I learned a lot of things from that trombone,” says Allyn Johnson, director of the University of the District of Columbia’s jazz studies program. He’s gazing at the instrument standing upright in a glass case.
The trombone belonged to Johnson’s mentor and predecessor, Calvin Jones, who guided the program for 28 years until his death in 2004.
Jones taught countless students and performed with the likes of Count Basie and Ray Charles. His presence is palpable in the Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives, in Building 41 of UDC’s Van Ness campus.
Grant was a revered jazz host on D.C. radio for nearly 50 years. The archives named for him include tens of thousands of recordings as well as articles, awards, posters and photos. (It was Grant who pushed for Western High School to be renamed for Duke Ellington.)
Judith Korey, curator of the archives and a professor of music at the university, says she and media technician Rachel Elwell field daily requests from people around the world for recordings to be transferred from a record to a digital file.
While the items in the archives do not leave the premises, anyone can make an appointment to browse.
Pianist Johnson has been dubbed the “Dean of D.C. Jazz.”
“This whole thing would fall apart” without Korey, he says modestly. Korey oversees programs such as meet-the-artist gatherings and the annual Calvin Jones Big Band Jazz Festival, set for April 25 this year.
Jazz in Washington, contends Korey, is far more than a collection of old LPs. Capacity crowds at venues such as U Street’s Twins Jazz and the Jazz and Cultural Society in Brookland attest to its vibrancy.
“I go to Westminster Presbyterian Church [in Southwest Washington] several Friday nights a month,” she says. “I have a favorite seat.”
Jazz DJ Rusty Hassan, whose show airs on WPFW on Thursday nights from 10 to midnight, echoes Korey’s claim. “It is hard to keep up with all that’s going on” in terms of live jazz performances. “Jazz is really thriving in D.C.”
Hassan was speaking after teaching his first history of jazz class of the semester at UDC.
What had he played for the new students?
“ ‘Three Blind Mice’ as performed by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers,” he said. “Musicians can hear the difference between the trumpet and the trombone, but someone new usually can’t. I tell my students, ‘Start to open your ears up.’ ”