1. Looks Like Sunny Weather There have been times lately, in the midst of all his good fortune, that Loston Harris II has paused to worry. For a young jazz pianist and budding crooner, these moments tend to occur on Vampire Time. That would be musician time. That would be late at night, when the rest of the world has been asleep for hours, or in the early afternoon, which is usually the bleary-eyed beginning of his day. And the thought that tugs at his brain goes something like this: Is his rising star -- his new record contract, his new CD and 31/2 -star reviews, his swank New York City gigs, his loyal and growing fan base here at home in Reston, his Baldwin piano endorsement, his tour with band leader Wynton Marsalis, his designer clothing deal, the www.lostonharris.com Web site -- is all of that, as beautiful as it is and as hard as he's worked for it, is all of that the best thing for the making of a real jazz artist? Because he knows all about the greats. Monk and Mingus. Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. All those ghosts who worked the boozy, smoke-filled jazz joints, haunted after-hours jam sessions, dogging older artists, struggling to make a name for themselves and to make a living, fighting poverty and racism and indifference and addiction and madness, and everything else that has gone along with playing jazz. "They took that pain and put it into their music," he is saying as he tools through Northern Virginia in his secondhand navy-blue BMW. "It seems like people can feel it, hear it, in the music. I was talking to my dad. I told him maybe I need to go through some pain, get all messed up, to make my music." Loston's dad, who is retired Army, and a retired Marriott executive, and a Baptist churchman who still works part time at H&R Block during tax season, had some practical thoughts about this. "He said, You play what you are. If you have sadness and pain to put into your music, it comes out. If you don't have it, you can't fake it. You put in what you have.' "I think that's right, but I don't know," he says. "What do you have to do?" But before he can answer, and because he is only 27, and because it is spring and he and his trio are in demand and life is good, his thoughts move on. He is on Route 50, not far from his parents' place in Fairfax County, and near his three-night-a-week gig at the Hyatt Hotel piano bar in the Reston Town Center. In a few hours, he leaves for an 11-day engagement at a jazz festival on the beach in Israel. It will go very well. He will be invited back. But that's in the future. "I hear the women in Israel are beautiful," he says now, sounding suave, and looking sheepish and self-conscious, too, the way you might when you're trying to live up to the record label's plan to market you as a serious artist/heartthrob. He talks like he sings, low and languid. It's a husky, Saturday-night, we-got-time voice that the record company, N2K Encoded Music, is banking on to the tune of $200,000 in marketing and support and a multi-year contract. He's looking dapper today. He was voted best-dressed back at Falls Church High. But he's got an Italian menswear company supplying him with clothing nowadays, just as it did for Sylvester Stallone. (Wynton Marsalis once stopped in mid-concert to turn to Loston onstage in mock awe: "Look at the brother's shoes," he commanded the audience. "Would you look at the brother's shoes?!") Today the topcoat could stop a concert. It's a narrow and elegant, black-and-purple herringbone number whose color, at three paces, blurs into the softest shade of midnight blue and sets off his skin, which is a dark copper. He keeps his hair short and brilliantined. He is so perfectly groomed he puts women in mind of taking time to make time. ("Mmmm, his voice," murmured a female fan after a concert in April. "It does put you in a mood.") Yes, a mood to swoon. Or at least go shopping. "Yeah," Loston Harris is saying. He is talking about his musical influences as he drives. There's Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole, for sure. Ellington. Bobby Short. But also Dean Martin. And Sammy. And Sinatra. Especially Sinatra. "Frank just had it. All those guys, they were just cool. Frank," he repeats. "Frank was fearless." Fearlessness is a quality that Loston Harris might well admire. Because here's the thing. Loston Harris, this near-lifelong resident of Fairfax, has a serious jazz pedigree -- piano studies with Ellis Marsalis (father of Wynton) and Billy Taylor, the tour with Wynton, two jazz CDs. But his true ambitions are both bigger than and suspect in the puritanical, hermetic world of serious jazz. Loston Harris wants to be a jazz artist and a singer. And not just any singer. He wants to be a pop star, a pop star who plays serious jazz. That's a bigger vision than jazz has allowed in 50 years, not since swing music was a national craze and dance-hall abandon had the nation's morality police talking about jazz music as a cause of promiscuity. Nope, no one has done that in 50 years, and there are plenty of people -- the jazz police, Loston Harris calls them -- who think that can't and shouldn't happen again. He's had conversations with one jazz artist who told him, "When you get rid of everything in your music that makes people want to tap their feet, then you'll be playing real jazz." "To me that's absurd," he says. "Why would I want to be sitting there playing and have people not understand what I'm doing? That's not what I want. "I want to sell a million records. I do," he says