2004 was another outstanding year for jazz at the Kennedy Center, with a diverse and superlative roster of musicians along with a series of outstanding mini-festivals that confirmed the Kennedy Center's status as one of the top jazz centers in the world.
Under the guidance of jazz phenomenon and educator Dr. Billy Taylor, and with the support of vice president for education Derek Gordan, the Kennedy Center offered an ever-widening selection of jazz greats. Dr. Taylor's firm belief in the expansiveness of jazz can been seen in his dedication to bringing musicians of all styles from around the world together under one roof. As a result of its commitment to drawing from all genres, the Kennedy Center leaves few audiences unsatisfied. From a series centered on Latin jazz, to another on French jazz, from the famous annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, to individual performances that push at the limits of jazz traditions, the common denominator is the consistent quality of the music.
A sampling of the Center's concerts in 2004 is a testament to this diversity. Featured artists included such outstanding performers as Peter Cincotti, Cassandra Wilson, Bobby Sanabria, Roy Hargrove, Ray Barreto, Fred Hersch, Karen Briggs, Joe Lovano, Hiromi, Claudia Acuna, and a host of others. And in keeping with Dr. Taylor's philosophy, whether in the intimate KC Jazz Club or on one of the Center's larger stages, most performances included an element of education alongside entertainment. Sometimes this consisted of a few short explanations or historical anecdotes offered by the performers, while other events featured longer discussions and educational seminars as preludes or finales to the show. An essential component of what makes the Kennedy Center unique, these activities not only add to the events themselves, but also serve to raise jazz's profile. For example, one event of 2004 featured a televised explanatory session by percussionist/bandleader and Latin jazz expert, Bobby Sanabria, which was beamed into participating public schools, and another evening offered a discussion of jazz hosted by the inimitable Dr. Taylor himself.
Highlights of the year included a blistering and experimental showing by violist Karen Briggs; a cross-cultural extravaganza by the Winard Harper Sextet which blended traditional jazz with the rythms and musical structures of Africa and the Middle East; an intimate evening of traditional jazz by singer Tierney Sutton; a moving night of vocals by Chilean vocalist Claudia Acuna, focused on blending the folk music of her native country with jazz and blues forms; and of course, the Women in Jazz Festival featuring such artists as Jane Bunnett, Janis Siegel, and Geri Allen.
As well, the annual Jazz Piano Christmas was a memorable closing moment for 2004 at the Kennedy Center. Co-hosted and broadcast live by National Public Radio (NPR), this event encapsulated what makes the Kennedy Center special and served well to close out one year of music and herald in the next. Bonnie Grice, NPR's humorous announcer, introduced a series of musicians offering personalized renditions of the Christmas songs that serve as the foundation for every Christmas tradition around the world. Young up-and-comer Adam Birnbaum set the mood of the night with his interpretation of "Let it Snow," while Japanese jazz star Hiromi stole the night with "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" and a bluesy version of "A Christmas Song." Other performers featured included the Lynne Arriale Trio, pianist Kenny Barron, Paul Meyers and Ray Vega on guitar and trumpet respectively, and the campy vocalist/pianist Andy Bey. Hailing from across the globe and reflecting jazz's full spectrum of styles, each of these musicians offered an intimate perspective on the tradition of Christmas music, showcasing their very distinct personalities and skills.
As succesful as the 2004 season was, it appears that the Kennedy Center is determined to surpass itself in 2005. An expanded line-up at the Center's small KC Jazz Club will once again bring jazz's newest sounds to D.C., such as T.S. Monk, David Sanchez, and Jason Moran, and special events such as a performance by the Dave Holland Big Band, the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, and the much awaited tenth anniversary Mary Lou Williams festival all promise to make 2005 a superior year for jazz at the Kennedy Center.
As the past year of music has already proven, and future plans underscore, the Kennedy Center has fully embraced jazz, placing America's music center stage alongside the Center's more traditional offerings. These welcome efforts on behalf of jazz by the Kennedy Center are part of a long-overdue renaissance of jazz culture in Washington, D.C., and in a larger context, foster a greater understanding of jazz in the country of its birth.
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