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Jazz Flourishes Before it Fades at Smithsonian Jazz Café.

It has been an odd few weeks at the Smithsonian Jazz Café. In spite of a succession of fine performances and packed houses, the management has suddenly decided that the venue is not profitable and announced that it may have to close, possibly as soon as September. It is a puzzling development.

The Café opened six years ago, somewhat incongruously perhaps, in the American Museum of Natural History. With the Café already situated in the building next to the Imax Theater which is also housed there, a once-a-week jazz program was organized with a dual purpose to support jazz, along with programs at the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and to bring more traffic into the museum, local jazz fans as well as visiting tourists. Such a strategy that has been successful in other cities and overall, the program has been judged a success. Until now.

"The cafe was never judged solely on the basis of its profitability," according to Randell Kremer, the museum's public relations director, whose office books acts for the Jazz Cafe. "It was recognized for its contribution to the cultural fabric of Washington, D.C., and for its ability to bring in new and diverse audiences to the museum." The Washington Post quotes Donald C. Wilson, a consultant who works with nonprofit groups, who "has been a supporter from the beginning. ‘What is really interesting is it is a rare place that is a meeting ground for all types of Washingtonians,' he says. ‘Every color, every age, every income strata. It is one of the best investments the Smithsonian makes.'" And yet the institution seems to have had a change of heart.

It is certainly not due to the quality of the music. I have dropped in a number of times over the last couple of years and have almost always enjoyed the featured performances, which have tended to emphasize guitarists, such as Romero Lubambo and Trio Da Paz whom I caught last year. More recently, I have enjoyed three evenings there in the last month.

As part of National Women's Month, the Jazz Café booked in two leading female artists. The first was flutist Ali Ryerson (www.aliryerson.com) who came in with guitarist Howard Paul, President of Benedetto Guitars of Savannah, Georgia (www.sevenstringjazz.com), and two stalwarts of the Washington jazz scene, bassist Victor Dvoskin (/www.dcjazz.com/ victordvoskin) and drummer Tony Martucci (www.dcjazz.com/tonymartucci). Ryerson is truly at the top of her game these days, which means she sweeps aside prejudice against the flute as a jazz instrument through the combination of a gorgeous sound, melodic inventiveness, harmonic sophistication and rhythmic dynamism. These are elements we should expect in any successful jazz artist, perhaps, but they are not always forthcoming. Ryerson brings them to bear on the flute in such a way that we can forget that she is not playing trumpet or saxophone--and that she is female, for that matter--and just appreciate the artistry she brings to her performances. With enthusiastic support from her accompanists, she swung through three sets that hit a high level from the outset and never let down. Her material is culled from the best of the jazz cannon: George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland," Thelonius Monk's "Straight No Chaser," Chick Corea's "Windows," along with great standards, "My One and Only Love," "Alice in Wonderland," "Body and Soul," "Beautiful Love," "Alone Together," "What's New," "Here's that Rainy Day," "Autumn Leaves," and, for a change of pace, a jazz flute classic, Moe Koffman's "Swingin' Shepherd Blues."

There are essentially two approaches to making the flute work in jazz. One is to introduce certain noise elements and/or extended techniques to make the instrument more earthy, as exemplified by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef, James Newton, and others. The other is to absorb classical training and apply the resulting technique to playing the changes. The standard for this was set by Hubert Laws but also by Frank Wess and Holly Hofmann who work with Ryerson in the group Flutology. Ali is emphatically from this school, and is additionally effective through her use of the alto flute, on which she has an amazing ability to attack each note as forcefully as on the C flute without sacrificing the breadth and beauty of the sound. As a flautist myself I know how hard this is to do. This was a quite remarkable performance.

The following week saw another flag bearer for women in jazz at the Jazz Café. Guitarist Sheryl Bailey (www.sherylbailey.com) has been going from strength to strength since appearing on the scene in the 1990s. She has issued several fine recordings, toured extensively, and is now an assistant professor at the Berkelee School of Music. Fundamental to her success has been her technical accomplishments, leading to playing that Guitar Player Magazine described as " always lyrical and lush, with just the right amount of harmonic angularity and tangy dissonance . . . bolstered by her beautifully burnished tone," while Jazz Times' Bill Milkowski has described her as: " a modernist burner with an abundance of Pat Martino- style chops."

All of these elements are on display in her recent release, Live At The Fat Cat (see my review at: (www.jazzreview.com /cd/review-18589.html), and were fully evident this evening at the Jazz Café. One of the intriguing things about the guitar is that it can be played so badly or so beautifully. Sheryl realized this early on, apparently, moving beyond her early ‘garage band' influences to embrace that certain guitar player's esthetic that delights in the technical challenges of the instrument. This tendency can, of course, become mechanical unless it is itself transcended by the application of musicality or, as Peter Schekele (otherwise known as P.D.Q. Bach) likes to say, "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that certain je ne sais quoi." Sheryl has that, whatever it is, and it is a delight to hear her spin out long melodic lines with just the right amount of harmonic complexity and rhythmic bite. And Guitar Player's description of her tone is right on target. We should be thankful for the guitarists who have influenced her: Jack Wilkins, Johnny Smith, Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, and especially Larry Coryell. This is what jazz guitar is all about.