matter-of-factly. "And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I don't expect it to just fall into my lap, either. I expect to work for it. But the just play in jazz clubs' mentality doesn't do much for me. And neither does the idea that for it to be a jazz place it has to pay poorly, be dirty and have no ventilation." "I don't think it's cool to do a whole concert with your back to the audience . . ." He knows the crowd of talented young players who have come up around Wynton Marsalis -- Marcus Roberts, Cyrus Chestnut. He hangs with some of them. But he is not exactly one of them. He's got the chops. But his head's in a different place. "Those guys are musicians," he says. "I want to be an entertainer." So he listens to Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett and Sinatra. Bobby Short. Watches their films. Reads their biographies, and rifles their songbooks. Oh yeah, and there's this other guy. The guy in the tape deck. "Luis Miguel," he says. Who? "You don't know about Luis Miguel?" He shakes his head. Miguel is a Latin pop star, the successor to Julio Iglesias. How could you not have heard of Luis Miguel? "Luis Miguel's concert tickets go for $108 and they're always sold out," Loston says with feeling. "Now that's beautiful. "Yeah," he says dreamily, as the smooth Reston Parkway spools out ahead of him. "See, you get the girls -- well not just the girls, but if you get the women, you get the men, because the women want their boyfriends and husbands to take them to the show, and if you're doing something with class and taste, you'll get the older people, too. I want to appeal to everybody." Okay, he admits it might sound a little crazy, but he's noticed there's a pop phenomenon every 20 years. "Sinatra in the '40s, Elvis in the '60s, Michael Jackson in the 1980s. Every 20 years," he says, musing. "So we're due." Beep. "You have reached the voice mail of Loston Harris." Loston's answering machine is in his quarters in his parents' basement. The song changes from week to week. This week it's Dean Martin. How lucky can one guy be?/I kissed her and she kissed me/Like the fellow once said/Ain't that a kick in the head . . . 2. It Don't Mean
a Thing if . . . Complete the following. Jazz is: a. Dying b. Dead c. Having a midlife crisis d. As healthy and low-down as it ever was, and anyone who doesn't think so is a philistine or a racist e. All of the above It's big-band night at the One Step Down, Washington's oldest jazz joint, near Georgetown. Most of the house seats have been taken out to make room for the new outfit that's been playing here every Monday since January. And it is a big band. The Thad Wilson Jazz Orchestra is 16 pieces -- four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones and a rhythm section of acoustic bass, piano and drums. They are young players -- a few from Howard University, the rest professionals under the direction of the eponymous 31-year-old Mr. Wilson, a trumpet player and composer from New Jersey by way of Atlanta, now of Takoma Park. Jazz lovers can be sparse at the One Step early in the week, but on Mondays, the place is elbow-room only. The horns glitter in the tiny halogen stage lights that went up under new owner Catherine Stuart last year, and the sound -- joyous and hard-driving -- spills out the open door and onto the rain-soaked avenue. Cigar-smoking patrons crowd happily around the bar and squeeze into the worn wooden booths, listening intently, tapping their feet. The joint is jumping as the band charges into a Thad Wilson tune, "The House Gig." One by one, the players, including standouts alto saxophonist Antonio Parker and trumpeter Michael Thomas, rise and lay down their solos. These are the bright flares in a night of fireworks -- the improvised, always-changing conversation that the jazz soloist has with the other members of the band and the audience. The horns yowl and moan, and the saxophone squeals, then prowls like a panther, stalking the groove, and now people are smiling and nodding around the room, and the feeling is very fine. So. Classic jazz in a classic jazz joint. What could be finer? Who says jazz is dead? But looks can be deceptive. Despite the '90s vogue for the big-band sound and a boomlet in acoustic jazz in general, clubs like the One Step Down, and the jam sessions they fostered, have largely gone the way of the dodo, casualties of television, rock-and-roll, the postwar flight to the suburbs, even changed drinking and smoking habits. "It's a vastly different world," says jazz writer A.B. Spellman. "It's much worse now; it's desperate," agrees Andrew White, a veteran player, music publisher and noted transcriber of 587 improvised John Coltrane solos. "The career I started 27 years ago couldn't survive today. John Coltrane couldn't make it if he were coming up today." Except in New York City, still the music's mecca, and New Orleans, its birthplace, where new clubs continue to open and thrive, the once-lively club scene in major U.S. cities, including Detroit, Kansas City, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Washington, has dwindled toward the vanishing point. Washington once boasted dozens of jazz clubs, including Abart's, at 9th and T NW, where the glittering house roster included tenor sax player Buck Hill and vocalist and piano player Shirley Horn. By the early 1970s, most were gone. Now, of the four strictly jazz venues in downtown D.C. -- the One Step Down, HR 57, Blues Alley, the Nest at the Willard Hotel -- only the first two are inexpensive enough to be casual or frequent