Arts Desk

DC Jazz Festival: A Post-Mortem

DC Jazz Festival

The 2012 DC Jazz Festival landed amid a perfect storm. From the opening of The Hamilton—maybe the best thing ever to happen to the festival, but more on that later—and the reopening of the Howard Theatre to the increasing confidence and imagination of CapitalBop and the accession of Jazz at the Atlas to the proliferation of great local acts, it all came together in an excellent mosaic. This year was the festival's best yet.

There are a number of other reasons for this, too; I haven't even mentioned programming, which included outstanding performances by Randy Weston, Ben Williams, John Scofield, and the Classical Jazz Quartet, as well as the usual DCJF suspects. But there were two particular strengths that deserve special focus.

First, the one I initially hypothesized about: the tightening of the festival's schedule. Fewer days made things denser, with several worthy shows going on at one time, forcing would-be audiences to make hard choices. (I literally had to flip a coin on June 3 to decide between Dianne Reeves at the Howard  and Mark Turner at the Atlas.) Frustrating as it was—at least one person involved with the festival disliked having to split the promotion of each night on the calendar—having choices was a good thing. Faced with several options, audiences were going to split across all of them, a something-for-everyone scenario that gave a boost to all of the venues and artists. "Thanks for choosing me out of so much to see at this festival," saxophonist Marcus Strickland noted at Bohemian Caverns Friday night. "I'm gonna check out some of it myself after I finish this gig."

Another success was the consolidation of showcases for local and out-of-town artists. The shows paired compatible acts from each contingent; having Kris Funn and Corner Store open for Tarbaby was extremely sharp, but having vocalist Akua Allrich open for Randy Weston was a masterstroke.

The other strength of this year's festival was its partnership with The Hamilton. The downtown venue contributed a great deal of its own resources for the track of nightly concerts there, and did a solid professional job with the presentations. And having a central hub for their headline acts really did make things easier for audiences, as well as for the festival itself. Staffers tell me that, while the festival wasn't perfect, they've never had to put out fewer fires.

Each year, the festival has at least one banner event at the Kennedy Center, and this year's was truly magnificent. "Jazz Meets the Classics," held in the Concert Hall, featured radiant performances of classical staples, arranged into jazz setpieces, by the Paquito D'Rivera Quintet and the Classical Jazz Quartet. The former expertly soaked the pieces in particular idioms and places—"You'll think that Mozart must have been Cuban," D'Rivera assured the audience, similarly promising that Bach was really from New Orleans, and delivering on both counts. The Classical Jazz Quartet was much statelier, evoking the instrumental lineup (piano, vibraphone, bass, and drums) and classical infusion of The Modern Jazz Quartet. A version of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" (here just "Jesu") couldn't help but swing in the hands of pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Ron Carter, with exquisite-but-tasteful intensity added by vibraphonist Stefon Harris and drummer Lewis Nash. They were perhaps the more imaginative of the two acts, trying novel experiments such as placing "I Got Rhythm" chord changes under one of the Brandenburg Concertos. They were also more nakedly emotional (via a heartrending performance of Barron's "Phantoms"). It was the jewel in this year's crown.

That's a figure of speech, of course; there were many jewels to be found in 2012's event. The Jazz Festival hasn't quite ascended to the level of a great festival. For that, they'll need to shake up their repeat headliners. It has, however, grown into a very good one.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin
  • Jack Miller

    Why do repeat headliners degrade the quality of the festival? They are not playing the same shows and they switch up their ensembles they play with creating amazing new collaborations with other accomplished jazz musicians. The only thing repeating is the headliners names, besides that everything about their shows are different and the musicianship is undeniably top notch!

    In my opinion, the DC Jazz Festival was bigger, more ambitious, and better than it ever has been this year. With so much variety and so many events to see, there was something for everyone. This complaint seems trivial and in the minority of opinions.

  • Michael J. West

    Jack -

    "In my opinion, the DC Jazz Festival was bigger, more ambitious, and better than it ever has been this year. With so much variety and so many events to see, there was something for everyone."

    I agree. In fact I made every one of these points in the above article.

    "This complaint seems trivial and in the minority of opinions."

    It IS a minor complaint, you're right. The separation from a very good festival to a great one isn't tremendous. But yes, I do think this makes a lot of the difference.

