With its service awards, Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation gives ‘flowers’ to six of D.C.’s musical heroes

“I never saw myself as a leader,” saxophonist and educator Paul Carr said at the 5th annual D.C. Jazz Leaders in Service Awards Gala, hosted by the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation (CHJF). Carr, who’s also the founder of Rockville, Md.’s Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, was one of the six honorees at the event, which took place on April 30, the last day of Jazz Appreciation Month 2023. 

During his acceptance speech, Carr praised the CHJF’s executive director and fellow saxophonist Herb Scott for juggling multiple duties during the event, which included leading the Capitol Hill Jazz Orchestra, checking in on the catered food and ensuring that other logistical tasks are met. Carr reflected on his own roles as executive director of the Mid-Atlantic festival and founder of the Jazz Academy of Music, noting that often musicians such as Scott and himself are prompted to undertake on leadership roles that they wouldn’t seek out on their own. 

Carr reflected on how Suzan Jenkins, CEO of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, encouraged him to launch his own festival after the Ronnie Wells East Coast Jazz Festival ended its more than decade-long run following Wells’ 2007 death. “I’ve never thought of myself as a leader,” he reiterated. “But sometimes people need a bit of a nudge. So, if you see somebody out there with just a little bit of potential, give them a little nudge to put themselves out there, to keep this wonderful art form going.”

The Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation launched the D.C. Jazz Leaders in Service Awards in 2017 to recognize significant figures on the District’s jazz scene. Previous winners include saxophonist and educator Davey Yarborough, WPFW 89.3 FM program director Katea Stitt and journalist, educator and DC JazzFest artistic director Willard Jenkins. This year’s gala took place at The Yard in the Eastern Market area of Capitol Hill, and was hosted by Dr. Rita Lewis, a former marketing and community engagement specialist for the D.C. mayor’s office.  

In his own address to attendees, Scott shared similar sentiments to Carr’s, mentioning that when he started his career as a jazz saxophonist he had no intention of launching a nonprofit arts organization, throwing festivals or starting an orchestra. Scott reflected on his stints in other bands, noting that so many great musicians contribute to the jazz legacy and to the artistic health of various communities without receiving their proper due.

“I’ve watched so many cats pass away, but they weren’t famous and they did not have Grammys,” Scott said. “But they were super important to the D.C. scene. I felt like there should be a way to give people their flowers while they are still here to get them.”

Scott then mentioned Steve Novosel, the noteworthy D.C.-based bassist who has amassed a 40-plus career and has performed and recorded with an array of stars, ranging from Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Archie Shepp to Shirley Horn and Anita O’Day. Novosel was also one of this year’s honorees, though he could not attend because of health issues. 

“I wanted to make sure [Novosel] gets this award and make sure that he realizes that there are people who loved him and that he’s important to the community,” Scott said.

The D.C. Jazz Leaders in Service Awards Gala is one of several endeavors of the CHJF. Others include hosting weekly jam sessions and a music masterclass series, lobbying the local government on behalf of the arts, throwing the annual Capitol Hill Jazz Festival and running both the Capitol Hill Jazz Orchestra and the Junior Jazz Ensemble.

“The mission of the foundation is to make full use of jazz as a strategic tool for economic development,” Scott explained on the mic. “We inspire folks to support musicians so that they can make a living because it is expensive to live here. And it’s costly to be a musician. You have to buy reeds, strings, guitars and all other kinds of stuff, like sheet music and clothes to wear at the gig. If you’re only making $100 a night, you cannot do it.”

Other honorees this year included baritone saxophonist, arranger and educator Leigh Pilzer, who has worked with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra and the DIVA Jazz Orchestra; pianist, drummer and piano technician Warren Shadd, who founded the internationally acclaimed SHADD piano company; keyboardist, vocalist, producer and vocal coach Kim Jordan, who has worked with Gil Scott-Heron, Terri Lyne Carrington, Stevie Wonder and Meshell Ndegeocello, among a legion of other music stars; and singer and songwriter Alison Crockett, who has collaborated with many jazz hybrid artists and ensembles, including Us3, King Britt, Blue Six and Josh Wink.  

Shadd and Jordan spoke on the power of resilience in their speeches. “You have to keep on keeping on, even when you hear so many no’s,” Shadd said.

“What God has for you is for you, no matter what it looks like,” Jordan said during her acceptance speech, as she reflected on touring the world with Scott-Heron. 

Crockett’s speech included the announcement of her new album, Echoes of an Era Redux: My Father’s Collection. “I really appreciate being among this group of [honorees]. It really makes me feel like I have something to say,” she said, reflecting on her three-decade-plus career. “I’ve always tried to be specifically myself — and that can be tough in the music industry.”  

Pilzer noted humbly that she didn’t believe that she belonged with the honorees, while showing gratitude. She reflected on her early years as a freelance cellist and music theory teacher before slowly emerging as bandleader.  She also stressed the importance of her role as an educator at the University of Maryland, Towson University and George Mason University. 

“I’ve been teaching at Maryland for six years, and now I’m moving into what I hope is a leadership position for the next generation,” Pilzer said. “I want to be a role model, particularly for younger, up-and-coming women, because you can’t be what you don’t see. So, I want to be out there as a leader, mentor and teacher having great adventures with musicians.” 



About John Murph

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John Murph is a Washington, D.C.-based music journalist and DJ. He's written for TIDAL Music, NPR Music, JazzTimes, Down Beat, Washington Post, and The Root.

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