destinations for most people. Other clubs that feature jazz, such as Twins, mix live jazz with rhythm and blues and other music. The radio stations that once supported jazz have disappeared, too, and with them many independent jazz record labels. "Where is jazz?" lamented veteran bassist Keter Betts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art recently. "There's no place to play anymore." In fact, as Betts and others will tell you, jazz is still around, but it has moved from the club to the concert hall. This shift began in the late 1940s, when bebop succeeded swing. With the arrival of bebop, jazz also left the dance hall and the mainstream of pop music. It got cooler, more cerebral, it became a listening music, and its practitioners began to think of themselves as artists, not entertainers. Jazz is now an uneasy resident in what Spellman calls "the world of the 501c3." That's the designation in the tax code that shelters nonprofit cultural organizations like professional theaters, dance companies and classical music ensembles. There is a vigorous, sometimes rancorous, debate in jazz circles about whether this change spells the end of jazz or is simply, as the jazz critic Tom Piazza argues in his book Blues Up and Down, an inevitable and survivable midlife crisis. It depends on your yardstick, say Piazza and others. By one measure, jazz's profile has never been higher, or more prestigious. In the '90s, jazz has been canonized as America's Classical Music, declared a "national treasure" by no less than the U.S. Congress, and has found a permanent home at the nation's temples of high culture -- at the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian and, most notably, New York's Lincoln Center. The clubs may be going, but there are 300 or more universities and music schools that offer degrees in jazz studies. When the International Association of Jazz Educators met in New York this year, more than 7,000 jazz teachers showed up. With each of them reaching an estimated 100 students, that's a lot of people playing and listening to jazz, says David Baker, a jazz cellist and professor at Indiana University and conductor of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. On the other hand, jazz's popular and commercial appeal has never been smaller. Jazz recordings now account for only 3 percent of all record sales. (That's more than opera, and about equal to symphonic music, but far less than country music or rock-and-roll.) Jazz's attempts to deal with the onslaught of rock-and-roll -- the jazz fusion experiments of the '60s and '70s -- failed to revive its popular fortunes. The '90s have seen a revival of interest in traditional acoustic jazz -- swing, "neo-bop," boogie-woogie. But the audience for serious acoustic jazz remains small, and a shadow of the '30s, when jazz was the pop music, or even the '50s, when every respectable record collection boasted an album of Miles or Bird or Coltrane. Today, the music is dogged by a popular perception, dating from the '50s, that jazz is cold, difficult and indifferent to the audience. And some observers wonder if jazz can still be jazz if it's mostly about getting dressed up and sitting still in climate-controlled museums and concert halls. Andrew White refers to the jazz programs at the Smithsonian and Kennedy Center as "the Fossil League" -- jazz presented in a historical context "like a bug in amber that everyone gets to pick up and look at." The music is safe, he says, and predictable, and boring. "The litmus test with jazz is clear. Is it hitting you in the gut? If it isn't, it's saltpeter music," he says. That's a reference to the chemical compound supposedly once put in Army food to keep soldiers' minds off sex. White and others worry that something is disappearing forever from the music now that an estimated 90 percent of young jazz players are learning jazz in school instead of at the feet of the masters. Wynton Marsalis and the jazz critic and essayist Stanley Crouch have said the idea that jazz is best heard in poverty-stricken neighborhoods by players in desperate straits is romantic, and racist, nonsense. By strictly commercial measures, jazz's vital signs may look weak, but that is only part of the picture. "No one likes to see jazz clubs closing, but creatively . . . jazz is extraordinarily healthy," says Piazza. "There are many more great young musicians around playing straight-ahead acoustic jazz than there were 15 years ago." Still, even optimists concede that the music is going through a period of consolidation. In that environment, record companies have watched the huge record sales of so-called smooth jazz (the homogenized jazzy pop of artists like Kenny G) and the popular appeal of a jazz singer and pianist like Harry Connick Jr. They look at the demographic bulge of record-buying thirtysomethings and Gen X-ers and suspect there is a large potential audience for jazz of a certain sort, presented the right way. This group, the thinking goes, has tired of rock-and-roll and rap, and is ready for something challenging. But not too challenging. They want something cool, but they don't want ice cream. They want . . . they want . . . What? That's the $64 million question. At N2K Encoded Music, the hope is they'll want Loston Harris. The word on everyone's lips, the key to the magic kingdom of gold and platinum records, is "accessible." Loston's producer at N2K, Carl Griffin, is candid about his desire to market Loston Harris as a black Harry Connick Jr. (though Connick, the white New Orleans