Jazz time-out of the year?

A major international jazz festival right now in Washington D.C.? How odd: Is it the End of Times? Are we fiddlin’ while Rome burns? Or could it be a new beginning? 

Ignore the credit crisis, the vp debates, end-game positioning by the One and the Other, Rosh Hashanah and Eid, Cubs and White Sox both in the playoffs — here’s the under-promoted but highly impressive fourth annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, Oct. 1 – 7! Balancing Kennedy Center concerts with “jazz in the ‘hoods”  (club and arts center gigs mostly but not only NW), sophisticated globalism with emerging artists, the best of student and local ensembles (Berklee College of Music Latin Jazz All-Stars at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts) as well as a free Sunday afternoon marathon featuring blues songster Taj Mahal, incomparable pianist McCoy Tyner, hot-hot singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, bravura bassist Christian McBride and trombonist Conrad Herwig’s Latin Side Project on the National Mall . . . If it didn’t take months to organize events on this scale, one might suspect the DEJF is a convenient circus to distract us from uproar, uncertainty, faith-based initiatives and existential dread.

More likely it’s a coincidence (sort of) that a golden opportunity to hear meaningful, spirited contemporary improvisational music in our nation’s typically jazz-challenged capital arrives during a week of such tumult. The diverse and compelling nature of the bookings — whether DC’s dominant political culture can be drawn away from its usual duties/obsessions to notice or not — is much to the credit of artistic director/NEA Jazz Master/Guggenheim composition fellow/2008 Grammy winner/reedist extraordinaire Paquito D’Rivera, who emigrated from Cuba almost 30 years ago already a virtuoso and has consistently extended his accomplishments.

The fest’s sponsors include the legal firm Patton Boggs LLP (“Channel Power to Resolve Disputes”), Sage Communications (“Insight, Wisdom, Results”), Radio One (“the urban media specialist”), the Chrysler Foundation (“with an emphasis on community growth and enrichment”), Target, Chevron, Daimler, Comcast, Bank of America, Mars Inc., Fannie Mae (ooops!), Yamaha, the Government of the District of Columbia and (oh yes) the National Endowment of the Arts. This coalition clearly just wants to share its love of jazz.
Paquito seem to just want to play; he was set to perform “Wapango” with the Turtle Island String Quartet, for whom he wrote it, at the DEJF’s kick-off invitational gala in Cultural Center of the Inter-American Development Bank last night. He’s also doing a master class at George Washington University, performing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in an NEA Jazz Masters Concert at the Lincoln Theatre, probably makin’ the salsa-meets-jazz jam a bit later the same night at Bohemian Caverns and presenting a free “Vivas Las Americas” concert in honor of the Voice of America with Pan-American born jazz all-stars as the final event, Tuesday Oct. 7. But he’s not the whole show, by a longshot. Other jazz heavyweights and contenders on hand include Sonny Fortune, Monty Alexander, Dana Leong, Winard Harper, Buck Hill, Anat Cohen, Michael Bowie — musicians of style for every taste. Take an evening off, go out, enjoy.
That’s what I’ll do in NYC on Thursday night, missing the real-time broadcast of the tv sideshow starring Ms. Palin and Mr. Biden (I’ll catch it later) in order to hear live new music by pianist Myra Melford with reedist Matana Roberts, guitarist Mary Halvorson and percussionist Harris Eisenstadt  on a double bill at Roulette with reedist-composer Henry Threadgill’s band Zooid and Talujon Percussion, a quartet. In another instance of too much rare good stuff happening than I can probably get to in one week, Austin-based singer-improviser Tina Marsh and saxophonist-composer Alex Coke with the Creative Opportunity Orchestra are at Roulette Oct. 4. Rather than simply diverting attention from the news-of-the-moment, the music by these three ensembles is sure to be complicated, previously unheard, and insistent on focusing listeners on what’s going down. Our’ satisfactions will come from our participation, our working to make sense of what we hear, and is sweeter for our understanding being earned. This kind of listening mirrors the sort of interaction that’s typically necessary for new and promising beginnings.

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