Interview | Paul Carr dishes on music education, ‘real jazz’ & next month’s Mid-Atlantic Jazz Fest

Executive Director Paul Carr has planned a Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival with an expanded scope this year. Courtesy reverbnation.com

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

Summer may be festival season, but every February the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival sneaks into the D.C. area and throws a musical blowout for the ages. Deep in the wooded suburbia of Rockville, Md., the festival turns the Hilton Hotel into a swinging haven. In the process, it shines a spotlight on the myriad jazz talent residing south of New York City, in D.C. and the Mid-Atlantic states. Saxophonist and Executive Director Paul Carr is diversifying the festival’s offerings this year and bringing in a bit more talent from outside the region — most notably Nicholas Payton and NEA Jazz Master Roy Haynes — but his governing themes remain the same: highlighting area musicians, promoting jazz education and fighting for what Carr calls “real jazz.”

The full schedule was announced recently, and can be found at the festival’s website. I got in touch with Carr via email for an in-depth discussion of what’s in store next month.

CapitalBop: It seems you could say the ethos of the festival right now is “sticking with what works.” The format hasn’t changed much; the number of acts is about the same; you’re still putting a lot of focus on youngsters and educational ensembles; and you’re back at the Hilton. Am I right to infer that you feel pretty good about the way the first two festivals went? And am I missing something — is there anything different about how things will be run this year?

Paul Carr: This will be our third offering of MAJF, and yes we are pleased with the response from the patrons and the whole jazz community. The basic format on the main stage is the same but much has changed for 2012. Jazz education is very important to us at MAJF, so this year we will partner with the Adventure Theatre to produce three performances of the children’s book “Bud Not Buddy” as a play. This family play about jazz will focus on children ages 4 and up.

Also, the high school jazz competition will be bigger and brighter this year, with bands coming from Michigan, West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. We have renamed the Washington room as the Billy Taylor room, to honor Dr. Taylor’s life work of jazz education. We are increasing the activity in the Billy Taylor room and are in the process of finalizing those offerings.

New for this year is a contemporary jazz set on Saturday night on our atrium stage. Lastly, the new Mid-Atlantic Jazz Orchestra will perform with the great Carmen Bradford.

CB: Let’s talk about the venue. On one hand, there’s a wonderfully intimate vibe throughout the MAJF corridor at the Hilton — it’s part concert hall, part bazaar, part jazz club. On the other hand, sometimes it’s hard to deny that you’re hearing music in a carpeted hotel — it doesn’t feel like any other music festival I’ve ever attended. How did you decide to use the Hilton?

PC: Why the Hilton? Well, my focus in these first years is to restore and rebuild the festival. As you know, the East Coast Jazz Festival was held at this Hilton for years and our loyal patrons love this venue. They reserve their exact same rooms year after year and they love the fact that they can sit outside their rooms and listen to music. They also love that everything is under one roof, and don’t have to go anywhere else to hear great music.

“Our motto of ‘Standing up for real jazz’ acknowledges the fact that there’s something wrong with that brand or word ‘jazz.’ Jazz can mean anything these days, and it seems every country has its ‘own’ jazz.”

CB: Tell me about your band — as usual, you’ve got amazing players on hand. I noticed that some members are new to your group. How did you put together this lineup? Have you played with this particular configuration before? What do you expect from the group?

PC: The only new edition to the band is Joey Calderazzo and I have been wanting to play with him for years. Joey has played with two of the greatest tenor players in jazz, Branford Marsalis and Michael Brecker. Joey is such a complete player, composer and bandleader himself, he brings so much to the group. We have just finished the recording of my new CD, Standard Domain, and advance copies will be available at the festival. This band plays with so much energy and fire, I think the people are in for a real treat.

CB: Nicholas Payton will be helping to lead the Trumpet Summit. The festival’s motto is “Standing up for real jazz,” but Payton has famously refused to even use the word “jazz,” citing the history of exploitation wrapped up in it. How do you feel about the issues Payton has been raising? How does an institution like the MAJF contribute to that conversation of empowerment that he’s trying to get us all to have?

PC: Our motto of “Standing up for real jazz” acknowledges the fact that there’s something wrong with that brand or word “jazz.” Jazz can mean anything these days, and it seems every country has its “own” jazz. So I agree with a lot of what Nick is saying about the term jazz, but he not the first person to bring this issue to the forefront. [Charles] Mingus, [Duke] Ellington and Max [Roach] all raised this issue. Also, I think some of Nick’s concerns are separate conversations aside the term “jazz” issue. Nicholas Payton is a brilliant and gifted musician; people should come out and hear him play the trumpet, he is truly one the great players of our time.

CB: Last year, you brought in Jimmy Heath for a special performance at the festival; this year, you’re honoring living legend Roy Haynes. He’s not from the Mid-Atlantic region, but he is undeniably one of the most important musicians of our time. How and why did you decide to bring Haynes and the Fountain of Youth Band? Have you worked with him and/or learned from him in the past?

PC: Every year I would like to honor a Jazz Master, if possible, because they have given so much to the music and I want the kids that I teach to see and hear these great masters in person. Roy Haynes is one of the greatest drummers in the history of this music called “jazz,” he has played with Charlie Parker to Christian McBride and everybody in between. So having him was a no-brainer if I could convince him to come. A funny thing happened during one of my calls to Mr. Haynes. I was talking to him about the festival, and explaining what MAJF was all about. So asked him, I said, “Roy, I hope I’m not getting on your nerves?” He says, “Well, nah, not too much!”

We will honor him before his performance with the MAJF Jazz Service Award for his outstanding career and his commitment to mentoring the next generation of jazz musicians. 

The Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival runs from February 17 to 20, 2012, at the Hilton Hotel and Executive Meeting Center in Rockville, Md. A full schedule is available here. Tickets range in price from just $8 for a performance of “Bud Not Buddy” to $200 for an all-access pass, and can be purchased here.

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