singer and band leader, has recently leveraged his flagging music career into a new career as a film actor). In his 25 years in the music business, Griffin has won a Grammy for producing the "B.B. King Live at the Apollo" LP and guided the careers of jazz artists Diana Krall and Ramsey Lewis, and he sees Loston as the man who could lure a large popular audience back to jazz. The photos on the cover of the new CD, "Comes Love," were designed to straddle the fence, Griffin says -- to capitalize on Loston's sex appeal on one side, but preserve his pedigree as a serious artist on the other. "Loston's music is accessible, it's fun," says Griffin. "With some artists, you hear the pain -- the love lost, an abusive father. Loston wants to make you dance and forget all that. Harry did the big-band thing, and then got sidetracked with rock-and-roll and lost his audience. We want to take advantage of that." "He makes very understandable music; it's jazz, but it's accessible because it's not so bombastic," says N2K President Phil Ramone, a pop producer who has recorded everyone from Barbra Streisand and the Mamas and the Papas to Billy Joel and Paul Simon. "He crosses a lot of lines, and I'm happy they get erased." The Italian suit company is banking on that, too. Canali has dressed Stallone, Gene Hackman, Dennis Quaid and Al Pacino, and much of the cast in the recent movie "Suicide Kings." "We feel Loston's a great complement to our product," says Martin Bradshaw, the Canali executive in charge of product placement. "It's accessible. He appeals to people who make a certain amount of money, travel to Europe, buy nice cars, invest their money. We're talking about the upper 1 or 2 percent of the tax bracket. Jazz is part of the good life. Fine wine, nice cars. It all plays to the same hand." The idea of jazz as a soundtrack for the dinner parties of investment bankers, as a status symbol, a totem of the listener's superior taste, is fairly repulsive to many jazz enthusiasts. It seems a long way from jazz's roots as the voice of the disenfranchised, the passionate music that came out of the New Orleans mix of West African, Caribbean and European influences. "Loston is a great player, but he's slick, he's schmaltzy," says one Washington jazz promoter. "Jazz is supposed to be you play every night, play from the heart, from the gut. When I hear Loston, I hear a-go-go, I hear piano bar. I hear Reston." But Loston Harris the artist is more complicated and more idealistic and more aware than that. And he is more than the sum of his packagers or his critics. He's developing so fast that from one month to the next he can seem a completely different artist. In March the vocals seem a little wobbly. By May he appears hugely confident, as if he had been crooning his entire life. That makes any assessment of him difficult and probably inaccurate. The ping-pong of accolades balanced by disclaimers is too reductive, and cautious optimism must be realistic enough to allow for change. Or even total failure. Loston is what he is, and what he is, is a jazzman of his times. And, in a way, of an earlier time that may be coming again. The restrictive idea of "pure" jazz, of jazz as a kind of citadel where other kinds of music are unwelcome and suspect, is giving way to what Ellis Marsalis calls "the new eclecticism." In the 1990s, young musicians can explore all styles of music without worrying about jeopardizing their artistic credentials. Thus, Jason Marsalis, Ellis's 21-year-old son, plays funk and salsa as well as jazz in half a dozen bands, while his older brother Wynton is immersing himself in bluegrass. This experimentation echoes jazz's beginnings at the turn of this century. And now, this freeing up creates a friendlier space for someone like Loston. "Nobody should tell anyone what to play. It's up to you," says Ellis Marsalis, now head of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans. "And in the end, what you choose is a matter of taste and individual integrity." The virtuoso musician who also wants to please the crowd is a distinguished part of jazz's past. Until the 1950s, "how you presented what you did was extremely important," says Marsalis. "I myself am grateful for what people give me," says A.B. Spellman. "Nat Cole gave great music and also great vocals. And there is no one to say that Loston shouldn't do the same." Beep. "You have reached the voice mail of Loston Harris." This week, it's Tony Bennett. Well, baby, what I couldn't do/With plenty of money and you/In spite of the worry that money brings/Just a little filthy loot buys a lot of things . . . 3. Music for
Bankers The product is good and the product is moving. The new CD debuted in April at No. 45 on the Gavin jazz airplay chart and is now at No. 6. USA Today gave "Comes Love" 31/2 stars; Billboard's jazz columnist said there was "joy" in hearing Loston sing. He's on the listening post at Tower Records, and sales are brisk enough that Tower has ordered up a Loston Harris plastic bin card. His CD release party in Reston and related engagements in New York drew almost a thousand fans, as well as the soul-singer-turned-DJ and actor Isaac Hayes, who jumped up onstage at the swanky Soul Cafe in midtown Manhattan to join Loston for two songs. He is on the radio in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and here in Washington, too. This spring he showed up alongside drummer and record label-mate T.S. Monk, son of Thelonious, in a national Macy's catalogue showcasing jazz artists and dress shirts. He sold out a recent