News | Smithsonian trains Take 5! spotlight on local musicians and legendary composers

Donvonte McCoy performs tonight as part of the Take 5! series at the American Art Museum. Giovanni Russonello/CapitalBop

by Luke Stewart
Editorial board

The Smithsonian Institution has a long legacy of immortalizing history in innovative ways, and tonight it will begin a run of diverse and challenging jazz performances that aim to do just that.

The Smithsonian’s Take 5! series isn’t news – for years, it has presented a free jazz concert at the American Art Museum on the third Thursday of every month. But starting tonight and continuing indefinitely, the series will take on a new focus, bringing some of the most prominent D.C.-area musicians to pay homage to their musical heroes. It’s an excellent way to present the music of some of jazz’s lesser-known legends to a wide audience while spotlighting hometown talents.

The idea began as a collaborative effort between jazz historian Bertrand Uberall and Smithsonian Public Programs Coordinator Laurel Fehrenbach. Friendly conversations turned into brainstorming sessions with musicians, and suddenly all the elements were in place for a set of performances.

Tonight, the punchy trumpeter Donvonte McCoy and his ensemble will present a retrospective on the career of Lee Morgan, the trumpet icon who helped define the hard-bop sound of the 1950s and ’60s. McCoy’s six-piece band will focus on Morgan’s lesser-known compositions, including some tunes that were never recorded. For some of the pieces, this will be the first public performance ever, according to Uberall.

“Lee Morgan was really the first trumpet player I really admired. Out of all the trumpet players he spoke the most to me as a kid coming along,” McCoy said. He added that his goal was not to revolutionize the tunes, but to play them in a way that Morgan would have wanted. “I can’t really say there’s much to do at all – Lee Morgan did all the work. He was an icon.”

The second program will take place on Oct. 18, and will feature local star saxophonist Brian Settles leading a quartet. He will be presenting the music of Dewey Redman, an important but oft-overlooked composer and performer who was a key collaborator with Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett, among many others.

Settles himself has spent many years appreciating and studying Redman’s music, having been introduced to it in the early 1990s. “The first record that I recall hearing him on was New York Is Now by Ornette Coleman. I was attracted to his sound and his vocalizing into the saxophone technique. I’ve always been attracted to players that experiment with sound,” Settles said in an email.

Three further Take 5! composer spotlights are already scheduled, with more to come in the future. On Jan. 17, the tenor saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed and his ensemble will interpret some of Wayne Shorter’s lesser-known compositions, specifically from his first albums as a leader. Mike Davis will lead a group presenting the music of hard-bop trumpeter Kenny Dorham on Feb. 21. And on March 21, the trombonist Corey Wallace will present the music of Grachan Moncur III.

This is hardly the first time jazz composers have received homage with a musical presentation in the D.C. area. Uberall remembers attending a concert at George Washington University’s Baird Auditorium in the early 1990s, when local saxophone titan Marshall Keys led a group in tribute to Wayne Shorter. The concert featured some of the prominent D.C. musicians of the time, including the late Reuben Brown. Countless other tributes have taken place before and since that night, and this latest iteration is continuing a strong legacy.

The Take 5! series hopes to bring to the fore some of the lesser-known works of legendary figures in jazz as well as under-appreciated composers, and they are admirably doing so with the help of local talent, which happens to be among the best in the nation. The collaborative effort among the musicians and the museum places this series in the position to be one of the finest presentations in the region.

The Donvonte McCoy Septet performs a free show at 5 p.m. tonight at the American Art Museum as part of the Smithsonian’s Take 5! series. More information on that performance is available here, and further details about the Take 5! series can be found at the Smithsonian’s website.

Giovanni Russonello contributed reporting to this article.

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About Giovanni Russonello

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Giovanni is a regular contributor to JazzTimes, and the host of “On the Margin,” a books show on WPFW-FM. He has written articles for The New York Times, The Atlantic online, msnbc.com, NPR Music, Politico and others. He graduated from Tufts University with a bachelor’s degree in history, with a focus on African-American history. He’s a recreational pianist with enough self-awareness to know he really shouldn’t play much outside home. You can reach Giovanni at editor@capitalbop.com.

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