The Independent Ear

One jazz musicians’ response to a societal challenge

Mike LeDonne 1
Mike LeDonne

This is a story of one jazz musician’s sense of humanity that has been deeply touched by personal experience. While perusing the myriad possibilities offered by the annual Winterjazzfest (January 9-10), conspicuously tagged onto many of the releases about that mid-winter NYC delight was a January 8 event with the curious title Jazz Legends Play for Disability Pride. That benefit, organized by the soulful organist-pianist Mike LeDonne, was held at the Quaker’s Friends Meeting House in Manhattan, and was scheduled to feature such greats as NEA Jazz Masters Ron Carter, George Coleman, Benny Golson, and Jimmy Cobb, along with Renee Rosnes, Russell Malone, Brad Mehldau, Peter Bernstein and a cast of dozens. A subsequent post from Jim Eigo’s Jazz Promo Services detailed LeDonne’s touching motivation behind producing this event; touched to his core by his daughter’s disability, he aimed to generate a disability pride parade that he hoped would have a similar impact on public consciousness as the gay pride parades held around the world.

We caught up to Mike LeDonne recently, after he disembarked from a jazz cruise, for further details on what has so energized him to address the plight of the disabled.

Please talk about your family experience that has motivated your increased interest in the plight of the disabled.
On Valentine’s Day 2004 my daughter Mary was born very premature and had to finish baking in an incubator for almost 3 months. Covered in wires and attached to machines that had alarms going off all the time she fought through and thrived. We were told that she would be morbidly obese, severely mentally retarded and have behavioral problems. This was because they found she had a syndrome called Prader Willi. To us, all we saw was someone severely cute and sweet. She made it home and had to eventually have a shunt put in her tiny head that drained the fluid from her brain down to her stomach because besides Prader Willi Syndrome she also had hydrocephalus. She fought through many brain surgeries as the shunt kept failing and once again we were in the hospital for 3 months. She’d come back from having an old tube taken out and a new tube drilled into a new place in her skull, with her head all bandaged, sit up and smile and start playing with her toys. Today she is not morbidly obese and, although she is non verbal, has blossomed into quite a character.

Having Mary in our lives has been the greatest experience my wife and I could have imagined and we could not be prouder of her. We have seen a whole new dimension to humanity through her. Through my family’s experience I’ve learned that love is a very powerful force. Doctor’s and medicine are very necessary but Mary has taught us that love is truly a healing force and goes way beyond anything doctor or medicine can achieve.

My interest in getting involved with Disability rights is to try to change stereotypes and raise awareness about who and what the disabled truly are – just people like you and me. They are not “special” but people dealing, the best way they can, with a disability and trying to achieve and maintain the best and most independent lifestyle they can.

Ultimately what is your goal as far as putting your heightened awareness of disabled persons on the front burner of our collective consciousness?
To increase civil rights and try to bring the non-disabled public out of the dark ages and change the way they look at and define the disabled. To get them to give people with disabilities (PWD’s) equal respect and treat them as full fledged human beings. To realize that they have all the same wants, desires and problems we all face. To stop the pity and replace it with a sense of pride both in and out of the community.

Mike LeDonne
Mike LeDonne introducing Mary at the Jazz Legends Play for Disability Pride event, with George Coleman (left) and event MC Rob Crocker of WBGO

I would like to help the parents of the disabled come out of the closet, so to speak, as far as accepting that their child is disabled and feel proud of them for who and what they are. To love and care for them but not be overly protective and wind up smothering their ability to be independent.

For children like my daughter I would like to educate parents of the abled to teach their children to stop staring at disabled children like they have 2 heads just because they are in a wheelchair and may look different than they do. To take the opportunity to educate their children and to increase awareness that children with disabilities are not “weird” but simply another diverse and beautiful aspect of humanity. I would like them to see what I see when I look at Mary and know what I know.

To educate the medical community. Our experience was a typical one. From the moment you get pregnant you’re told to go through all these tests because, God forbid, the child you’re carrying might be disabled in some way. They tell you that if you find out that your child is likely to be disabled, you can simply end the pregnancy and try again. I was never an anti-abortion person, and I’m still not, but I now know that to end a pregnancy because the child is going to be different than other children is completely wrong and should never happen unless the child is going to go through some kind of horrible suffering. Thank God they didn’t have a test like that for my daughter’s rare syndrome because the thought that we might have ended that pregnancy and not have
Mary today sends a chill down my spine. This whole attitude about a disabled human being something you can simply get rid of just goes to reinforce all the horrible stereotypes to come. It’s all backwards and barbaric and needs to be brought out into the light and exposed.

