The Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, brainchild of the savvy, all-city big-tent philosophy of Charlie Fishman, celebrated its 5th anniversary last week by shifting it’s eleven day event from a previous fall incarnation to the front end of the traditional jazz festival season, the month of June. There was far too much activity for one observer to catch it all — much of it presented under the tent as it were by community-based jazz presenters across the metro area (ala an exceptional evening of new music at the sparkling Atlas Performing Arts Center in the city’s northeast sector from drummer Nasar Abadey & his special Supernova septet augmented by strings) — but what this observer did sample more than slaked the thirst. Saturday/Sunday June 13/14 were devoted to all-day (free) blowouts (1:00pm-7:30pm) at the Sylvan Theatre, on the Mall in the all-seeing shadow of the Washington Monument. Reflecting the heart of the fest’s New Orleans-on-the-Potomac theme were the Rebirth Brass Band, Irma Thomas, Nicholas Payton, Donald Harrison, Trombone Shorty, Bob French’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, banjo master Don Vappie, Little Freddie King, Buckwheat Zydeco and other reps of the Crescent City’s rich music culture. DC enthusiasts were getting their New Orleans on big time all weekend.
I couldn’t help but recall Ned Sublette’s prodigious tome Cuba and It’s Music as NEA Jazz Master Paquito D’Rivera, artistic director of DEJF, delighted in contributing his rice & beans enriched alto sax to the mix during sit-ins with Buckwheat and Harrison. Paquito proved an excellent manifestation of the irristable ancestral connections between Cuba and New Orleans that Sublette so aptly details. The clave connection was deep. It was also good to see the highly-touted young bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding out of her usual element, ditto another precious jazz youth, pianist Taylor Eigsti, as members of Nicholas Payton’s fine band.
The festival highlight was unquestionably the grand finale Monday (June 14) evening at the Kennedy Center. The Marsalis brothers — Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, Jason and poet Ellis lll — were joined by Harry Connick Jr. — who took two turns on piano, one in duo with the honoree, and one on voice — Billy Taylor in duo with Ellis, Branford’s regular bassist Eric Revis and drummer Herlin Riley in a beautiful homage to Ellis Marsalis. The music, through the lens of a canny retrospective set that ran the gamut from a Louis Jordan classic (sung by Herlin) that was one of Mom & Pop’s courting songs, through a blister of a whistling essay of "Donna Lee" by Jason, a crisp rendering of Monk’s "Teo" through a scrumptious menu of Ellis’ underrated originals, was unquestionably superb. But what really capped the evening were the stories and various asides between tunes from the brothers, each of whom is blessed with good comic timing. The warmth in the KC concert hall that evening was palpable and the audience explosion at the end — which followed a second line through the house — threatened to blow the roof off the Kennedy Center.
Stay tuned… the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival is here to stay, well on its way to becoming a DC tradition.