concert at the Lyceum in Old Town Alexandria. Loston took the stage in a black Canali suit. His white cuffs and pocket handkerchief glowed, his black shoes gleamed, and on his downstage hand, a thick gold pinkie ring winked in the light. The look was vaguely retro-modern, with a hint of the zoot suit in the jacket's long sides and linebacker shoulders. There was Cab Calloway, too, and Billy Eckstine and the Michael Corleone of "Godfather II." At the intermission, they sold all 46 CDs at $15 each. His manager also was giving away Loston Harris postcards. In the photo, Loston leans toward the camera, chin in hand, his pressed shirt sleeves unbuttoned but not rolled up. He could pass for the weary young stockbroker in a Chivas Regal ad, mulling his calls and puts at a SoHo club after hours, pensive but prosperous. But the playing is its own thing. Loston adjusts the piano bench, then pauses for a moment, head bowed, hands clasped between his knees -- collecting himself, like a ballplayer in the dugout before the game. And then he's off. He launches into a scorching, swinging instrumental piece. His bass player, Mykle Lyons, solos first, slapping the neck; the instrument seems to be alive, bucking and rolling. Then Loston drives it forward -- the grand piano shakes as he pounds, rolls and scorches his way through the piece. His playing is showy, serious and athletic -- full of bravado and the youthful wish to charm and seduce. "Here I am," it says, "take it or leave it . . . But I hope you'll take it." The music casts its spell and the mood shifts constantly, like weather on a spring day, from brassy sunlight one minute to clouds of melancholy the next. The piece is "Stompin' Down Broadway," once recorded by Nat King Cole. Listening to Loston's interpretation is like listening to a great raconteur. And suddenly the music isn't about designer clothes anymore, or record contracts or wine snobbery. The song ends and the crowd blinks, clearly impressed and a little dazed. 4. I Did It
My Way "Fla-fla-fla-fla-fla-fla-fla-fla," Loston is singing, up and down the C major scale. "Again," says his teacher. "Fla-fla-fla-fla-fla-fla-fla-fla," he sings. "I'm trying to make you focus on singing from your back muscles," she says. "That would be good for you, because you sit at the piano when you sing. Again." "Fla-fla-fla -- " "Lift your rib cage up a little more." "Fla-fla -- " "Remember, no vocal tension. Again." "Geez!" exclaims Loston Harris II. There are beads of sweat on his forehead, and he smacks his hands together in exasperation. It is 2 p.m. on a weekday -- the crack of dawn -- in a new subdivision somewhere in the matchbox heart of Reston. Loston is standing in the middle of a small, light-filled studio just off the front hall of his teacher's new colonial. Everything is clean and new. His teacher, Rebecca Buck, sits at a lacquered black Kawai upright. They have been working on classical voice technique. Just a little longer, she coaxes, then they can get to the Sinatra. Buck is a former singer herself, torch-song division, once of Las Vegas. She is petite, blond and fiftyish, trim in a navy-blue knit pantsuit and lots of big gold jewelry. She has a classical music background, a clear, piping voice, and once upon a time, a long time ago, she coached the 8-year-old Janet Jackson -- her ex-husband was managing the Jacksons at the time. Life has brought her to Reston, where she happened to see Loston Harris playing piano at the Hyatt one night. "Why aren't you singing?" she asked him. So they began working together. She dotes on him. "You have to have a good sense of who you are when you sing -- you can't hide a thing," she says lightly. "A lot of people have compared him to Harry Connick," she clucks, "but there's more sincerity with Loston. More vulnerability -- he's a spiritual person, a humble person. He's so endearing -- that's going to give him a real longevity." Loston, standing in the middle of the room in perfectly pressed khakis and a black polo shirt, looks mortified. "Geez Louise," he mumbles. Later, when he bricks the high F in Sinatra's longing, anguished rendition of "All or Nothing at All," he is harsher. "Christ, this sucks!" he says, looking down, frustrated and embarrassed. "You'll get it, you'll be singing it," she says. "This is one song you are never going to hear at a gig," he retorts. And then he plows back into it. The successful artist, a wise person once said, needs three things: talent, drive and luck. You've got to have all three to make it. And then there is the mysterious fourth thing, related to drive, which is just as important, and maybe the most important thing of all. That's the compass, deep in the brain, that keeps the artist on course and moving toward the goal, no matter what the setbacks. Especially in bad times, when the goal seems to blur or even vanish entirely. Talent, drive and luck. Like in 1995. Loston had come off a six-week tour with Wynton Marsalis's quartet. His first CD, "Stepping Stones," had come out on D.C. independent label Swing Records to friendly reviews. Loston and the label's owner, Ed Wiley III, were shopping it to record industry people, using it as a calling card. But nothing much was happening. Loston had been out of school for a few years, playing at the Reston Hyatt three nights a week, and down in Manassas at a restaurant called Hero's. In between he was running up to New York, staying with musician friends and hanging out in clubs, asking questions, trying to learn. But he was living in his parents' basement, and