"IN A ghetto-type neighborhood there's always music happening," observes saxophonist Carter Jefferson. "I remember growing up around T Street, and the music I would hear was coming up from the street and from churches around the corner."

Jefferson's grandfather "played all the instruments" and his father, Carter Jefferson Sr., hung out with vibraphone player Clement Wells and other jazz musicians he worked with at the Postal Service. His mother taught music in the District schools, and among her colleagues were bassist Walter Booker and saxophonist Andrew White.

"The first thing I used to listen to was Ellington at Newport," Jefferson recalls, referring to an album that included a legendary 27-chorus solo by the late tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. "I must have been 8 or 9."

In such an environment it was almost inevitable that Jefferson would become a musician and at 11 he began clarinet lessons, soon switching to alto saxophone. "It was just being around the music and having a positive vibe and support from everyone," he says. "Growing up in the neighborhood I grew up in, it saved me, really."

Jefferson, who now lives in Newark, will return to Washington tonight to help kick off the Fourth Annual D.C. Loft Jazz Festival at d.c. space.

Sponsored by District Curators, a nonprofit arts support group, the festival, which will continue through Monday, will include performances by such Washington-area musicians as saxophonists Jim Sivard, Byron Morris, Charlie Young, Singh Neal and Fred Foss and trumpeter Malachi Thompson. Saxophonist Joe McFee, from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., will be in duo with drummer Abu Sharif. Jefferson's quartet will have Koco Brunson on piano, James King on bass and Steve Williams on drums.

Jefferson recalls that in the early 1960s, his interest in music often was supported by neighborhood friends. "We had a group that played baseball and I found a guy that played guitar. That's another thing that kept the music going, finding members of your peer group that inspired you."

When it turned out that another friend played piano, the three formed a group and "began working all these talent shows and got to be very popular playing rock, early funk, the Motown thing. Everybody was playing and going to school and it kept the music happening," he says. Before long he was "trying to make myself look older" and checking out the clubs around T Street.

Jefferson, now 36, went on the road when he was 15. "I was traveling up and down the East Coast with these little groups on what they call the 'chitlin' circuit,' " he says about his years with Ike and Tina Turner and other rhythm and blues combos. "I was getting the experience of traveling very early and getting my roots, basic blues roots and all."

At 19, Jefferson was drafted, and at the end of his service two years later he entered New York University. One of his classmates was the late Kenny Dorham, a pioneer bepop trumpeter. He also came into contact with saxophonist Jimmy Heath, the late trumpet player Lee Morgan and others. "You would be in a situation where you would be playing around that kind of inspiration, and at the same time I ran into guys of my own peer group like Rene McLean. It would be a constant sharing situation--one guy would have this thing together, see, and you'd have to go back to the drawing board and come out again."

After a stint with Mongo Santa Maria, Jefferson's big break came when drummer Art Blakey invited him to an audition. He stayed with Blakey's Jazz Messengers for three years and says "the things I learned then I'm still seeing now. I can't put it into words--it was like a university." Since then, about a decade ago, Jefferson has intermittently led his own groups and worked with trumpet player Woody Shaw, drummer Elvin Jones and others.

The 20 years since Jefferson began absorbing the street sounds around T Street NW have brought changes to the Washington jazz scene.

"Trying to deal with the music at that time for me was kind of a way to deviate from the norm, you know, stay out of school," he says.

In contrast to his own experience, he cites the Ellington School for the Arts and supporting arts organizations like District Curators as partly responsible for producing "so many young cats that I've been meeting. I'm going to be playing with some beautiful cats this week and we're going to play some really fresh music."