Jazz Preservation Festival: Thad Wilson, Wade Beach and others show that jazz is alive and well

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by Giovanni Russonello

For all the heavy-handedness and wringing of hands that permeate jazz preservationism, yesterday’s Ninth Annual Jazz Preservation Festival had one heck of an uninhibited, carefree vibe to it. This was one-half neighborhood fish-fry, other-half exaltation at the altar of classic jazz. Pleas to “help keep jazz alive” and “support the music” simply weren’t necessary – it was all happening naturally.

Sponsored by WPFW and D.C.’s famous “jazz church,” the music started at noon and ran through the early evening. It all took place on the grass outside the church – located at 4th and I Streets SW – while local artists and designers also sold their goods at booths. Hamburgers, fish and other barbecue fare were on sale too.

At 2 p.m., Thad Wilson led a 10-piece mini-reincarnation of his onetime big band. The group played four charts: Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues;” Wilson’s original “Waltz for Kara,” a mid-tempo pastiche of swelling undulations; another Ellington piece, “Satin Doll” (rare is the D.C. jazz show without an overabundance of Duke classics); and finally the standard “My Funny Valentine.” On the last tune, Wilson called up a member of the audience to sing, but the whole crowd – a couple hundred area residents sitting on folding chairs – was just as involved.

Wilson, who for years cultivated an identity as one of HR-57’s best-known crowd pleasers and a leading light on the D.C. jazz scene, has since retrenched. Now a faculty member at George Washington University, Wilson is spending more time at his home in Maryland these days, raising a family and working on what he described to CapitalBop as “very specific projects.” One of those is a Smithsonian-sponsored job, for which he’s composing orchestral accompaniments to Oscar Micheaux’s silent film Body and Soul. (Hmm, this reminds me of another great trumpet player’s latest work!) That very exciting project is set to go public in February; CapitalBop will follow the story and have an update on it soon.

After Wilson’s big band, the Wade Beach Trio took the stage, churning through a collection of standards. On Thelonious Monk’s bittersweet ballad “Ruby, My Dear,” Beach dueted with bassist Steve Novosel. The pair dialed down the energy coursing through the afternoon celebration, but kept listeners rapt. After all, this crowd knew its jazz, and Beach carried out the tune’s chromatic modulations with a mix of delicacy and fervor that befitted Monk.

DeAndre Howard’s quintet, Collectors’ Edition, took the stage next. The group injected jazz classics with that signature, soulful flavor that has made its Friday night performances at Utopia a crowd favorite. (And, of course, Duke popped up again when the group performed the ballad “In a Sentimental Mood.”)

More bands followed and the music continued until dusk, but this reporter couldn’t stick around for it all (had to get ready for Curtis Fuller’s knockout performance at Bohemian Caverns that night). Before heading out of Southwest, though, I strolled past Arena Stage’s new home. The enormous building is both imposing and impressive, and it will surely do a lot to reinvigorate the District’s already-strong theater scene. Today’s Washington Post has a boatload of coverage on the theater’s new face and what the institution’s leadership wants it to signify.

One thing that I was looking for but was more or less absent from all of these articles: How about some commitment to ensuring that this space becomes a positive force within the SW community, rather than something that is imposed on it? Employing neighborhood residents and partnering with local schools on arts programs might help give this massive, multimillion-dollar operation the same kind of vitality that the Jazz Preservation Festival achieved yesterday with almost no funding.

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  1. Here’s a great version of My Funny Valentine

    Jeff /

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