With nearly all the great swing-era jazz violinists gone, it is serendipitous that Joe Kennedy Jr., whose full-time career of jazz performance was interrupted for several decades by the professorial life, has taken on the multi-hued mantle of their heritage. In a Charlin Jazz Society concert Saturday night at the Ellington School of the Arts, Kennedy, who began performing in the late 1940s, combined the suave charm of Stephane Grappelli with the roughhouse humor of Stuff Smith. In numbers by Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, among others, and in several of his own compositions, Kennedy showed that he could hit a single note on the head a la Joe Venuti and make it swing, and he often lyricized with conservatory polish in the manner of Eddie South. Wistful gentility and hard-sawed scrapes, skittering vibrato and cello tone, harmonic sophistication and in-the-alley directness, choppy waves and long unbroken lines--these were only a few of the approaches that played parts in Kennedy's estimable art and faultless execution.
As if that were not enough for one evening, one of D.C.'s unsung jazz masters and a class entertainer to boot, vibraphonist and unique vocal stylist Clement Wells, opened the program with Savoy Ballroom "cutting session" audacity. From the ferociously hammered swing on his own "You Look Good to Me," to the four-mallet delicacy of "How High the Moon," to the fire-and-brimstone sermon with resonating instrument and voice both in unison and in call-and-response on Horace Silver's "The Preacher," Wells was a model of sensitivity, urgency and instrumental command. Finally, rhythm sections hardly come any finer than pianist Larry Eanet, bassist Tommy Cecil and drummer George 'Dude' Brown, each of whom made a strong solo statement.