Kennedy Center’s jazz season could use more variety and experimentation

March 11, 2011

For years, it was reassuring to see Billy Taylor, perhaps the most eminent evangelist jazz has ever known, sitting in the audience or accepting an award on stage at the Kennedy Center. His vision helped get jazz accepted as a central part of our nation’s cultural heritage, with an ambitious mix of large-scale festivals and concerts that make the Kennedy Center one of the greatest venues for jazz in the country.

Although Taylor had long since ceded responsibilities for booking and programming to the Kennedy Center’s staff, his death in December left a huge inspirational void. During the first full season without Taylor behind the scenes, the center will pay homage to its longtime artistic director for jazz with a celebratory concert and festival Nov. 11 to 26.

The festival, called “Swing, Swing, Swing,” will kick off Nov. 11 with Taylor’s bassist and drummer, Chip Jackson and Winard Harper, accompanying an all-star lineup of pianists — Geri Allen, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ramsey Lewis and Danilo Perez — and other musicians.

There will be plenty of vocals during the festival, with Jon Hendricks and Manhattan Transfer appearing together and with George Benson saluting Nat “King” Cole. For participatory fun, the Kennedy Center will open up the grand foyer for swing dancers — complete with dance instructors — and a variety of jazz and swing-oriented groups.

Other jazz highlights of the 2011-12 season include saxophonist Steve Wilson recreating the music of Charlie Parker’s remarkable recording with strings (Oct. 7-8); the amazing father-son duo of Dorado and Samson Schmitt performing the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt (with Anat Cohen on clarinet) (Oct. 29); singers Tierney Sutton (Dec. 2) and Jane Monheit (Dec. 17); and trumpeter Nicholas Payton (Feb. 10, 2012).

Every year since 1996, the Kennedy Center has presented the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival — an idea Taylor developed. Some wondered at the beginning whether the festival would last beyond one year. Its success has been a testament to Taylor’s vision and to the strengthening position of women in jazz. This year’s Grammy Award for best new artist didn’t go to Justin Bieber, after all — it went to jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, who will be at the Kennedy Center in May.

It would be nice, however, if the Women in Jazz Festival could look beyond the usual suspects of Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves and Geri Allen, who have appeared multiple times. There are dozens of lesser-known artists across the country who are just as deserving of a national showcase, including such singers as Nancy Marano, Lois Smith, Carol Sloane and Wesla Whitfield, pianists Lynne Arriale and Dena DeRose and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.

With the international flavor of jazz becoming more pronounced each year, it’s time for a Latin jazz festival — one that looks back to Mario Bauza, Machito and Chano Pozo and shows how the music of the Caribbean basin enriched and gave new fire to North American jazz.

One of the great successes of Kennedy Center’s jazz program has been its KC Jazz Club, a room that features leading musicians in an intimate cabaret setting. But it is open only four months of the year. When other venues are cutting back on jazz, the KC Jazz Club should be a year-round destination, with regular Friday and Saturday performances, plus Sunday matinees for people who don’t like to stay out late.

Finally, several of the events next year seem to have inadvertently pointed the way toward a new programming idea that shows real promise. Drummer Roy Haynes, still relentlessly driving the beat at 85, will appear with his Fountain of Youth Band — young musicians in their 20s — on Oct. 14. Alto saxophonist Phil Woods, who turns 80 this year, will perform with his teenage protegee, saxophonist Grace Kelly, on Jan. 27, 2012.

Taylor often mentored younger musicians, including 21-year-old pianist Christian Sands, who will perform at the Nov. 11 concert in Taylor’s honor. What better way to celebrate the memory of the man who launched jazz at the Kennedy Center than by inaugurating a series that brings the grand masters of jazz together with their young acolytes who will keep the music alive?

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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