beginning to wonder if he was ever going to get out of Reston. "To get out of town and travel the world, I knew I was going to need the support of a major label. But things were going very slowly. I was really worried. I went through a period of major self-doubt -- is this really going to work, is this really what I want to do? Do I want to play in a hotel lounge for the rest of my life? "I knew that was not what I wanted to do." So in June 1996, he and his young, part-time manager went into overdrive organizing a showcase in New York City. They investigated the Algonquin Hotel, the Cafe Carlyle and a few other spots, and eventually rented Tavern on the Green on a Monday night. Loston put up a few thousand of his own money, borrowed and begged the rest, and ignored all the people who said he wasn't ready for something like that. He leveraged friendships and contacts, called in favors and chits. Got Billy Taylor, who'd taught him briefly at Howard and was a friend of his manager's, to emcee. Marcus Roberts showed up, too. Black Entertainment Television lent its name. Even the young guy who'd booked him into Hero's put up $750. Loston invited the reps from all the major record companies. A lot of them didn't show, but his manager phoned them all the next day to beg again, and fortunately, on the second night, while he was backing up a trumpet player somewhere else, the N2K executives came by, and listened, and left a business card. Loston and his manager then deluged the record company with tapes and CDs. A month later N2K called back to arrange an audition for the label big shots. "Loston," says Catherine Stuart, "is one of the few people in town -- maybe the only person in town -- shooting for the commercial action, and he's been better than almost anyone at surrounding himself with people who've already achieved what he wants." There does seem to be a certain amount of synchronicity around him. His manager, for example, Bettina Owens, is also the coordinator of jazz programming at National Public Radio. Through that work, at NPR and the Kennedy Center, she has come to know Wynton Marsalis and Billy Taylor, an elder statesman and advocate for the music. And she gets informal business advice from Marsalis's manager. The Canali representative who wangled the clothing deal used to work next door to him at Tysons Corner. "If I had to sit at home and wait for a phone call, I'd still be home," Loston says. "You gotta be out there. You gotta sell yourself. That's what I did." Talent, drive and luck. Go further back. Down in Richmond, at Virginia Commonwealth University, he was majoring in percussion and planning to make a career as a drummer. One day Prof. Ellis Marsalis heard him playing the piano. Told him he ought to think about switching instruments. He'd played piano in church for years, but his parents, who'd always supported the music, balked. "They said, You're crazy. You've been playing the drums since fourth grade. You switch to the piano this week, then what, trumpet the next?' " He kept his percussion major, but started working away at piano in his free time. "If I hadn't met Ellis Marsalis, I don't think I ever would have switched," he says. "With the piano I could see how I could make work for myself -- whereas with the drums, you're more in a position of waiting for someone to call you." Talent, drive and luck. The compass. When he left Howard University two years later -- he'd transferred by then -- he had plenty of musical training but no place to play. He was working at a clothing store in Tysons Corner. He auditioned to play piano at Nordstrom. They turned him down. But there was a big, empty piano at the food court. He asked if he could play there for free. The mall bosses thought about it, and said yes. He treated it like a paying gig. Rehearsed for it. Dressed for it. "My parents always said, you never know who's going to walk by." Sure enough, one day a Reston Hyatt manager strolled by. Loston bagged that gig, too. Which could have been deadly. But instead of sinking under the potential monotony and claustrophobia of a piano bar, he used it as a laboratory. He started out playing Steely Dan and Billy Joel. But he moved on, working backward through the jazz fusion of the '60s and '70s -- Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Then bebop -- Bud Powell, angular and dark, and Ahmad Jamal. Then back further, to swing -- Ellington and Basie -- and Cole Porter and show tunes on the side. He treated the people glued to the football game at the bar as a challenge. "Ellis Marsalis told me, you can make them listen. You just play and they will hear it. They will hear something is going on." The artist is a self-navigating instrument. Out of all these influences, he began to create the beginnings of a Loston Harris sound, a Loston Harris idea, which is still evolving, and it doesn't quite fit in a catch phrase, yet. "It's not modern and it's not like bebop and it's not quite as structured as big band," he says. "It's kind of like I took the big-band sound and reduced it down to more of a trio format. I like to call myself taking an old classic and making it hip, or funkier.' " Once he had the playing down, he started to think about singing. And that was the most audacious leap of all. Who told you you could sing? In 1995, when he came off the tour with Wynton, Wynton told him to go back and listen to early jazz. Ellis Marsalis had told him that, back in college, and he had resisted. He was playing funk and rhythm and blues (the R&B band cut a five-song demo for