And then there’s the scariest thought of all for any parent of a disabled child. What happens to my child when we’re gone? Right now the picture is far from rosy. State-run institutions make a lot of money housing the disabled and don’t support the idea of them achieving an independent lifestyle. They would rather keep the money flowing into their institutions where they too often simply drug the disabled, stick them in a wheelchair and shove them in a corner. Sounds horrible but this is what happens all too often and it has to stop.

Talk about your recent benefit concert on January 9; how that all came together and the ultimate results of the evening.
Jazz Legends For Disability Pride was an incredible and historic event. It brought together all my worlds under one roof where we were all equals and bonded together by a mutual love for this music. All my musical heroes and friends, Ron Carter, Benny Golson, Jimmy Cobb, George Coleman, Buster Williams, Brad Mehldau, Harold Mabern and many others were there playing jazz music of the highest level. Each band came out and played 2 tunes back to back for 2 hours. It’s impossible to describe the feeling in that place that night but it’s something I will never forget. At the end I brought my daughter Mary to the front of the place and introduced her to everyone and told them that I couldn’t be prouder that she is my child. A huge cheer went up from the crowd and all the musicians. That is a moment I will never forget.

It was a major undertaking for me and, just like forming my non profit, something I had no idea how to do or had ever done before. Thanks to some old friends, who helped me figure out where to get all the things in place that a concert like that needed, and to some new friends, like Winter Jazzfest who joined forces with me and helped me with promotion and selling tickets, I was able to put it all together. Even Steinway Piano, who I have endorsed since the 80’s, sponsored the piano which means they gave us a beautiful instrument that I picked out, delivered it, tuned and picked it up, for free. That is something they don’t normally do.

None of this has been easy. In fact it’s been more work and demanded more patience than I ever thought myself capable of. But the night was so unbelievable and beautiful and this cause is so huge and important it gives me the strength to persevere.

Where are you going from here, what are your next steps in these efforts?
The next step is also another huge one. We are now planning our first Disability Pride Parade set for July 12. The Mayor’s office has joined with us and is helping us but even with that there’s a ton of things we have to coordinate and get together. We have the route but we need to get all kinds of things for the event. We are planning a parade and then a celebration in the form of a big street party. We will have many entertainers, all from the disability community, along with guest speakers. We hope to have food and drink and basically a huge party. We raised a lot of money at the fund raiser but we need a lot more because having a parade in NYC is not cheap. We are hoping for some corporate backing if possible but we are also depending on the kindness of others in the form of tax deductible donations. All donations can be made out our website

How can people stay in touch with your activities on behalf of the disabled?
We are updating our website so it will be more accessible for people with disabilities. People should check it periodically as we will be using it to keep everyone up to date.


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Achieving a successful East meets West

In recent times the term ‘fusion’ has become somewhat taboo. For some the idea of endeavoring to achieve a fusion comes with a red flag warning the participants that inevitably one form or entity is bound to dominate, or even take over the other. Such was hardly the case with a recent program that brought to the stage the Ragamala Dance Company’s East Indian dance conjoined with a jazz composer’s sensibility with jazz, and Carnatic music. As one of four commissioning organization partners, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (University of Maryland) helped foster the seamless synergy of the music of saxophonist-composer Rudresh Mahanthappa and the Ragamala Dance Company for a beautiful program titled “Song Of The Jasmine.”


The 75-minute program featured the live, stage left music ensemble (no recordings) of Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, Rez Abbasi on guitar, Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam (a wooden double-headed drum of southern India origins), Raman Kalyan on Carnatic (wood) flute, and Anjna Swaminathan on Carnatic violin. Obviously Mahanthappa and Abbasi – Indian and Pakistani, born in the U.S. and though well-steeped in Carnatic music – were representative of the West. They achieved a very successful simpatico with the three Carnatic musicians; there were no lines of demarcation in this live music, an obvious testament to Rudresh and Rez’s ability to bring their Western instruments, ancestral/cultural memories, and improvisational skills to a Carnatic atmosphere, yet still maintain a strong sense of the art of jazz music. In keeping with jazz and Rudresh and Rez’s orientation, there were clearly large helpings of improvisation in his various saxophone passages and in Abbasi’s forays.

