5 live jazz picks for May in D.C.

May is upon us, which means the end of Jazz Appreciation Month and the beginning of arguably the best weather the DMV will experience all year. The music-makers of our city stand at the ready to match that beauty on stages all over D.C. this spring.

One series that takes advantage of May’s beautiful weather is the “Jazz Mob” concerts, led at parks throughout the city, featuring saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed. Check his Instagram profile for pop-up dates and locations. May is also a great month to take advantage of Balbed’s curated monthly series at the Kreeger Museum, around the corner from American University: the outdoor seating for the shows is particularly idyllic, and this month’s concert features vocalist Dominique Bianco.

In something of a blow to the scene, two longstanding Sunday jam sessions have come to a close. Julian Berkowitz’s trio gig at the Library Tavern has ended, as the Persian eatery is closing up shop permanently. And pianist Peter Edelman’s Sunday trio set and jam at Green Island Café — a truly historic gathering, picking up on his legendary Sunday sessions at Columbia Station — has been placed on indefinite hiatus. Edelman still plays at Green Island every Friday and Saturday, though.

In place of these, Balbed is also leading a new Sunday session at St. Vincent Wine. And thanks to the curation of guitarist Zach Cutler, St. Vincent Wine now offers live jazz four nights a week and is becoming something of a hang for the young musicians of the city. 

The globally-inspired quartet Veronneau takes over Blues Alley for a run of Tuesday gigs this month, part of the club’s new monthly residency program. Also, Bethesda-born guitarist Max Light — a runner-up at the 2019 Herbie Hancock International Jazz Competition — returns for a pair of shows this month: first on May 18, at the Smithsonian Art Museum, as part of its revitalized Take 5! series, then at Takoma Station on May 20.

For all other live-music needs, consult CB’s full D.C. jazz calendar


Friday, May 5, 5 p.m.
Sidewalk outside St. Thomas Episcopal Church (Free)
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Cellist Janel Leppin is one of the District’s finest bandleaders, harnessing a nuanced sensibility for both composition and improvisation that produces restless, complex sonic textures ranging from lush and beautiful to sharp and arresting. She’s widely respected in the DMV for her work leading her Ensemble Volcanic Ash, the Mellow Diamond ensemble, and as half of the power duo Janel and Anthony (with guitarist Anthony Pirog). 

She leads a group of like-minded creative musicians — Pirog, saxophonist Bobby Muncy, bassist Steve Arnold and drummer Larry Ferguson — through an assortment of her compositions, from across her multiple projects. 


Saturday, May 6, 7 p.m.
Georgetown Day School (Free; advance registration required)
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When drummer Andrew Cyrille performed with his now-unfortunately-defunct supergroup Trio 3 at the National Gallery of Art in 2018, he took an extended solo that saw him utilize the entirety of the kit: His drum sticks reached for every surface available, from the polyester drum heads to the drum stands to his own stool, to create sound in free form. The moment exemplified the kind of imagination and openness Cyrille has brought to jazz and creative music for decades. 

He got his start in jazz’s “new thing” on the ground floor, joining the Cecil Taylor Unit in 1965 and staying with the pioneering pianist for 15 eventful years. Since that initial partnership, he’s performed with a veritable who’s-who of the creative world, from Geri Allen and Muhal Richard Abrams to Wadada Leo Smith and Bill Frisell.

Here he leads a trio, featuring D.C.’s own Brad Linde on reeds and Aaron Quinn on guitar, through some of his own works as well as selections from the Thelonious Monk songbook.


Friday, May 12 and Saturday, May 13, 7:30 p.m.
Kennedy Center – Terrace Theater (tickets)
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The Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival celebrates the legacy of pianist and arranger Mary Lou Williams, one of the greatest architects of jazz harmony, whose legacy has often been marginalized. Night 1 features Doreen Ketchens, a New Orleans clarinetist who has become an institution on the Big Easy’s trad jazz scene (she performed for four consecutive presidents, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton), and talented vocalist Somi, who performs a tribute to Miriam Makeba. Night 2 features performances by hard-hitting saxophonist and vocalist Camille Thurman, backed by drummer Darrell Green’s straight-ahead combo, and by jazz vocal icon Dee Dee Bridgewater, who appears with her big band.


Friday May 19, 6 p.m.
Westminster Presbyterian Church ($10, Free for Kids 16 and Under)
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For years, the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Youth Orchestra gave young musicians a chance to learn in a large ensemble setting from one of D.C.’s greatest educators: the dearly departed saxophonist and flutist Fred Foss. Now the young orchestra is co-led by hard-bop trumpeter Kenny Rittenhouse and straight-ahead pianist and D.C. jazz elder Bob Murad. Here they bring their 13-piece group to D.C.’s jazz church for a special concert honoring the spirit and music of Foss.


Sunday May 21, 7:00 and 9 p.m.
Blues Alley (tickets)
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Pianist Giorgi Mikadze comfortably exists in the piano jazz lineage that extends from Bill Evans through Keith Jarrett. There is a feeling of precision to the way he punches out notes on the ivories, like a painter knowing just what brush stroke and color will add to the story on the canvas. Mikadze, who hails from the country of Georgia, appears at Blues Alley in partnership with the Georgian embassy, performing a pair of sets featuring famous tunes from his home country — ranging from film scores, theater pieces and even cartoon melodies — arranged for jazz trio.



About Jackson Sinnenberg

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Jackson Sinnenberg is a broadcast journalist and a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, JazzTimes, Downbeat, NPR Music, NPR.org, the Washington City Paper, On Tap/District Fray Magazine and the blog of Smithsonian Folkways Records. He began covering the city’s music scene for WGTB, Georgetown University’s radio station, where he was a show host, writer, and columnist. He graduated from Georgetown with a bachelor’s degree in American Musical Culture. Reach him at [email protected]. Follow him at @sinnenbergmusic.

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