    As for whether it's in the minority of opinions, with all due respect you're not qualified to say one way or the other unless you've taken a scientific poll. But I'm honestly not concerned with whether mine is the majority or minority opinion. As long as it's *mine.*

  • Pingback: Buy prednisone no visa online without rx | FLOWMAX GUIDE

  • charlie fishman

    Thank you Jack Miller! Your comments are right on. I couldn't have said it any better.

    Michael, nobody seems to complain when Itzhak Perlman, Lang Lang and other such artists return to DC year-after-year. So why complain about the jazz artists we bring back regularly? Roy Hargrove (who I consider the DCJF's "energizer bunny"), over the past three years has performed in different settings -- his big band, the RH Factor and, this year, his quintet. Same with Paquito, who has also brought different, unique programs year-after-year -- the United Nation Orchestra, the Jelly Roll Morton Latin Tinge project w/string quartet, percussion and trumpet, and this year, "Jazz Meets the Classics." He also performed in the festival's tribute to James Moody with an all-star line-up, as well as championing younger musicians deserving more exposure -- Diego Urcola, Edmar Castaneda, Alex Brown, Tony Madruga, among them.

    I'm just finishing Tad Hershorn's exceptional biography of Norman Granz -- which I highly recommend -- arguably the greatest impresario in the history of jazz. His "Jazz at the Philharmonic" tours returnrf annually to the same venues, and featured the same core group of artists every year, over a period of almost 30. People didn't complain about Oscar Peterson, Ella, Sweets Edison, Benny Carter and innumerable others playing the same venues each year. Great music, great musicians.

    We always make sure to bring a diverse line-up to the festival every year, as was evidenced by this year's program. And, as demonstrated above, we have commissioned and present quite a bit of "original" programming -- Step Afrika1's collaboration with Will Smith's quartet; Arturo O'Farrills' "Duke Goes Latin." Locally we've presented a DC Bass Choir with Christian McBride as a special guest; and this year's "Soulful Side of Cannonball Adderley," that Marshall Keys put together, as well as Origem's "Bossa Duke" program at the Kennedy Center. We mix legends with younger luminaries, and emerging artists -- Etienne Charles opening for Monty Alexander, and Akua opening for Randy Weston, just two examples.

    I appreciate your strong support of the festival and welcome your opinions, but respectfully take exception to your "minor" complaint. Lastly, having traveled the world with Dizzy and other artists, while we have a long way to go, in a very short period of time, I posit that we are in the "league" of great jazz festivals, and we'll continue to strive towards being as great as the greatest jazz festivals in the world.

    Con Alma,

  • charlie fishman

    One more comment -- our collaboration with an support of Giovanni and Luke's excellent Capital Bop's DC Jazz LOft series has added an important and exciting compnonent to the diverse music presented at the festival.

  • Michael J. West

    Hi Charlie. I appreciate your response.

    I'm sure you know that I remain an enthusiastic supporter of the festival and a devoted audience for it. And as you also know I have offered praise for your programming, this year and others. And, here, I actually defended the returning headliners and suggested there was no practical reason for you to stop programming them.

    My complaint was admittedly minor, and idealistic to boot, and your point about Roy Hargrove was a fair one. (And you'll notice in the article I linked above, I didn't list Paquito among the repeaters; as artistic director of course he's going to have a prominent place every year.)

    Where I would differ from you is in your comparisons to other recurring musical events. For example, I actually hear MANY gripes about the redundancy of the classical programming by WPAS (i.e., the ones who bring Itzhak Perlman and Lang Lang every year). I can't speak to JatP, which ceased touring when I was four years old, but I rather expect that there were *some* complaints during all those years.

    And I expect they (like the classical criticisms I mentioned above) came from the same type of person that I fall into: the geeks, the diehards. This is a luxury that we have: We don't have to worry about what sells tickets, what the public wants and demands. We get to be nitpicky for the sake of nitpicky, and we have the luxury of being overly idealistic about it. And I have the further luxury of doing it in print. That's really what it comes down to.

    Let me close just by reiterating my conclusion above: The DC Jazz Festival is a very good festival, a major festival, and you've worked hard to make it one. But as you yourself acknowledge, there's more to be accomplished. There's nothing wrong with that - in fact I welcome it. If you'd already done as much with the festival as could possibly be done, there'd be no need to continue, would there?