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Washington, D.C. Reclaims its Role as a Jazz Destination

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Music is a powerful thing...fresh air for your life. You need jazz to breathe. It's just like oxygen. —Jimmy "Junebug" Jackson

Oxygen for the Ears: Living Jazz

Oxygen for the Ears is a 2012 award-winning documentary film depicting the vibrancy of the jazz scene in the nation's capital. Made in three years by German-born astrophysicist Stefan Immler, the 94-minute documentary shows the city's key role in the past, present and future of jazz and is gaining attention for the filmmaker and his adopted city.

The film was selected for 16 film festivals in the U.S., Canada and Germany, winning an award for Best U.S. Documentary at Manhattan International Film Festival 2012 and for Best Music Documentary at the World Music and Independent Film Festival 2012. It found a standing-room-only audience at the Third Annual Reel Independent Film Extravaganza (RIFE) in Washington, DC.

The film has prompted much discussion about whether the city's role in the national jazz scene is under recognized by national newspapers and jazz magazines, which focus on New York City. While District musicians sometimes spend time in New York to raise their profiles, many do their life's work in the enormous DC metro area, which stretches to Maryland and Northern Virginia. In an interview with Sirius XM's Mark Ruffin, Immler said it was time to give the District and its musicians their due.

Washington DC's Role in Jazz History

Oxygen for the Ears presents plenty of fascinating facts: for example, native son Duke Ellington began booking bands from a sign painting company; Jelly Roll Morton, who was playing jazz as early as 1902, ventured to the District in 1935 and ran the Jungle Inn nightclub (next to Ben's Chili Bowl) on U Street. But the city's jazz history goes much further back.

Narrated by the familiar voice of Erik Dellums, known from hit TV series The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Streets, Oxygen for the Ears begins its jazz history lesson in the 1800s.

It tells the story of jazz from its inception in New Orleans to its migration to the District of Columbia and expansion to Harlem. University of Maryland music history professor Patrick Warfield was interviewed for the film. "We forget that the Harlem Renaissance, in many ways began here in the District of Columbia," he says. "Duke Ellington, Alain Locke and Langston Hughes had careers here in the District before they moved to Harlem."

Washington historian Bernard Demczuk concurs. "Before there was the Apollo," he says, "there was The Howard Theatre." Since the early 1910 that's where the greatest African-American artists in the nation performed. Located in the now revitalized U Street jazz district, The Howard Theatre reopened in April of 2012 after extensive renovation.

The film depicts countless jazz treasures in many neighborhoods, demonstrating that District artists and venues were historically prominent and are part of a burgeoning jazz scene today. Besides The Howard, the film features prominent U Street jazz clubs such as Bohemian Caverns (opened in 1926 in the basement of a drugstore), and Twins Jazz.

Photographs, recordings, performance clips and interviews tell the story. Elder statesmen such as bassist Butch Warren and saxophonist Buck Hill make appearances along with Billy Taylor, Gene (Joe) Byrd, and Jimmy "Junebug" Jackson. Fortunately, the latter three were interviewed for the film before their passing.

In the Edmonton news magazine Gig City, writer Barry Hammond calls Washington, DC the "jazz city that Ken Burns missed." He makes the point: "When Ken Burns' 10-part series on the history of jazz premiered in 2001, one can just imagine German filmmaker Stefan Immler watching the segments on New York, Chicago, St. Louis, or Kansas City in his new home-town and screaming, "Hey! What about Washington, DC?!'"

DC Jazz Media

This writer has spoken with jazz fans of all ages from Sweden, Canada, and China who seem to know more about U Street jazz than do many national and even local journalists. There is no jazz writer at the city's largest paper, the Washington Post, and important jazz events like the DC Jazz Festival are covered sporadically.

The voice of jazz was diminished last winter with drastic cuts to jazz programming at Pacifica radio station WPFW. The general manager cut shows and moved experienced DJs such as Candy Shannon and Rusty Hassan to early a.m. and late night slots. (They had migrated from nearby public radio station WAMU that now offers little jazz besides Rob Bamberger's enduring period jazz program "Hot Jazz Saturday Night.") Town meetings were held, staff and volunteers weighed in and the WPFW grid shifted back to more jazz.

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