Trumpet and fluegelhorn player Jim Howard spent 23 years globe-trotting with Navy bands, finishing his service career with a seven-year tour in the Commodores, the Navy's crack 20-member jazz ensemble.

Now he's seven years into what he calls an enjoyable retirement, ricocheting among Washington jazz groups with his horns. But tonight at 7 he'll rejoin his Commodore colleagues in hosting a free Jazz Showcase at the Navy Yard's waterfront off M Street, between Fifth and Seventh streets SE. The rain location is the Sail Loft in the Yard's Building 112.

Howard, one of several Washington-based jazz artists to be featured at the concert, will perform both in a combo format and with the big band.

After more than 30 years in music, Howard remains reluctant to put a label on his style of playing, though he says his chief inspirations have been horn men Miles Davis and the late Clifford Brown. "I just call it jazz," he says.

His earliest mentor, however, was an alto saxophone-playing uncle back in Miami, where he grew up and began playing trumpet in high school. If area jazz fans think Howard looks familiar out of uniform, it may be because his free-lance activity since 1978 has taken him into many a Washington jazz club. "I'm just bouncing around from group to group," he says. "I plan to put a group together as soon as the right opportunity comes."

Vibraphone player Lennie Cuje', whose quartet will do a set at the Showcase, first heard jazz as a 12-year-old in his native Germany at war's end. "That's what made me come over here," explains Cuje', who arrived alone in the Washington area five years later. "That was it for me -- I heard this music and I had to go to the States."

Trumpet was his instrument then, but a fellow student accidentally knocked Cuje''s horn into his teeth at a dance at Arlington's Washington-Lee High School. "So that was the end of the trumpet playing," he says. He subsequently mastered the vibraphone and has played with many of the greats, both in his adopted home town of Washington and in New York, where he lived during the 1960s.

Another familiar figure at the concert will be 26-year-old Chuck Redd, who has drummed in many of the area's big bands, including those of Bill Potts and Mike Crotty, and has played with guitarist Charlie Byrd's trio since 1980. Redd will be in Cuje''s rhythm section along with pianist Jay Cooley and bassist Steve Novosel. Pianist Art Monroe, whose trio regularly turns up at Blues Alley and other local jazz venues, will be featured with the Commodores. Chief Jeff Taylor, the Commodores' director, promises the evening's program will cover the jazz spectrum from Count Basie to Herbie Hancock. WMAL's Bill Mayhugh will emcee the concert.

Kicking off that spectrum will be Chantilly Jazz, the 20-member jazz ensemble of Chantilly High School in Virginia. The band walked off with first prize in this year's eighth annual downbeat magazine student music awards, a national competition in which nearly 6,000 musicians took part.

Chantilly Jazz director Tony Aversano ascribes considerable credit for the band's successes (they have taken many other "firsts") to the enthusiastic support of parents, but his strongest praise is reserved for his charges.

"Well, you can't make gold out of stone," he says proudly. "I've really got very good kids to work with and they're very hard working. These kids live with their horns in their mouths."