The exquisite elegance of East Indian dance was on vivid display in the marvelous turns of the five dancers of the Ragamala Dance Company. One of the key charms of East Indian dance is in the intricate hand movements and the stories they tell with the flick of an upturned wrist and the delicate movements of the fingers. The beauty of their finely detailed costuming is another essential element in Indian dance, including the expressive ankle bells; each detail conveying story and emotion. Their movement fusion with Mahanthappa’s composition and the expressions of the ensemble were exceptionally beautiful. Chief among the dancers, and Rudresh’s key collaborator, was Aparna Ramaswamy.

For novices to this dance form, like myself, the moderated post-concert Q&A with Rudresh, Aparna, and her mother, Ragamala co-director Ranee Ramaswamy was essential to gaining a greater understanding. This collaboration was owed in part to Aparna’s inquisitive imagination. She experienced a Rudresh Mahanthappa music performance at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, home base of Ragamala, and was so struck by the music that she sought this collaboration, which was then enabled in large part through the co-commissioning partnership of four prescient presenting organizations (The Walker, Clarice Smith, Krannert Center for the Arts (University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana), and Lincoln Center Out of Doors. The guiding literary force behind this collaboration was the writings of the 8th-century Tamil mystic poet Andal, whose writings it is said erase any dichotomy between the sacred and the personal through seamless inter weavings of both. Clearly this was a call to a higher consciousness.

No overnight undertaking, once their agreement was forged it took eight months of conversation, composition, choreography, and rehearsal to bring this work to the public stage. That evening at Clarice Smith we were transformed by the power of the perseverance of these artists to realize this work.

It should be mentioned here that both Rudresh Mahanthappa and Rez Abbasi have remarkable new albums in release, both pictured below.
Rudresh BIrd Calls

Rez Abbasi

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Havana jazz festival swings with a cultural beat

By Ron Scott
Our correspondent Ron Scott, noted contributor to the Amsterdam News on all things jazz, reports from the 30th annual Inaternacional Jazz Plaza Festival La Habana.

Havana Jazz Festival
It was our fourth day in Havana, Cuba enjoying the music, digesting its spicy cultural history, and getting another political perspective without the filtered watercolors of America. We entered the tour bus on Wednesday morning, December 17, looking forward to another great day of vibrant, colorful neighborhoods and historic landmarks. At that moment the highlight of the day would be the opening of the 30th annual Internacional Jazz Plaza Festival La Habana, taking place later that evening.

While en route the tour guide, microphone in hand, informed everyone that President Obama had just announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the U.S. after 50 years. Many thought he was joking, but then he became choked up and stated, “I am getting this from a friend watching CNN.”

The U.S. and Canadian tourists quickly began discussing the many possibilities for Cuba and the United States, including the most immediate question: “Can we return to the U.S. with rum and Cohiba cigars?”

The trip immediately became more jubilant, a history in the making moment. Before President Obama’s announcement, Cubans in the streets asked our origins and were impressed by those from New York, but now their comments were “Oh, Nueva York, maybe I will see you there soon.” U.S. tourists discussed taking direct flights to Cuba without being involved in a tour package. The young female curator of the Ernest Hemingway House located outside of Havana in the town of Cojimar noted, “Maybe I can finally get papers so I can visit my mother and sister in Florida!”

Havana old city

During the jazz festival young jazz musicians, such as flutist Fredy Fernandez said, “Maybe now I can come to New York so I can study music at the New School.” He was a member of the Zule Guerra & Blues de Habana (which performed at a late night jam session at the Hotel Cohiba). Zule Guerra was the leader and vocalist of the band. She gave the septet room enough to broaden their improvisational commitment, invoking aggressive riffs in a straight-ahead tradition, with Afro-Cuban overtones. Yissy Garcia, the 15-year old drummer, possessed a hard bop style, noting that she had learned by watching videos and listening to records of Art Blakey, Tony Williams, and Elvin Jones.

