Eleven-year-old Timothy Hudson, a Northeast D.C. native, wriggled about in a plush oversize hotel lobby chair, getting ready to reflect publicly on his recent experience as a volunteer at the 12th annual East Coast Jazz Festival. "I've been doing this for three years," he began. "The first year my mother volunteered and brought me along. I'd never even heard of jazz. Now I really like it. Well, I really love hip-hop best, but jazz is special."
Asked to elaborate, Hudson broke it down to function. "See, hip-hop motivates me to do things, like mow the lawn when I have to. But I tune to jazz for homework. It soothes the mind, but still makes you think, you know?" And the best part of the festival?
"That's easy. When I'm on break, I go and watch the bass players. The way they stroke that instrument, make that sound? That's just beautiful."
Ronnie Wells-Elliston, a jazz vocalist and the festival's founder and director, grew up in Northwest D.C. From the '40s until the late '60s, Washington was a mecca for jazz musicians and their audiences. She describes a city scene now faded: The Howard Theater headlined major acts and jazz flowed all night long from neighborhood clubs throughout the city.
"And then, as time went on, those places started disappearing," Wells-Elliston said. "Not just here, but all across America. I think one of the biggest reasons is that the kids aren't hearing it. This festival, our mission, is to introduce our youth to the music. I don't know how long we can do it, no one gets paid, we barely pay the bills. But jazz is our national treasure so we'll do it until we can't do it anymore."
The Feb. 12-16 festival, a nonprofit five-day festival put together by 287 volunteers, featured a straight-ahead program of jazz, bop, blues and Latin with more than 100 shows -- 87 of them free -- running day and night on various stages throughout the Doubletree Hotel in Rockville. Workshop clinics on jazz technique drew students young and old, amateur and accomplished.
The festival program is designed to draw experienced jazz fans as well as the uninitiated. Debbi Davis, 43, an admitted novice, flew in from Buffalo with her jazz-enthusiast mother, Pearl Harris, for five days of solid jazz.
"My mother loves jazz, chases it down -- festivals, cruises, wherever it goes. She knows all the musicians, see" -- pointing at Harris, who had just leapt from her seat to embrace jazz organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, also of Buffalo, moving toward the stage. "I'm learning from my mother, she's teaching me, and it's been wonderful."
At the close of the festival, blues singer and Broadway star Linda Hopkins tore the house down for the second night in a row.
Davis and Harris were cheering in the crowd.
"I was just telling my mother," Davis said, "Look up on stage, around the room -- racially, ethnically, religiously -- it's all mixed and joyful. If only we could take what is happening here out into the world with all that's happening there. But if we can't, if we can get a chunk of that good thing here, and the cause is jazz, then isn't this a beautiful thing."