The first Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, a celebration of the Washington-born composer and an attempt to put Washington on the lucrative festival circuit, will premiere at multiple sites around the city later this month.
Over five days from Sept. 28 to Oct. 2, pianist Dave Brubeck, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and other musicians will play at seven jazz venues and more than a dozen local clubs and restaurants. In addition, organizers announced yesterday, the festival will sponsor a free seven-hour show at the Sylvan Theater on the Washington Monument grounds. The headliners will include Shorter, trumpeter Wallace Roney, go-go originator Chuck Brown and vocalist Sunny Sumter.
"We want to celebrate the wondrous legacy of jazz and African American culture that previously existed along the U Street corridor. That's slowly coming back into its own," said Charles Fishman, the festival's executive director. Back in the day, Fishman was a personal manager for the late, great Dizzy Gillespie, and he remembers Washington's appreciation of jazz in that era. "We had a great jazz scene here, second to New York and Chicago," he says. New Orleans, of course, was in a category all its own.
Two years ago Fishman convinced Bob Peck, the president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, that an annual Ellington festival would contribute to the city's renewal. Planning started with a $25,000 grant from the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, and organizers have since raised about $590,000 of the $650,000 budget. Initially, not everyone was ready to be nostalgic, even to the sounds of jazz. "In the business community there was a lot of doubt. 'Is this ever going to happen? Who are these guys?' " Fishman recalled. Now 16 companies have chipped in.
Last month the D.C. government signed on with a grant of $200,000. "Jazz is part of the American fabric. The nation's capital should take the opportunity to celebrate America's music," said Stanley Jackson, deputy mayor for planning and economic opportunity.
Jazz can be enjoyed at venerable clubs such as Blues Alley, as well as the upstart stages at the Smithsonian Jazz Cafe and Kennedy Center, which have been drawing substantial crowds. But a festival-style presentation of jazz, such as those in Chicago, Portland, Ore., Newport, R.I., and Monterey, Calif., has rarely been attempted here. The festival will spotlight the renaissance of U Street and the Shaw neighborhood, Fishman said. "If you go up and down U Street at night, people are responding to entertainment," he said. "We have tried to make the festival as broad as possible to the broadest demographic."
The events will be held at Blues Alley, Bohemian Caverns, Lincoln Theatre, the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, True Reformer Hall, the Smithsonian Jazz Cafe at the National Museum of Natural History, and the Sylvan Theater. Along U Street, 14 clubs and restaurants are participating.
Other performers include pianist Arturo O'Farrill, who will lead a Latin jazz tribute to Ellington, with two pieces that were commissioned by the festival; vocalist Stacey Kent; guitarist Larry Coryell; drummer Chuck Redd; and pianist Jean Michele Pilc. A number of international artists will appear, including the Fahir Atakoglu Trio of Turkey, Paul Zauner Quartet of Austria, Aquiles Baez Quintet of Venezuela, Moutin Reunion Quartet of France and Antoine Roney's African drummers.
"You hear people talking about an appetite for jazz. I am hearing it from the senior population and the student population," said Jackson. "This is an opportunity to really see what the appetite is."