“Real Jazz is back — in person,” blares the signage for this year’s Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival. The back half of that slogan is unambiguous. The MAJF is returning to its longtime setting at the Hilton Rockville over Presidents’ Day weekend, following a pandemic-inspired virtual festival in 2021. “Real jazz,” however, has become a bit more complicated.
Festival director Paul Carr has long used the term to refer to the acoustic, straight-ahead bebop jazz that he loves. However, he came to jazz through the R&B-infected pop jazz of the late ‘70s, such as the Crusaders and Grover Washington Jr. With covid’s physical and economic effects hitting the live-performance-intensive music particularly hard, audience building is a more crucial concern than ever.
Carr’s approach is to introduce a new performance stage to the MAJF: one that presents the kind of gateway he experienced.
“The Oval Stage lets people encounter jazz through things that they might be more familiar with,” Carr explains. “The artists performing there have histories in all different types of music, and they’ve used that to build a career and an audience in more contemporary forms of jazz.”
These are artists with significant profiles in the Washington area and beyond, including renowned R&B/jazz vocalist Lori Williams (Feb. 18) and smooth jazz keyboardist Marcus Johnson (Feb. 20). Perhaps most exciting, however, is the multifaceted violinist-violist Chelsey Green, who performs Feb. 19.
A native of Houston, Green is a classically trained player with a doctorate in music from the University of Maryland (and is an associate professor at Berklee College of Music). Her playing, however, is light-years away from the ivory tower. Funk, soul, hip-hop, gospel and dance-pop are all tributaries to her sound — not to mention the jazz standard repertoire (some of which she adds a soulful alto vocal). All of it, however, comes with a precise conservatory technique and impeccable sense of rhythm.
Green might easily serve as an entry point into not just jazz, but any number of genres.
Should the Oval Stage accomplish its mission of nudging listeners toward traditional jazz, there are two other stages to choose from. The MAJF Club Stage features local artists, with an emphasis on vocalists such as Brazilian-jazz stylist Maija Rejman and smoky-voiced chanteuse Tacha Coleman-Parr. However, some instrumentalists are also featured, notably blues guitarist Dave Cole and alto saxophonist Terry Koger.
The festival’s Ronnie Wells Main Stage naturally plays host to the top draws, many of whom this year share the bandstand with university big bands (a staple of the MAJF since its inception). In particular, a trio of acclaimed young alto saxophonists — Sharel Cassity, Lakecia Benjamin and Tia Fuller — feature with the West Virginia University, North Carolina Central University and Georgetown University jazz ensembles, respectively.
Yet each of these is a formidable and accomplished player in their own right. (Especially Fuller, a member of Beyoncé’s band and a musical contributor to Pixar’s Oscar-winning film “Soul.”) And this wouldn’t be the MAJF festival if it didn’t put those three talents together on the same stage. Saturday night’s “Alto Madness Sax Summit” gives them a forum for what could be anything from a fierce battle to a sublime collaboration (probably elements of both). If Green and the other Oval Stage artists can bring in new fans, “Alto Madness” ought to be enough to keep them.
If you go
Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival
Hilton Hotel and Executive Meeting Center, 1750 Rockville Pike, Rockville. midatlanticjazzfestival.org.
Dates: Feb. 18-20. “Alto Madness Sax Summit” takes place Feb. 19 at 8:30 p.m. on the Ronnie Wells main stage; Chelsey Green performs Feb. 19 at 10 p.m. on the Oval Stage.
Price: $25-$85 single session tickets; $155-$185 day passes.