The festival opened in Havana’s main hall, the Teatro Mella, with multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Bobby Carcasses, who had launched Cuba’s first jazz festival with musicians Paquito D’Rivera and Chucho Valdes. Unlike his fellow musicians Carcasses had remained in Cuba and taught young musicians, like the drummer Dafnis Prieto and saxophonist Yosvany Terry, both now residing in New York. Carcasses welcomed the audience before fronting a big band in a rendition of “BabaLu”, with scat singing riding a bop influence. He had through the years performed with Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Tito Puente, and Eddie Palmieri.

As a key figure on the Cuban Jazz scene, Carcasses performed on four different events during the festival. The evening also featured the Magic Quartet Saxophones, an intuitive force of tenor, alto, soprano and bass saxophones playing in a fast swinging improvisational mode. An all-female big band was also a driving force of Afro-Cuban swing.

On various nights the festival venue Teatro Mella featured the Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, with guest pianist Michelle Rosewoman, and Arturo’s son Adam on trumpet. Arturo’s arrangement of “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite” was an upbeat, hard swinging melody. He also featured the dance troupe Compania MalPaso, an artistic, high-stepping modern ensemble. l Arturo and the orchestra were also busy recording a new CD across town.

Roberto Fonseca is one of Cuba’s celebrated pianists who has played and recorded in New York. His ensemble was a cross between Return to Forever and Weather Report, with a taste of fusion funk and Cubana soul. His sound swings between Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Chucho Valdes.

Havana street scene

The Kansas City Community College Jazz Orchestra performed such standards as “Sweet Georgia Brown,” Cannonball Adderley‘s “Julie,” and an uptempo version of “All of Me,” which prompted some audience members to get up and dance.

The Colombian saxophonist Justo Almario, who lives in California, was a special guest playing with the bassist Jorge Reyes. Along with the band, they raised the roof. Almario had played with Mongo Santamaria in New York when he lived on 127th Street and Lenox Avenue.

Havana is a cultural city with much to offer the cultured palate, especially when it comes to art, museums, dance, and music. Their Frabrica De Arte Cubano (FAC) a three-story complex (with three bards and a snack bar), features live music on then first floor, music videos, and a cinema space that features 1950s noir films, documentaries, and an outdoor patio where there is a view of the live shows downstairs of jazz, or Afro-Cuban roots music. The third floor is an art gallery with installations.

FAC is open until 4:am, largely attracting an audience from early 20s to middle age. There is no admission, patrons pay only for food or drinks, and my total for the night was just $2.00 for one drink!

Cuba doesn’t separate the music or arts like Americans, and they dance to jazz whether traditional or with an Afro-Cuban beat. Most of their bands include that hypnotic beat from the shores of Africa.

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Let’s go JazzConnecting

The Ways & Means of DIY Labels panel
A Jazz Connect Conference 2015 panel discussion on The Ways & Means of DIY Labels was moderated by Greg Osby, with bassist Mimi Jones making her point

What do you suppose are the ultimate benefits of attending jazz conferences? That’s a legitimate question that I suppose many in the music business have asked themselves down through the years. For me, jazz conference attendance has been an absolute necessity for more years than I care to remember; but for the record, my jazz conference days date back to 1984. That year, after having been a jazz enthusiast-journalist-presenter-activist since undergrad years, I was fortunate to fall into a contracted scenario that would actually enable me to earn a living working on behalf of jazz! Learning of the position from a friend, musician-educator the late Dr. Reginald Buckner, I was contracted by the former regional arts agency Great Lakes Arts Alliance (GLAA, based in Cleveland), which served the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

The task, which resulted from a NEA grant, was a one-year contract to travel and develop various instruments – interviews, questionnaires, etc. – to survey the needs of the jazz community in that region. The ultimate goal was development of a substantial jazz service effort in the region. As my friend the late, great performance poet Sekou Sundiata said, longstoryshort the results of that year revealed not only a vibrant regional community of musicians, educators, presenters, radio broadcasters, and enthusiasts, but also substantiated the need for development of some form of regional jazz service effort to seek to address some of those needs. During the course of that year of traveling the region, GLAA entered merger talks with their sister regional arts agency which represented the Upper Midwest states of Iowa, Minnesota, North & South Dakota, and Wisconsin. The resulting merger formed what is now the 9-state regional known as Arts Midwest.

