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Second Annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival Weathers Storms

Ellington Ellington
As another example of how large scale jazz events can work, The Duke Ellington Jazz Festival enjoyed its second year October 4 - 8 with an even more ambitious program than last year, sponsoring activities that seemed to encompass the whole of the District of Columbia. The more than fifty performances were held in major venues such as the Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art, the Inter-American Development Bank, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the Washington Performing Arts Society, American University and the embassies of France, Israel and Mexico. Backing up these larger events, the Jazz in the Hood program presented jazz artists in more intimate settings at clubs such as Blues Alley, Twins, and the Smithsonian Jazz Café. It was nothing short of a jazz cornucopia, notable for the consistently high quality of the music and the degree that it was supported by the public; every performance I attended was packed. Once again this brings into focus the music industry's myopia when it comes to jazz real jazz, that is, not the smooth variety which they continue to marginalize. Yet jazz is more and more being recognized for its social benefits, bringing thousands of visitors into the city, boosting the local economy while troubling law enforcement less than almost any other group. These benefits have allowed the festival to attract a long list of sponsors that include the D.C. Government, the National Endowment of the Arts, Fannie Mae, Amtrak, DownBeat, J.W. Marriott, Mexicana, etc. etc. There was also a long list of senators and congressman lining up to support the event. It looks as though jazz has become respectable!

As for the music, there was so much of it that no one could cover all of it. It is amazing to me that festival organizer Charlie Fishman was able to put it all together with a basic staff of just eight people. When I spoke with him a few days after the event, his main focus was, indeed, the amazing job that his team was able to do, especially the re-organization of one of the central events, an all-day marathon concert featuring Naser Abadey & SuperNova; Poncho Sanchez; Dr. John, Roy Hargrove, and John Scofield performing the music of Ray Charles, with Special Guest Mavis Staples. This was due to be held outdoors on The National Mall but a rainstorm forced a last-minute re-organization and a move into the Historic Lincoln Theatre. (The problem could have been avoided if the organizers had known that Dr. John tends to attract thunderstorms, a phenomenon I observed first-hand a few years ago in England when just such a storm descended out of the blue onto each city on his tour, hovering over the venue until his set was over. On this occasion the Washington storm dissipated the moment his flight took off from National Airport!)

In any case, the musical events came thick and fast throughout the weekend. There was a special concert with N.E.A. Jazz Masters Roy Haynes and his quartet, and Paquito D'Rivera with The United Nation Orchestra, an African Ellington tribute, a documentary film "A Duke Named Ellington" presented in co-operation with the National Music Center, a Family Concert with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra performing Duke Ellington's arrangement of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite," free student concerts with the Mexican marimba ensemble Na'Rimbo, and with South African composer/bassist Victor Masondo and Lalela. Artists from Cameroon, Mexico, Israel, South Africa, Colombia and Argentina were featured in the Festival's International Jazz Showcase. Dr. Billy Taylor was presented with the 2nd Duke Ellington Jazz Festival Lifetime Achievement Award in a ceremony at Howard University, while Randy Weston held forth in an NEA "Jazz Masters Residency" at the University of The District of Columbia. And for the Festival's grand finalé Harlem's legendary Cotton Club was "recreated" in the majestic Willard Intercontinental Hotel, replete with an authentic uptown soul food dinner. Film and television star Avery Brooks appeared along with Paquito D'Rivera and Roy Hargrove as guest artists with The New Washingtonians, conducted by saxophonist Davey Yarborough.

As for the events that I was able to catch, either I was very lucky of the overall quality of the festival was breathtaking perhaps a little of both. Certainly a master stroke was engaging Paquito D'Rivera as a sort of artist in residence for the whole event, because Paquito is not only a master musician, he is also a class act as an individual and a great ambassador for both jazz and Latin music. So it was that he was featured with the United Nations Orchestra on the Friday night, and in a jazz brunch with Michael Philip Mossman and Antonio Hart in the garden of the National Museum of Art, led an absorbing master class at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and opened the whole event on the Wednesday evening with a VIP gala, "Viva Las Americas" at, of all places, the Inter-American Development Bank. This was a delightful evening that demonstrated very clearly the interface between jazz and all kinds of South American music as Paquito, from Cuba, performed with musicians from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, the US and Italy. Na'Rimbo, from Mexico, featured three performers on a giant marimba along with musical director Israel Moreno on vibes, plus a rhythm section. Paquito's own ensemble featured Diego Urcola on trumpet and Dario Eskenazi on piano (both from Argentina), Oscar Stagnaro (Peru) on bass and Mark Walker (US) drums, Pernell Saturnino from Curacao on percussion, and guitarist Fareed Haque who is from the US, Chile and Pakistan. They performed a number of his own compositions, several of which featured guest artists. Hector del Curto was expressive on the bandoneon, Edmar Castaneda dynamic on the Colombian harp. Dana Leong shone on the rather startling double of cello and trombone, Roy Hargrove was at his usual creative best and Roberta Gambarini, an Italian performing Brazilian pieces such as Jobim's "Chega de Saudade," confirmed again why she is being touted as the new Sarah or Ella.

It was an evening remarkable for diverse music which flowed together into a coherent unity. The guiding hand belonged to Paquito, of course. In his master class the next day he revealed that, in his view, the language that binds together all these elements is that of bebop. It is a remarkable statement of the universality of jazz.

When it comes to the music of Brazil two emerging superstars are vocalist Luciana Souza and guitarist Romero Lubambo. One of the most engaging performances of the festival featured them together at the Library of Congress, a concert that was so packed that even with press credentials I had to borrow a seat from an usher. Joined by another international group of performers, French pianist Edward Simon, Massimo Biolcatti from Italy on bass and US drummer Clarence Penn, Souza presented a program of Brazilian pieces along with her favorite jazz standards. The music warranted the audience's enthusiastic response, refreshingly through subtlety and nuance. Souza's interactions with Lubambo were thrilling and the rhythm players accompanied them with sensitivity. A wonderful evening.

It was a highlight among too many to mention. Suffice to say that the Duke Ellington festival will be back next year stronger than ever. I think Washington's favorite jazz son can only be pleased that it is named after him. He would also be pleased, I think, at the educational aspect of the event. Along with Paquito D'Rivera, Roy Hargrove was busy giving master classes; I attended one at American University. Our music students need breadth and these visits by working musicians from varied backgrounds are invaluable.

If your family has not yet visited our nation's capital why not get a dose of our history and heritage along with some of our nation's classical music jazz at the Duke Ellington Festival?

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Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ellington
  • Concert Date: October 4 - 8, 2006
  • Subtitle: 50 Performances Over 5 Days Headlined By Paquito D'Rivera, Roy Haynes, Roy Hargrove
  • Venue: Washington D.C.
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