There is a new group in this city that calls itself Swinginc, and while it is not exactly a dating service, its members can provide a pretty good time. This Saturday, for example, the group is bringing Phineas Newborn Jr. to the St. Mark's Episcopal Church at Third and A streets SE.
Who is Phineas Newborn? you might ask. Well, it's questions like this that got Swinginc started in the first place. Sitting around in a living room in Northeast Washington one afternoon, the group, comprised of computer programmers, bookkeepers, teachers, writers and photographers, began bemoaning the state of music in this city and how easily the giants are forgotten.
Turn on the radio and what do you hear? Some kid with an electric guitar and computerized keyboard singing about -- "Purple Rain"? Open up the newspaper and what do you see: that same kid with a curlique hairdo heading this way for six sellout concerts.
Of course there are radio stations such as WPFW, WAMU and WDCU constantly begging for money in a never-ending struggle to produce quality broadcasts. But more action was needed and now it has come.
The arrival of Newborn in town for an 8 p.m. concert marks a nice change of pace. Newborn, 53, is the definitive contemporary pianist, a player of the American classical music -- jazz.
Originally from Memphis, he has lived and worked in New York and Europe, always in search of an appreciative audience. As one heck of a keyboard master, he has accompanied Charlie Mingus, Lionel Hampton and the Mills Brothers, to name a few.
I know you can't force feed music -- least of all jazz -- down the throats of babes, but I agree with Swinginc that something has to be done to broaden the musical exposure and experiences of today's youth.
"Those of us who love the music think that things are going down the drain," says Gail Dixon, a founding member of Swinginc. "We have lost so many good people through the years and that makes us sad. But what's worse is that there are still living, breathing souls among us that the kids have never even heard of."
Swinginc is not a money-making group but a collection of District residents who have taken it upon themselves to maintain the continuity of this marvelous art form. And the sentiment seems to be right on time.
Recently, renovation began on the old Club Bali, at 14th and T streets NW, where Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Charlie Ventura performed in the 1940s. Bob Alexander, founder of Arena Stage's community outreach program and the man behind the renovation says, "Billie Holiday and Count Basie are still sources of inspiration . . . continuity of the land and of spirits are important to artists."
And those things should be important to the community as well. Jazz is, after all, our country's only original music, a mix of rhythms from West Africa with harmonies from European classical music, gospel songs and work songs from slavery days.
Much of the music that developed as jazz was played informally at black funerals. Ragtime was the first organized music to become part of jazz, emphasizing formal piano compositions -- with Scott Joplin as the best known composer.
The music flourished during the Twenties, the so-called Golden Age, giving rise to Duke Ellington, who started his career here playing piano at Armstrong High School's class dances. Newborn came on the scene during the 1950s as jazz began to wind down. But he distinguished himself with superb technical abilities and adventurous compositions.
Today, you hear very little about jazz, certainly not enough for me. The music remains on the fringe of the American mainstream and is often portrayed as something for cultists. But in my view, it is Prince who sings cult music (although I must admit that his video-style movie isn't all bad). But it's not enough. I mean, some kids out there don't even know what an acoustic piano is, for crying out loud.
So hats off to Swinginc and their presentation of Phineas Newborn. By hustling to find space for this jazz giant -- even if it is a church sanctuary, they hope to create a climate that gives jazz artists some respect and the community some culture.