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.

The good news is that new avenues of jazz coverage have opened up. Website Capital Bop publishes news, events and reviews. Other sites like DC Jazz (and the related Instant Seats) as well as District Jazz at All About Jazz (and its new Jazz Near You: DC ) fill the information gap with news, bios and event listings for the region. For informed in-depth blogs, jazz fans may visit Open Sky Jazz hosted by Willard and Suzan Jenkins.

Washington, DC: A Stop for Touring Jazz Artists

While national and international jazz promoters sometimes pull out their hair in frustration over the lack of solid jazz reporting, DC concert halls and clubs are filling seats with jazz fans, and new venues are opening. Change is in the air.

In 2011, jazz pianist Jason Moran replaced the late Billy Taylor as artistic adviser for jazz at the Kennedy Center. The New York-based touring artist says the District is an important destination for national and international players. "It's on the tour circuit," he says. "You go to New York, to Philly and to D.C. and it's a destination with a good audience for clubs. I'm inspired by what I see every time I drive into D.C."

When Moran comes to the Capital, he visits jazz joints around town. Besides those mentioned earlier, he hits the Atlas and HR-57 on H Street in Northeast and Columbia Station and Eighteenth Street Lounge in Adams Morgan.

The Kennedy Center and Other Major Cultural Institutions

As the nation's center for the performing arts, the Kennedy Center offers artistic excellence and cultural diversity, featuring many opportunities to hear music from many cultures. A healthy portion of their offerings involves jazz.

Moran is mixing things up even further. He hosted a free election-night concert fusing jazz and political history and a ticketed event pairing jazz with comedy. He is intrigued with the free Millennium Stage concerts. Presented at 6:00 p.m. 365 days a year, they host jazz and other genres. He says, "I want people to consider that the Kennedy Center is there for them to enjoy, just as you would a club around the corner. It belongs to them."

Two more major jazz presenters serving the nation's capital are Strathmore in nearby Bethesda, Maryland and the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS). Lacking a physical location for its pursuits, WPAS is an incredible collaborator, including jazz and jazz education in its offerings. WPAS is the largest presenter of cultural activities in D.C. Public Schools. Programs include the Capitol Jazz Project for middle schools in conjunction with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center with local saxophonist Jeff Antoniuk as master teaching artist leading his band, the Jazz Update.

Smithsonian Institution museums also present jazz. Check out the American Art Museum's Take 5! concerts on Thursdays. The National Gallery of Art presents jazz on Fridays in summer and universities around the beltway offer additional resources.

Moran says, "The city has the audiences that allow the artists to grow. You can see so many acts in one evening." He'd like to see a report assessing their cultural and economic value: "It's important," he says, "so that no one is under any delusions about who is coming and why they are there."

Top Jazz Destinations

What U.S. cities call out to Moran as a jazz artist? Those most familiar and important to him are New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and New Orleans.

Moran looks at a city's jazz scene through the artists who enliven it. "I always think about who does the city raise? Duke Ellington and Billy Taylor were people who became major mouthpieces for the music and swayed the opinions of millions," he says. "D.C. is a major central point because of the people it births." He does not feel a musician has to live and perform in New York to make a substantial contribution.

Jazz publications have been largely indifferent to players and events outside of the Big Apple yet continue to lose readership. Is there a connection? Jazz happens all over this country and all over the globe. Annual lists of jazz camps and festivals are useful, but don't make up for sparse regional reporting. Thus a paradigm shift has already begun.

Some national radio hosts cast a wider net. Jim Wilkes of "Jazz After Hours" and Mark Ruffin's "Real Jazz" at Sirius XM come to mind. A few years back, Ruffin featured excerpts from jazz festivals in many different cities in segments hosted by Monty Alexander (the pianist has a festival in his own name in Easton, Maryland). Listeners were treated to the likes of genre crossing Chicago composer and trumpeter Orbert Davis and excerpts from the Chicago Jazz Festival. What a great use of radio!

University Jazz Programs

One should not take for granted the creation and development of the many robust jazz studies programs. They are built on the blood and sweat of generations of musicians, most of whom did not have the advantage of a college education of any kind.

The Washington, DC metropolitan area is teeming with jazz and it's a hot bed of jazz education. Jazz students and fans can hear many university jazz professors playing in surrounding clubs and concert halls. They're releasing new albums and contributing mightily to the jazz canon.

We surveyed jazz programs at five DC-area universities and one in nearby College Park, Maryland. (A seventh did not respond to inquiries.)

American University

The major in jazz studies began eight years ago and Joshua Bayer is at the helm. Jazz is part of the music division in the department of performing arts. A bachelor's degree in music with a jazz emphasis is offered, and about 15 of 50 students involved in the program are jazz majors. Bayer says the related audio technology department is "one of the best in the country." A music business degree is offered in connection with the business school, and AU offers a graduate arts management degree.

George Mason University

Director of Jazz Studies Jim Carroll is enthusiastic about this promising new area in the School of Music, College of Visual and Performing Arts. There are 15 majors, 15 minors and four graduate students in jazz studies. A minor was offered in 2000, a B.M. in 2004 and an M.M. in 2010. One full-time and a dozen adjunct professors include heavy hitters such as Assistant Director Dr. Darden Purcell and world-class jazz pianist Wade Beach. The program offers instrumental and vocal jazz ensembles, including a traditional jazz ensemble and two big bands, including the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra. GMU also hosts Jazz4Justice, a program integrating the law communities and the jazz program, raising funds for the poor and educating the public about jazz.


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