THE ANNUAL D.C. Jazz Workshop Orchestra has become an area institution with a potential for permanency. The current version, a 12-member unit headed up by alto saxophonist Carl Grubbs, is now in residence Saturdays at d.c. space during the dinner hour. The orchestra met with such positive response at its debut at the recent Fourth Annual D.C. Lost Jazz Festival, presented by the nonprofit arts support organization District Curators at d.c. space, that it played until 2:30 a.m.
Pianist Jaki Byard will supervise the workshop this October, taking the place of trumpeter Don Cherry and multi-reed player Anthony Braxton.
Made up of area musicians with diverse backgrounds, the orchestra presents an opportunity for community participation in big band jazz that Washington has not seen the likes of for many a year, perhaps since the 1950s when The Orchestra reigned under the sponsorship of Willis Conover.
Grubbs points out that, "Everybody is having a good time--I'm having a good time. Some are somewhat beginners, others have been playing in the jazz community for a long time. I think it's a well-rounded group. We have all races, we even have a lady playing alto saxophone. The young lady that sings with us is about 21 and others are in their thirties and forties."
The weekly program at d.c. space reviews the history of jazz with the older players offering their expertise in the earlier styles while the younger members concentrate on contemporary expression. Grubbs has prepared arrangements for such tunes as several Duke Ellington compositions, Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," Charlie Parker numbers and some of his own originals. A Louis Armstrong rendition of "St. Louis Blues" recently caught Grubbs' ear and he thought, "Wow, Louis has been smoking for a long time!" The classic W.C. Handy blues will be added to the band's repertoire.
Two members of the orchestra represent the unit's disparate backgrounds. Baltimorean and alto saxophonist Tina Edwards says that she "got into playing jazz about four years ago" although her listening goes back 20 years. "You know, back in those days a lot of women weren't getting into it--it was almost looked upon that you were a real freak or something, so it didn't occur to me to try playing jazz."
A classically trained flutist, Edwards looks upon the workshop as a unique challenge. "There aren't that many opportunities for someone who is learning to get out and play with real live people in front of the public," she explains. "I just feel really privileged to find opportunities like this--they don't come up that often."
Tenor saxophonist Sing Neal, whose presence on the Washington jazz scene dates from the 1940s when he played in area dance bands and be-bop combos, also spoke of the workshop scene as a sort of musical windfall. "I'm sort of coming out of retirement," he confessed, "and for me it's a chance to start playing again, to come back. And by me being a little older than most of the fellows--and the young lady--it's an experience just to be with the youth in the band. The abilities, the personalities and the ethnic backgrounds are so diversified that that's interesting in itself. They're learning from me and I'm learning from them, you know--it's very nice."
Workshop director and orchestra leader Carl Grubbs' earliest training in the idiom came from the late John Coltrane, whose first wife, Naima, was Grubbs' first cousin. "Everything kind of started one Easter in '58 when my mother and father took me and my older brother Earl up to New York," recalls the Philadelphia-raised Grubbs. "They had bought us some instruments--a clarinet and an alto sax--and we were going up there so he could show us some things on the horns. When we got there he was asleep and when he woke up he just took up his horn and started practicing--all day long."
Carl and Earl Grubbs, who later would record albums together on the Muse label, were unknowingly privy to an historic event that afternoon. The legendary saxophonist wrote out, during the course of that day's practice, the chord changes of a tune that had been going through his head, "Giant Steps"--"on a brown piece of paper bag."