The festival is organized by the Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship Fund, a non-profit organization created in memory of Washington DC Jazz radio programmer Elmore ‘Fish' Middleton, dedicated to the support of young and emerging jazz artists, and the wider presentation of straight-ahead, acoustic jazz. The emphasis is on education; the event is built around the semi-finals and finals of the organizations annual scholarship competition. In addition, many of the artists appearing at the festival offer workshops for up and coming local musicians, while local college and high-school ensembles are given an opportunity to perform in the central lobby of the hotel. In all, the festival comprises 101 events, 86 of them free and open to the public. And the public responded, with over 3,000 visitors over the weekend.
With all of this activity--performances, competitions, workshops and jam sessions running concurrently from 10am to 1:30 in the morning--it is impossible to attend all the events. It is a smorgasbord that required careful selection. I particularly enjoyed Frank Morgan alternately playing solo alto and dispensing sage advice during his workshop, vibraphonist John Metzger leading grade-school kids into the wonders of improvisation in his, and spirited performances by high-school jazz ensembles in the main foyer and headliners in the plaza ballroom. Frank Morgan mined a deep bebop vein, Dick Morgan made one wonder why he is not better known, and David ‘Fathead' Newman, with the talented young pianist Allyn Johnson, demonstrated how deeply the blues can penetrate into jazz performance, especially for a Texas tenor. This year, one of the features for the Thursday night Big Band Blast was Frank Capp and The Juggernaut (sponsored in-part by a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts) with vocalist Ernie Andrews.
The main appeal of the festival for me, however, was the scholarship competition. Of the 34 applicants who had submitted tapes, 10 were chosen as semi-finalists and each performed two pieces for the judges, Buster Williams, Rebecca Paris and Kitty Margolis. First place, and a $3,000 scholarship, went to vibraphonist Tim Collins from New York, second place, and $2,000, went to my personal favorite, pianist Nial Djuliarso from Jakarta, Indonesia, currently at the Berkeley School of Music in Boston, and third place went to local vocalist Anthony Compton.
It is this emphasis on youth that is the keynote of the festival, with many high-school band members bringing their parents as well as their peers to spread the word. At the other end of the spectrum, however, the Senior Citizens Appreciation Luncheon, which is a free event, is very popular, with all seats reserved weeks ahead of the festival. Apart from lunch, the seniors enjoyed music from their own generation, this year pianist/vocalist Emme Kemp and vocalist Ruth Mobley Williams who attends the festival with the a group from the Carmita Poe organization out of Philadelphia.
The festival and the scholarship program require year-round work from the FMJS organization and its president Ronnie Wells-Elliston, and they are still trying to climb out of a financial hole incurred when the 2003 festival was hit hard by a blizzard. But in spite of that they are thriving, and if every major city in the US were to adopt the model they have developed jazz music would face a much less uncertain future in the United States, particularly the classic, acoustic, straight-ahead variety that is rapidly disappearing from music store bins and radio stations!