David Fraher, who was director of the former regional in the Upper Midwest, as initiator of those merger talks would head Arts Midwest. David, who has always given great support to jazz, was so impressed by the results of that year-long needs assessment that he was determined to create the nation’s first regional jazz service program as a core program of the new Arts Midwest. He wanted me to run the new jazz program at Arts Midwest, which required relocation to the Twin Cities because David’s former Upper Midwest regional was based in a beautiful old building in downtown Minneapolis, the Hennepin Center for the Arts. But I digress; we were after all talking about the necessity of jazz conferences.

During that year at GLAA, coincidentally the National Association of Jazz Educators (NAJE) annual conference took place in Columbus, OH. In those days NAJE conferences were hosted by different cities annually. That first conference attendance was a blast, a wonderful opportunity to meet passionate jazz educators, musicians, and all-around enthusiasts all gathered under one big tent on behalf of the music; clearly there was a family reunion vibe in the air in Columbus. From that point on January was time for the annual NAJE conference, which later morphed into the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE). Not long after, Ira Sabin started the old JazzTimes convention, which was geared more towards musicians, the jazz record industry, and a broader sector of the jazz community than jazz education. Some years after its formation IAJE conferences became a kind of omnibus jazz community gathering as the organization sought to open its umbrella to include the entire jazz community, nationally and internationally.

Artistic Director's Role
John Cumming of London Jazz Festival producer Serious organization, with Laura Connelly of the Hollywood Bowl looking on at an Artistic Director’s panel at Jazz Connect ’15

Anyone who attended any of these conferences annually – NAJE, JazzTimes, IAJE (and for jazz radio heads that also included the old Gavin Report confabs) – attendance became a must; a big tent atmosphere where one could connect with peers, catch up on the latest news, and simply engage in the joys of jazz community networking. This is a huge country and such opportunities to network under one roof proved advantageous, if for nothing more than to catch up with people you were doing business with, hoped to do business with, or needed to connect with in any manner. Eventually the old JazzTimes conference folded its tent and came under the IAJE conference umbrella, which included JazzTimes producing a tract of panel discussions and programs geared towards the other sectors of the jazz community, beyond jazz education.

For some key folks in the jazz education sector of the community – and let’s face it, that’s been one of the healthiest, fastest growing, most optimistic segments of the jazz business for years – there was the creeping sense that the old IAJE had lost its way, had simply grown too big at the expense of its jazz education mission. Some of those folks, determined to create a specific space for jazz education and educators to conference, founded the Jazz Education Network (JEN) (full disclosure: this writer is a former JEN board member). They skillfully re-instituted the January jazz education conferences, returning to the old NAJE model of conferencing in different cities and regions each year. This year’s JEN conference was held in San Diego, and most reports from that conference, which included a keynote address from Herbie Hancock, were very encouraging.

Meanwhile, what about the other sectors of the jazz community, beyond jazz education? Up to the plate stepped – once again – JazzTimes magazine, along with the Jazz Forward Coalition (which includes activists who had been important initiators of IAJE conference activities) to develop the annual Jazz Connect Conference, also presented in January, and hosted in New York City, which had been home to the largest of the former IAJE conferences. Jazz Connect cannily aligned itself with the major annual arts presenter conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) during January, which is also time for several other major arts conferences in New York, including the annual Chamber Music America conference. And one of the key draws for Jazz Connect Conference participants is the adjacent annual Friday/Saturday Winter Jazzfest, which pretty much takes over Greenwich Village clubs and venues over the course of an incredibly vibrant weekend for the music.

Partnerships for Presenting panel
The Partnerships for Presenting panel discussion @ Jazz Connect ’15

This year’s Thursday/Friday January 8/9 Jazz Connect Conference, held at the jazz-friendly confines of St. Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue in midtown Manhattan, boasted the usual cornucopia of panel discussions, and all-around networking opportunities. In addition to Winter Jazzfest, NYC was awash with an incredible array of jazz performances and artist showcases which sought to take advantage of the APAP conference gathering of presenters and producers. Winter Jazzfest aside, it was entirely possible for the intrepid to catch four days of performances without spending a dime in admission! For example, on the Saturday afternoon following Jazz Connect as Suzan and I chilled until meeting friends for dinner and that evening’s Winter Jazzfest hang, since she was scheduled to present a panel discussion at the APAP conference the next day, we went over to the Hilton Hotel so she could check in and get her conference credentials. As usual the Hilton was positively vibrating with the gathered energy of performing arts presenters from across the country. On each of three conference floors was a chain of rooms presenting assorted artist showcases throughout the day and evening. A young brother walked up and laid a flier in my palm for a showcase being sponsored by an organization new to me, known as IMAN for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. Bingo, just by happenstance we eased into a showcase by a promising young Chicago singer-songwriter, on a daylong schedule of showcases that included progressive hip hop artists, performance poets, DJs, and assorted vocalists. It was just that kind of scene.

