioned specifically for the festival. An extravagant composition, the "Ellington Afro-Latin Suite captured Ellington's compositional brilliance as well as his experimental innovations. The song was grounded in Ellington's masterful use of color, incorporated together with modern sensibilities and a dynamic blend of afro-Cuban rhythms that set the arrangement on fire.
The third main event and centerpiece of the festival, a free all-day concert, took place just below the Washington Monument at the open-air Sylvan Amphitheater. Aided by sunny weather and bright blue skies, jazz devotees, the curious, and passersby were treated to exhilarating performances by some of jazz's most notable elite, including Wallace Roney, Chuck Brown, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and the highlight of the show, the Wayne Shorter Quartet featuring Wayne Shorter, Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade.
Greeted by shouts of enthusiasm and urged on by near-constant applause, these four eminent musicians took the audience on a masterful musical excursion ranging from deep funk to the furthest abstractions of the jazz stratosphere. Grounded by Patitucci's bedrock bass lines, Brian Blade's eruptive beats, and propelled by Perez's shrewd piano accompaniment, Shorter, employing both soprano and tenor saxophones, blended sheer ascents, slow slides, ornate arches and subtle curves to trace an elaborate and beautiful architecture of sound.
Despite these musical peaks, however, as is always the case with festivals of this kind, many of the event highlights took place away from the main stage in the small clubs where jazz's next generation earns its keep and makes its impact. Two prime examples of this phenomenon were the performances by the Jean-Michel Pilc Trio at the Smithsonian IMAX Jazz Café
and the Moutin Reunion Quartet at D.C.'s long-time jazz club Bohemian Caverns.
Originally from Paris, self-taught pianist Jean-Michel Pilc
burst on the New York scene in the mid-nineties to quickly establish himself as a new, powerful voice in the jazz world. Irrepressible, irreverent, uncompromising, and impossibly innovative, Pilc has become known for his startling compositions and explosive improvisatory style, as well as his leadership of two trios, equally recognized for their rhythmic ingenuity and almost psychic group dynamic. Tucked in the corner of the IMAX jazz café with band-mates Ari Hoenig (drums) and Thomas Bramerie (bass), Pilc let out all the stops, presenting material from previous albums, their upcoming release, and even a newly composed work, whose astonishingly integrated diversity of moods, rhythms, and colors painted a tremendously moving tonal landscape. By the end of the evening, the trio's expressiveness, unbridled energy, and sheer virtuosic talent reminded audience members that jazz is an ever moving art and its greatest practitioners are often found off the beaten track.
As if to drive home this point, one of the festival's finest moments took place during its final hours, in the two-level restaurant and club, the Bohemian Caverns. It is one of the distinct pleasures of jazz, and all live music, to witness first-hand a band's evolution, especially when that evolution entails great leaps forward. Merely a year ago, and after many years of separation, the twin brothers Francois (bass) and Louis (drums) Moutin reunited to form a new band, and release an album under the name the Moutin Reunion Quartet. As part of the tour for that album, the band played at D.C.'s Blues Alley
and though they blew the audience away with their stunning instrumentalism, it was clear that the band member's were still new to each other and had yet to unlock their full potential. Now, a year later, that promise has come to fruition. Playing a whole new range of material composed by the brothers for their latest release, Something Like Now
, the band has reached a new level of expressiveness fueled by compositions of greater clarity, complexity, and daring. Whereas previously the Moutin brothers at times expressed their virtuosity at the expense of the whole, leaving pianist Pierre De Bethmann and saxophonist Rick Margitza by the wayside, the band now plays as a tight unit devoted to their group sound. On tune after tune, all four musicians not only contributed blistering solos, but urged each other forward with intermittently subtle and aggressive accompaniment. In short, in the brief span of a single year, the Moutin Reunion Quartet has risen to the artistic challenge of surpassing oneself, even when that means taking the risky leap beyond already proven excellence into the uncharted territory of experiment.
After four days of the Duke Ellington Festival, it is clear that Washington, D.C. possess an ample appetite for jazz, and even long-time residents may have been surprised to discover just how many venues throughout the city offer live music year round, let alone during special events. It remains to be seen whether the Duke Ellington Festival will return next year as promised, but by all rights it certainly should for the simple reason that as one of America's greatest contributions to culture, jazz deserves a celebrated home in the nation's capitol.