What do Duke and Dilla have in common? The Kennedy Center’s Hip Hop & … Festival offers its own answers

The Kennedy Center’s Hip Hop & … Festival arrives this week with a series of remarkable sessions and concerts exploring the multifaceted intersections between hip-hop and jazz. Created in honor of the late Meghan Stabile, the genre-blurring impresario who founded and ran the influential Revive Music Group in New York, this new festival continues in the flow of Stabile’s genius by connecting innovators and creatives under the broad aegis of jazz, hip hop and improvisation.

“Meghan was a creative visionary,” said Simone Eccleston, the Kennedy Center’s director of Hip Hop Culture & Contemporary Music. “We see her legacy so much throughout the landscape. All of us who had the honor to know her, to call her a friend, who worked with her — each of us carries a piece of her legacy.” 

The Hip Hop & … Festival is also part of Ellington 125, the Kennedy Center’s season-long celebration of Duke Ellington’s 125th birthday and his legacy. This month also marks several notable moments in hip-hop history, including the 50th birthday of the late record producer, beat impresario and music icon James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla. The Hip Hop & … Festival’s featured performers and honorees — including world-renowned visionaries like pianist Robert Glasper, emcee Rakim and trumpeter Igmar Thomas — exemplify the intrigue and forward-thinking orientation of Ellington through their mastery and multi-genre endeavors.  

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., in 1899, and would go on to become perhaps the most famous pianist, composer and bandleader in U.S. history. His contributions to music established a legacy of excellence and innovation, revolutionizing the sound of jazz and extending its influence across the worlds of art, history and international popular culture. A native son of the nation’s capital, he was raised in both the West End and LeDroit Park neighborhoods, and honed his craft on U Street during some of its earliest years as a Black creative and commercial hub. Though his legacy is international, Ellington’s impact continues to shape the local scene.

Without his influence, “you wouldn’t have a proliferation of musicianship and a long cultural history that has come out of this city, and part of the legacies that were built on what Duke represented,” said KOKAYI, a D.C.-based emcee, producer and 2023 Guggenheim fellow. “In looking at the lineage, you can go clearly from Duke to Chuck Brown, and from Chuck to what we have here — the innovation of creating something new on the back of Black American Music.” 

The Hip Hop & …  Festival opens on Wednesday night, March 27, with Hip Hop Listening Sessions: We’ve Got the Jazz — Jazz and Hip Hop Edition, facilitated by KOKAYI and featuring a panel that includes DJ Raydar Ellis, multidisciplinary artist Paige Hernandez and bandleader Igmar Thomas. DJ Face will provide the musical backdrop. Hernandez and her group will also perform a live set from her stage production Liner Notes, an educational and interactive musical journey. Hernandez said the festival’s inclusive spirit resonated with her trajectory as an artist born of the hip-hop generation. “It includes all the things that bring me joy,” she said, adding that she was particularly excited to appear alongside “some of the artists that are involved in our session. My crew and I are elated.”

This Friday, March 29, Igmar Thomas’ Revive Big Band will perform two shows featuring its genre-bending, compelling original tunes and arrangements. Saturday continues the momentum with Robert Glasper’s Black Radio: A Duke x Dilla Celebration, a concert featuring special guests De La Soul. Composer and bassist Derrick Hodge will also lead and conduct the Black Radio Orchestra. After the performance, the celebration continues with the Duke & Dilla Afterparty, featuring beats from drummer and producer Karriem Riggins.

On April 19, festivalgoers can return for another engaging performance by The Rakim & DJ Jazzy Jeff & Ravi Coltrane Project.

Throughout his career, Duke Ellington wrote over 1,500 compositions and created works across multiple artforms including classic-era big band jazz, liturgical and concert music, film scores and even ballet accompaniments.  “Duke is a masterful inspiration,” Paige Hernandez said. “He was multi-hyphenate in a different era. He didn’t stop at performance, composing, orchestrating and writing. In his performances, he found ways to amplify other artists. We continue to uplift each other. His music found a way. He’s mythical, legendary and everything that I aspire to be.”

From his early days in D.C., composing ragtime tunes like Soda Fountain Rag (1914), Ellington honed the gift of tapping the pulse of music trends and forging new pathways. Throughout his career, he was known for building his arrangements around the sounds and ideas of his band members. His countless classic compositions include “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Satin Doll.”

Ellington’s unique approach to his craft evolved across his more than five-decade-long career of exploration and mastery. “Duke is the forerunner and the blueprint for leadership, innovation, spontaneity and fun,” KOKAYI said. “Especially being from this city — this is the home. Without those innovations and leadership, and without the light that he brought to this city, you wouldn’t have what became Black Broadway in D.C.”

Ellis, a turntablist and DJ, was part of the core with Stabile started founded Revive Music Group back in the 2000s. Ellis said that his work with Stabile and Thomas, particularly the Revive Big Band, has helped him connect with the continuum of Black American music, even if he doesn’t play a traditional, so-called jazz instrument. “It made me closer to understanding how Duke, Count Basie and Cab Calloway operated. We’re stepping into their shoes. I’m not only walking the streets that they walked in Harlem, I’m in an outfit like theirs. Big band has been our longest-running show. In the beginning, it was just a fun thing,” he said. With Stabile’s passing in 2022, and saxophonist James Casey’s death a year later, Ellis explained, “meeting up has been a means of healing. The rest of us are still here. We have each other. I’m trying to make good memories with my big-band family.”

You can find more info on all Hip Hop & … Festival shows at capitalbop.com/calendar. Tickets can be purchased at kennedy-center.org.



About Majeedah Johnson

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Majeedah is a blogger and author of mystery novel, Jump the River. She received her B.S. in Biological Sciences from Loyola University in New Orleans. Reach Majeedah at [email protected]. Read her work on www.fearlessartistry.com. Follow her on Instagram @suchnsuch_experiment.

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