Sheryl, who has settled on the organ trio as her primary means of expression for the moment, was ably assisted by organist Bill Heid and drummer Mike Petresino. Heid, who is from the DC area, has a quirky melodic sense that complimented Sheryl well, even though the keyboard he uses does not have quite the depth and warmth of a Hammond B-3. Petresino's drumming was crisp and unobtrusive high praise for a drummer in my book. The material was consistently interesting: originals such as "Two Brothers," "Cedar's Mood," "When My Love Has Gone," "Starbright," and "Swamp Thang," and standards including "I Hear a Rhapsody," "How Deep Is The Ocean," "Body & Soul," in 3/4 and "Tenderly" in 6/8. There was a touch of Jobim with "Once I loved," and tributes to Wes Montgomery--"Road Song"--and Burt Bacharach--"Wives and Lovers." Above all, the trio performed at just the right volume level, which is a huge blessing. This was a delightful evening.

Speaking of guitarists, developing technique and avoiding excessive volume, there can be no greater advocate for these qualities than Gene Bertoncini (www.genebertoncini.com) who appeared late April to celebrate his 70th birthday. Bertoncini, who has been called the "Segovia of Jazz," has had a distinguished career, working with a wide range of jazz artists from Benny Goodman, Paul Desmond and Buddy Rich to Wayne Shorter and Hubert Laws, and such singers as Tony Bennett, Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson. He is currently a faculty member at the Eastman School of Music. His ability to move effortlessly between jazz and classical forms is legendary, and accounts for his extensive track record in the studios where he has been in demand for decades.

On this evening, Bertoncini chose the format that exposes both the strengths and weaknesses of a soloist, alone with just bass and drums. It helps, in this situation, to have a bassist whith some chops as a soloist; in Tommy Cecil Bertoncini chose one whose solos, he complained good-naturedly, were upstaging his own! A highly musical drummer is also invaluable and Chuck Redd, equally well known as a vibraphonist, is one of the most musical, as well as being experienced in the guitar trio format as his years with Charlie Byrd's group attest.

Like Byrd, Beroncini is very fond of the acoustic, nylon string, guitar; I have seen him devote a whole evening to this instrument. On this occasion he chose to alternated between acoustic and electric guitars, perhaps in response to the noisier conditions in this particular room, but also in response to some requests for the electric instrument. Whichever he played, however, the essential elements of his approach were fully on display. Above all, everything he does has a high level of musical logic, good taste, and a flair for the lyrical, plus a touch of humor. Like his teacher and mentor Chuck Wayne, Bertoncini does not jostle for the reader's and critic's polls, but if his name is not on the lips of every jazz fan, it is well known to guitarists and record producers. His choice of material reflects a thorough knowledge of the jazz cannon. His three sets demonstrated that, at 70, he has lost none of his technical command or melodic imagination. We should look forward to his 80th and 90th birthdays.

If there was one thing that detracted from the evening it was having to wait over an hour to get a table. Which makes it all the more difficult to figure out how the Jazz Café is managing, suddenly, to loose money. There were probably 500 people there. At $10 each . . . you do the math! When I learned, to my amazement, that Mr. Bertoncini was certainly not paid anything close to $5,000 (yes, I am being facetious!), I began to wonder what happens to the rest of it. When I paid $12 for a bowl of soup and a diet soda I concluded that they probably should not be losing money on the food. On top of this, according to Kremer, they have a $40,000 annual budget to pay the musicians, and that is supplemented by gifts and funds from other institution offices, such as the Smithsonian Women's Committee and the Smithsonian Latino Center. In spite of this, the operators claim that the venue will lose $94,000 this year, or $1,800 a week. If this is the case, it does not seem to be asking too much for them to step forward and give us an accounting, to explain how they manage to lose money on this operation.

By some measures there is a good deal of live jazz available in the D.C. area, with the Kennedy Center, the Clarice Smith Center at College Park, Twins, Columbia Station and Blues Alley in the District, Sabang and Sala Thai in Wheaton and Bethesda, and other venues. At the same time, with the demise of clubs such as the One Step Down there is a shortage of venues which are reasonably affordable, feature local artists from time to time, and don't require a booking weeks in advance. "It's been a thriving, vibrant addition to the jazz scene in D.C.," says Larry Appelbaum, host of The Sound of Surprise, on WPFW (89.3 FM) and jazz specialist at the Library of Congress. "It's great to be able to see and hear great music in a nice room that doesn't cost an arm and a leg."

If there is a financial shortfall for the Smithsonian, they should perhaps look to the Duke Ellington Festival held annually in D.C., or the Cape May Jazz Festival held twice a year on the Jersey shore, and others, who not only survive but thrive through a combination of ticket sales and private sponsorship. If the private sector can figure this out is it too much to ask for an institution such as the Smithsonian? Especially if all we are talking about is covering a budget shortfall.

It has been said that America has given the world three things above all: the Constitution, baseball and jazz. (Ken Burns has covered two out of the three!) Baseball seems to be doing OK, although some would argue that the Constitution has taken a bit of a battering recently. When it comes to jazz, it could be, and has been, argued that this is the only true art form that is uniquely American. As such it seems entirely appropriate for the Smithsonian to support it. "It is good for the Smithsonian," says John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the National Museum of American History, "because it is an outstanding public program and public service. It builds goodwill and good publicity through the broadcasts on XM Satellite Radio and WPFW."

I called the office of public affairs for the Smithsonian and asked for a comment on this situation. My call was not returned. Finally, just as I was submitting this review, it was announced that the program was reprieved until September, with the hope that private sector sponsorship could be found to allow it to continue. After that . . . we'll have to see.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Various Artists
  • Concert Date: April/May, 2007
  • Subtitle: Top Artists, Great Crowds at Seemingly Doomed Venue
  • Venue: Smithsonian Jazz Cafe
  • City State Country: Washington D.C.
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