Motown). He'd heard swing. He thought it sounded "corny." But then he and fellow VCU student drummer Clarence Penn sat down and spent hours analyzing the way a jazz drummer will play a cymbal -- a way of not hitting the cymbal, but playing through it. And then one day came the eureka moment. There was a groove, and you didn't need a heavy backbeat to feel it. The groove was there in the swing, and in the bass and the horns, and it was big. "There was just so much beauty in it, and so much soul. I almost lost the desire to listen to contemporary stuff," he remembers. And now there is the joy he feels when he plays it, watching people tap their feet and dance, the moment when they realize "they don't need a rap or rock beat to move. It's not what they're used to hearing -- it's not hip-hop or rock-and-roll. "And they don't know why they're moving, but we know what it is -- it's, it's the groove," he says, excited. "Jazz has a groove. Rap just has a beat, and the constant repetition of that beat. But in jazz, the groove is constantly evolving." When Wynton spoke, Loston went back to the books, and records, which is how he found the penultimate piece of his musical puzzle -- Nat King Cole. Not the Nat Cole of the big production numbers like "Mona Lisa" and "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire." This was Cole with his trio. The Cole who, in the '40s, before he started singing, was considered one of the two most talented jazz pianists of his generation, a rival and equal to Art Tatum, and a direct descendant of boogie-woogie and swing pianist Earl Hines. When Loston heard it, he felt happy, just as he had when he played the piano. He telephoned Nat King Cole's brother, Freddy, in Atlanta. Freddy Cole was friendly, and encouraging. Told him to start slow, and recommended a relatively simple song, "Sometimes I'm Happy." The melody mostly just bounces back and forth between two notes. So he started singing. And some people liked it. And some didn't. At the piano bar at the Hyatt, where he'd been exploring modern jazz, abstract and cool, some regulars heard the new thing and told him it sounded "like elevator music," he remembers. The self-navigating instrument kept at it. And the older artists, the wise men, they say it's fine. Jazz is a big umbrella, says A.B. Spellman. Jazz is like a bakery, says Keter Betts. All kinds of bread in there. Nobody says we all have to eat one kind. Still, there are critics. Loston has heard this all before. "I know that some people think what I do is fluff," he sighs. "The critics may say it's not traditional jazz enough. I don't know what they'll say. I had to get to the point where I wasn't afraid about what anyone is going to think. If I'm in a club and all these great jazz musicians come in and I have to play and they don't like it, there's nothing I can do. It's what I am. It's what I hear. I think you sell out when you don't follow yourself." And fact is, there's not a lot of pain and suffering to put into the music. Not yet. He hangs out in Reston, goes bowling with the members of his trio: Mykle Lyons, the wry one, and drummer Tim Pratt, the comedian. Except for checking out jazz at Cafe Lautrec in Adams-Morgan on Wednesday nights, he doesn't hang out on the music scene. Once a week or so, he goes to a dinner party in Reston hosted by a friend, a communications executive and transplanted New York actor. There may be a complicated race thing going on somewhere in Reston, or Fairfax, but not at this party. The guests are evenly mixed, racially, but they seem neither black nor white. They are something else. These are second-generation Restonites. It's as if the place is now old enough to have spawned its own particular culture, a hybrid. "The Rat Pack" meets "Leave It to Beaver" meets "Friends" meets "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit." The group is friendly, hospitable, competent and easygoing. They are bright and on the way up at Burston Marsteller and American Express, and busy with creative projects on the side, too. The actor has produced independent films. The gang is writing a screenplay together. It's hard to tell. They seem to be fighting Reston's prevailing fog of blandness and disappearing into it at the same time. One minute they're considering a late-night cruise to investigate the martini lounge scene on 18th Street. In the next breath they're debating which of Reston's man-made lakefronts they'll buy houses on when they can. There's a Jaguar salesman visiting the group, and he is trying to talk Loston into a Jaguar or a Range Rover -- loaded, "with four Rottweilers in the backseat," someone says. Loston laughs. The talk turns to shopping. Upscale. There are women who work for Versace visiting from New York. And now Tim Pratt, a preacher's kid from Chesapeake, Va., gets on him for dropping designer names and obsessing about shopping: "Oh, yes," Pratt exclaims. "Mykle and I went to Target" -- he pronounces it mock-French, Tar-ZHAY -- "to get some Underroos, but they were all sold out." More laughter. Then it's time to eat (linguine with crab meat in tomato sauce), and everyone bows their heads and joins hands, and Loston, the churchman's son, says grace. Amen. You have to understand about Loston, a local jazz promoter tells me later. To those people in Reston, he's exotic, he's their link with downtown, a place they've fled. For them it's a big deal, go to work on Monday and say they were out listening to jazz Saturday night. But the thing is, this man continues, it's a lie, because Loston