Earl May Jazz Café
, Smithsonian Institute
October 19, 2007
The Smithsonian Institution hates jazz; at least, their actions may so intimate. For the past few years, Randall Kremer, the intrepid Director of Public Affairs at the National Museum of Natural History and an amateur jazz guitarist, has been booking phenomenal musicians every Friday evening at the museum's Jazz Café. Indeed, the venue has been a most welcome and needed addition to the city's shallow jazz scene, consistently presenting legendary international musicians, and local artists, in a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere. Without the club, these musicians would, most probably, be unable to play in this city.
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, Arturo O'Farrill, Bucky Pizzarelli, Warren Vaché, John Bunch and Jay Leonhart (along with scores of others) have graced the modest stage for those listeners yearning to witness these great artists. Furthermore, hundreds of people gather each Friday to hear such legends. Arguably, "the world's largest museum complex and an institution which is supposed to promote American culture, should welcome Mr. Kremer's assiduous efforts. But for much of this year, he has been fighting a difficult battle.
The Jazz Café has been organized by Smithsonian Business Ventures, the institution's profit-making division, which coordinates museum vending and gift shops and restaurant sales. The group had announced that the venue was unprofitable, thus making its future uncertain. Mr. Kremer, however, was successful in organizing some corporate sponsorships to ease the alleged financial burden. Nevertheless, the Smithsonian has, once again, expressed its doubts about the viability of the program, making its concerts certain only through November.
On October 19, 2007, legendary bassist Earl May, who has not played in Washington, D.C. in many years, brought his regular quartet to the stage. Along with altoist David Glasser, pianist Larry Ham, and elder statesman Eddie Locke on drums, the group brought much-needed ease and elegance to the area. May, who served as bassist for Billy Taylor in the 1950s, and who played on John Coltrane's Lush Life album on Prestige, may not be renowned for revolutionizing performance techniques on the instrument. But his crisp articulation, firm support and swinging lyricism set him apart. Moreover, the event was also a celebration of his recent eightieth birthday, making his musical resourcefulness all the more remarkable.
The group began the first set in a trio settling, with "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise." Although only a few minutes in duration, the performance was tasteful and satisfying. The quartet continued with "In a Sentimental Mood," with Glasser's saxophone stating the melody in lilting form. Eddie Locke, whose playing graced many Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins performances, performed elegantly and expertly with his brushes, barely touching the instrument, but nonetheless articulating and providing an expert swing component.
The title track from the group's recent release on Arbors Records, Swinging the Blues, followed. It's an up-tempo piece, with Glasser's dry yet romantic tone belying the bluesy character of the composition. Nevertheless, the contrast made perfect sense in the saxophonist's hands. Ham graced his instrument with sprightly right-hand runs, supported by his left-handed chord pronouncements. Once again, and perhaps surprisingly, May did not solo. But his subtle, unassuming but firm support propelled the performance.
Vocalist Juanita Fleming joined the group for several numbers and galvanized the Friday evening crowd. With hints of Sarah Vaughan in the upper register and a resounding lower tone, she may have unknowingly celebrated the fall of much-needed rain in the area with the Van Heusen standard "Here's That Rainy Day." The lyrics were expressed in a heartfelt, elastic and fluid fashion. Glasser's alto sounded, at times, akin to Paul Desmond's dry lyricism and provided an opposing, yet complementary, voice to Fleming's more soulful approach. May anchored the proceedings with a fat tone, which resonated well, floating out and above the group.
Fleming continued with a relaxed yet propulsive performance of Van Heusen-Mercer's "I Thought About You." She decided to enliven the crowd with a vivacious traditional blues favorite"Kansas City Here I Come," encouraging everyone to clap in time and participate in the fun the musicians were obviously experiencing. She also led the audience in singing "Happy Birthday to Mr. May, lending a lively jazz interpretation to the often tepid and lackluster song.
In short, it was yet another remarkable evening at the Smithsonian's Jazz Café. The concert was, like many such Friday evenings, broadcast live on WPFW-FM, the local Pacifica affiliate and the only station in town that features jazz. How many cities have a venue, which welcomes allfrom the office worker seeking to ease the week's turmoil to visiting children exposed to their first jazz concertand does so at an affordable price ($10 a ticket)? Moreover, how many cities have a radio station which features live broadcasts of local notable jazz concerts? How many cities offer an intimate venue to legendary jazz musicians, who otherwise would not be scheduled at larger halls throughout the area? Perhaps strangely, staid and stolid Washington, D.C. has just such a placeat least, until the Smithsonian decides otherwise.