by Giovanni Russonello
Zachary Oxman's new sculpture of Duke Ellington stands in front of the recently restored Howard Theatre.Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop
The minds that study our past most closely are often the ones with the greatest vision for the future. It’s why we need historians, and why the best innovators have their own mentors. It’s really our reason for reading stories at all. To step surely, we need traction, which means digging into the ground on which we walk.
When the Howard Theatre began its reopening process last week, the local press recognized the boldness and precariousness of the venture. But the past few days’ events confirm that the Howard’s new team prizes its history. Before any VIP banquets or sold-out concerts, the theater opened its doors for a community day, embracing the Shaw community that was always its base.
And as you walk through the majestic theater, you find photographs of the great Black entertainers who took the stage there over the years, from Dizzy Gillespie to Aretha Franklin. Then you glance up at the huge screens flanking the stage, and you notice the announcements for upcoming acts – Robert Glasper, Erykah Badu, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def). It’s an encouraging lineup, because it acknowledges that constant progression, not some destined greatness, made those performers in the black-and-white photos into heroes. The Howard is out to reestablish itself as the city’s central proving ground for Black American Music’s new national stars.
Howard Theatre. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop
So it’s fitting that a sculpture of Duke Ellington – that great D.C. native, innovator and Black cultural advocate – was unveiled last month outside the theater. The artwork is a swirling mass of metal, Ellington’s keyboard zooming into the sky in a whirl of visual sound. It implies the fluidity and endlessness of musical progress. I spoke to Zachary Oxman, the artist who created the statue, about what motivated him to portray Ellington and what he sought to convey. Continue reading
Posted in Interviews
Tagged DC, DC jazz, Duke Ellington, Erykah Badu, Howard Theatre, jazz, Robert Glasper, sculpture, Shaw, Washington, Yasiin Bey, Zachary Oxman
by Ken Avis
Strathmore is honoring Duke Ellington, shown in D.C. circa 1946, with a festival. Courtesy Library of Congress
This Friday, Strathmore Music Center begins its inaugural Discover Ellington festival, nearly a month of concerts and discussions celebrating the legacy and influence of D.C.’s own Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.
An array of distinguished local and national musicians will be featured, including Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, with Paquito D’Rivera; the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra; the Morgan State University Choir; vocalists Brian Stokes Mitchell and Julia Nixon; pianist Robert Glasper; the Chris Vadala Trio; and the duo of bassist Karine Chapdelaine and pianist Bob Sykes.
It couldn’t be more appropriate that the events occur during Black History Month, and just two months before the anticipated April opening of the refurbished Howard Theatre, a onetime hub for jazz and Black cultural events. Ellington began his career in the pool halls and taverns on U Street, just one block away from the Howard, and later went on to become a celebrated performer at the theater.
But this month, the action can be found on the outskirts of town, at the Strathmore in North Bethesda. “To highlight Ellington in Strathmore’s yearlong Celebrating American Composers series was a no-brainer,” Artistic Director Shelley Brown said. With more than 1,500 compositions incorporating blues, swing, gospel and classical influences, Ellington significantly broadened the scope and appeal of jazz worldwide. The Strathmore’s series is imaginatively designed to reflect the diversity of Ellington’s work. Continue reading
Nicholas Payton spoke to Tom Porter on WPFW earlier this month. Audio of that conversation is available below. Courtesy Michael Wilson.
“Some musicians and fans thought that I was talking about the music itself, and the tradition, and its history. That’s totally not at all what I said. In fact, I thought I made it very clear to make a distinction between the word and … the art form. My feeling is that the word just has negative historical connotations.”
by Tom Porter
Race is the Achilles’ heel of Western societies, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in discussions of African-American/Black Classical music, commonly referred to as jazz. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton last month started a firestorm when he discussed his opinions on the use of the word jazz on his blog. It is strange how easy it is for Americans to accept notions of Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Jewish music, etc., whereas referring to jazz as Black Music causes an uproar.
When asked earlier on in his career what jazz should be called, Payton’s response was “Black Music.” Charles Mingus said the word jazz means “Nigger” music and that it separates the musician from the money. Gigi Gryce was blacklisted by the establishment for daring to want to own and control the results of his creativity. Irving Mills put his name on early Duke Ellington compositions and to this day his descendants are benefiting monetarily from Mills’ trickery. Fortunately, Duke discovered this and gave him the boot. Continue reading
Posted in Interviews
Tagged African-American music, Black American Music, Black history, Black music, Charles Mingus, critical race theory, DC, DC jazz, Duke Ellington, Jared Ball, jazz, jazz history, jazz is dead, Miles Davis, Nicholas Payton, Tom Porter, Washington, white power structure
Willard Jenkins, left, and Randy Weston – shown here in a separate appearance – discussed their book at Sankofa Café last week. Courtesy Willard Jenkins
by Luke Stewart
Duke Ellington once remarked that his artistic goal was to convey the Black experience in America. Many jazz musicians have been inspired by this idea, but few have achieved success like Randy Weston.
On Apr. 9 at the popular Sankofa Café and Bookstore, Weston discussed “African Rhythms,” a term that encompasses his musical approach, his life philosophy and now his acclaimed autobiography. The book, released last year, is “composed by Randy Weston and arranged by Williard Jenkins” – meaning that, in effect, Weston told his story to Jenkins, who then committed it to the written word. (Full disclosure: I am the production manager and a DJ at WPFW, where Jenkins hosts a weekly show.)
At Sankofa, Weston and Jenkins led a discussion of the book and signed copies. As the talk moved through Weston’s music career, which spans the better part of 60 years, he made it clear that his aim has always been to “bring Africans together through music.” Continue reading