is not of that world either. And he knows it. And that makes him scared. "If he wants to be a serious jazz musician," says another jazz patron, "what the hell is he doing in Reston? Why isn't he in New York?" But Loston Harris seems to know who he is. He is a suburban kind of guy with the talent and temperament of a serious jazz artist. It's who he is, and how he came up. It's his parents' achievement that the danger and disorder of the city registers only as distant thunder out here. (He doesn't mention it, but Loston gets up early one Saturday morning after a gig to attend the funeral of a childhood friend, a divinity student, who was slain downtown coming to the aid of someone being harassed by gang members.) He wants to make you tap your toes. He wants you to dance. He's a new kind of jazz guy. He can't manufacture the blues when they're aren't any. And whether that will make for good music, well, that remains to be seen. In the meantime, things are going well. He lies awake at night worrying about where he's going, but during the day, he doesn't give that away. "Things seem to happen in my life when I've needed them," he says. "I've sat there and said, now this is what I need, how am I going to get it, and then it seems to happen. It's really weird and it's been that way from day one." It happened again. Just a month ago. The final piece of the puzzle, the piece he'd been waiting for, fell into place, just like that. He'd been worrying about his material. The standards, where the familiar tune is a springboard for improvisation. He loves the songs. But was he ever going to create his own identity? It's one thing for Tony Bennett to be singing 50-year-old songs. He's singing about his times. It really hit home when he saw Billy Joel this spring at MCI Center. Nineteen thousand people in the audience. And they didn't come there to hear Barbra Streisand covers, or Sinatra tunes. They were there to hear Billy Joel. His songs. So he's worrying about this, and then, like magic, a man comes up to him at the Hyatt. Older guy. Has his son in tow. Says he's a financial adviser, works for the Pentagon. The government. Something like that. Anyway, he says he writes song lyrics, and then he pulls out this big notebook of song lyrics. They're in the style of show tunes, standards, like something out of Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building. But it's all new, original. "Amazing stuff," Loston says. So now he's collaborating with Leonard Greenberg. It works like this. Loston will give Greenberg a phrase -- "little by little," or "wake me at 1," and the next day, Greenberg will come back with a sheet of lyrics. Which Loston then sets to music. It's late afternoon now, at a shopping center somewhere in Fairfax. The singing lesson's over. The BMW won't start again, so it's in the service bay at the gas station across the street. Loston's waiting for it at a little formica deli restaurant. International food, suburban style. Italian and Greek on the menu, Asian guys behind the counter. Loston orders some linguine with clams, a cup of hot tea, and a side order of raw, peeled garlic cloves. Vampire food, to ward off a cold. He's playing tonight, but his mind is on the future. "Yeah," he says, sniffling, and chopping the garlic into tiny little chunks. "I'm always thinking, What's after this, what's next?' Because, you know, getting out there and playing is one thing. But staying out there is more important. "Because it's very easy to get things going and then have it stall and die. And like the saying goes, it's better not to have had it at all, than to have it and lose it." So he's got some Monday nights at Blues Alley, and the three nights a week at the Hyatt are still solid, and then Tuesdays all this month back up at the Soul Cafe in New York City. Then it's off to Disney World -- three nights at Pleasure Island. And then there's the Fourth of July gig on the Mall. And the people at "Melrose Place" have called to say they're interested in having him be the jazz guy who plays in the background in a scene in an upcoming episode. And he'll be doing a week at the Algonquin at the end of August. Not a bad run, all in all. He's still living at home, but he's almost got enough money to buy a place of his own. "I love you, Reston!" Loston cried out to the crowd from the stage at the end of his CD release party at the Hyatt. He tires of New York after more than a few days. He'd like a place on Lake Thoreau. "Yeah," he says, "it would be nice to say, I'm in London for three weeks, Tel Aviv, Tokyo for a month. And come back home, where people know me," he says, sprinkling the garlic around his plate. And then he permits himself a slow, cool smile, the smile of the '90s jazzman, a guy who is going to try and do it his way, artistically and otherwise. Plot his career like a general maps out a battle. "Yeah, Reston is home. But I'm not saying that one day I wouldn't like to live in Sherman Oaks or Beverly Hills someday," he says quietly. "I'm not saying that at all.". Mary Battiata is a Magazine staff writer. CAPTION: Above: musician Andrew White, who says, "The litmus test with jazz is clear. Is it hitting you in the gut? If it isn't, it's saltpeter music." Opposite: Loston Harris, left, partying with friends Ed Davies, Tim Pratt and Doug Deluca. CAPTION: Billy Taylor, above, an elder statesman and preeminent advocate of jazz, is among Loston Harris's teachers. Opposite: Harris at the piano at New York's Soul Cafe, where Isaac Hayes jumped up onstage to join him for two songs.