East River JazzFest’s Vernard Gray on the City’s River-Bound Music Divide
One of the most active partners of the DC Jazz Festival, East River JazzFest, has nothing to do with the polluted waters between Manhattan and Brooklyn. It actually means "east of the river"—as in the Anacostia River, a barrier of sorts between the wealthiest and least-wealthy parts of Washington, D.C.
Vernard Gray founded the JazzFest because he considers that barrier hogwash, and wanted to draw attention (and great music) to the unfairly neglected places in Wards 7 and 8. As such, D.C. native pianist Marc Cary performs Wednesday night at Anacostia Playhouse and Thursday at THEARC; the latter venue also hosts the Greater U Street Jazz Collective on Sunday night. This year, the JazzFest also reaches back west of the river with a presentation at Wesley United Methodist Church in Chevy Chase, D.C. Gray explained the ideas that drive East River JazzFest in a chat with Arts Desk this week.
WCP: How did the East River JazzFest come about?
Vernard Gray: I'm from D.C. originally, though I've been living in Baltimore, where I created something called Bemo Jazz in March 2008. It's done over 100 events in different venues, mostly in community settings. Four years ago, in June 2011, I did a similar series at the Anacostia Art Gallery & Boutique: a Sunday afternoon series of Baltimore jazz musicians. During that time I discovered the DC Jazz Festival, and talked about doing something with them in the following year.
So in 2012, I began with the [DC Jazz] Festival, and I did the same kind of model of community settings: two senior wellness centers in far Southeast, Sunday morning events at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, things at the Anacostia Museum and Anacostia Art Gallery & Boutique, churches, and libraries—the Anacostia Library and the Francis Gregory Library.
So this year, I decided to do something a little different, and by now I've also gained a deeper relationship with the jazz festival—and established a relationship with Wesley United Methodist Church uptown. A friend of mine, Pam Rogers, runs a project up there called Jazz@Wesley. I began to bring groups in as a part of her series on the third Saturday of each month. But our focus is primarily on doing something east of the river.
Why there, in particular?
A couple of reasons. One, I grew up east of the river from age 14. It also presents significant opportunities: Things aren't quite there yet in terms of infrastructure. People there are more likely to cross the river to see something west of it, than something in their own neighborhood.
Wow, so is this really about providing something for people who are already east of the river, rather than luring visitors there?
Clearly, it's a little bit of both. The slogan we have claims, "Cross the river for a wonderful music experience." That can go two ways: You can go from the east to the west, or from the west to the east, and hear good music! We're on both sides. But the river really serves as a divide of sorts, and it shouldn't be. Some of the best sights in the city—if you want to see city lights, go into the hills of Anacostia, as an example. And, you know, with the development of the Homeland Security piece, it's just gonna blow up. So I'm scouting out stuff so I can be there, be in place, when it does. I don't have a physical space for my project yet, but I have access to spaces to do programming. You don't need to own any real estate to do what I do. (Laughs.)
What about the artists you select? Are they east-of-the-river natives too?
The theme is "Washington jazz artists: Comin' home, baby!" But it's all about Washington homeboys, and ladies. Marc Cary grew up in D.C., had his roots in go-go. Then you have the Greater U Street Jazz Collective, full of people who grew up in D.C. Then you have Sam Prather, who's conducting the Olayimika Cole "L'ife Suite," is from D.C., as are many of the people who are performing in that event. Then there's Kush Abadey, who's from D.C.; Ron Sutton Jr., who's from D.C.; Corcoran Holt, from D.C. All of them are heading up ensembles. Benito Gonzalez, who's not originally from D.C., spent a significant portion of his life in D.C., honing his musical skills, so he's considered a homeboy.
This particular series is about celebrating D.C., people who grew up in D.C. And it's making the point that D.C. is a major jazz community, going back to Duke Ellington and even before: [pioneering 1920s bandleader] Fletcher Henderson and those people all did things here in D.C. and they were internationally renowned as well. Same with Marc, Kush, and Corcoran: They spent the last month performing in France with different ensembles. There's clearly something in the water in D.C.! (Laughs)
Anything else you'd like to add?
I'd like to tell people to just come, come listen. One of the most difficult things—I was just speaking to a lady at the senior wellness center over in the Brookland neighborhood about her people coming to concerts at THEARC for instance—seniors, mostly. Her one complaint was that it was eight o'clock at night—they may not feel safe wherever they go. But the other thing was that "it's in far Southeast." And I had to tell her that far Southeast is just as nice as far Northwest. The point of what I do is that it's wonderful on both sides of the river and people should explore it more.