Among the Jazz Connect panel discussions I caught were sessions dealing with how jazz can be a catalyst for community development and organization, an artistic director’s roundtable session that included the Kennedy Center’s Jason Moran, and a session titled “Partnerships for Presenting” that included my DC Jazz Festival partner, executive director Sunny Sumter. There were just enough sessions to properly stimulate the mind, thankfully short of the kind of panel session coma one could easily lapse into at the old IAJE conferences. Refreshingly one of the plenary sessions, held in St. Peter’s main sanctuary and traditional home to the church’s storied Jazz Vespers programs, was a gathering of women in the business, moderated by artist manager Karen Kennedy. NPR hosted a reception for its new Jazz Night in America show. The keynote address was delivered with great humor leavened with appetizing doses of pragmatism by one of the busiest men in jazz, bassist Christian McBride. Following McBride’s presentation, SF Jazz founder Randall Kline received the first annual Bruce Lundvall Visionary Award, a presentation whose warmth was enhanced by remarks from the man himself, Bruce Lundvall, who has been slowed by Parkinson’s disease but whose spirit remains indomitable.

Bruce Lundvall @ Jazz Connect
Bruce Lundvall inspires the Jazz Connect Conference

McBride & Kline
SF Jazz founder Randall Kline receiving the Bruce Lundvall Visionary Award from Christian McBride

Jim Eigo and Bret Primack, the Jazz Video Guy, threw a Jazz Connect Conference after party at the Somethin’ Jazz Club; check that out here:

After finding ourselves a bit out of it with the Winter Jazzfest rhythm on Friday, out of tune with the overall timing of the fest, encountering long lines in the cold endeavoring to enter some of the venues, and allowing general fatigue to overtake us after standing at Judson Church for a rewarding Dave Douglas Quintet set – made all the better by the presence of MVP drummer Rudy Royston and a potent cameo from Douglas’ fellow trumpeter Avishai Cohen, on Saturday we got the full effect of the WJF venue at Minetta Lane Theatre. Learning our lesson from Friday evening, when we failed to get in for what were reportedly two superb David Murray sets at Minetta – one with an assemblage of clarinetists, the other in trio with Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington – we arrived in time to cop good seats, where we remained glued for three outstanding sets. First up for us was organist-vocalist Amina Claudine Myers, with the brilliant Jerome Harris alternating guitar and bass, and the resourceful Reggie Nicholson on drums. She was followed by an absolutely transcendent set by The Cookers, whose horn section raised the roof, particularly altoist Big Chief Donald Harrison. Next up was another flavor of alto saxophone entirely, Rudresh Mahanthappa playing his new and deeply-engrossing Charlie Parker project. Young trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, son of Arturo grandson of Chico, was one of the evening’s revelations; and uh oh, there again was that crafty man of the drums, Rudy Royston! Now THAT was a triple header of impressive dimensions and stylistic breadth!

Back to the original point, the benefits of annual jazz conferences, those of us who’ve been around these things for more years than some of us would care to remember, seem to be in general agreement that what we have now are two annual January jazz conferences, each with its own flavor, each offering different benefits to different sectors of the jazz community. Curiously one could make the case that we’re sorta back to the future – a return to the flavors of the former NAJE conferences and the JazzTimes conventions, this year held on opposite coasts. There are those among us who lament the fact that there are now two jazz conferences, somehow pining for the old IAJE conference model, but on the other hand, this new model just feels right!


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Favorite 2014 Sightings

Having been privileged to participate in several year-end “best of” recordings polls (including Francis Davis’ esteemed poll for NPR (, as well as assorted critic’s polls I’ll decline to belabor Independent Ear readers with my favorite recordings for 2014. However, taking a page out of the recent NYT critic’s picks for the best performances, and as someone who in engaged professionally in presenting & producing concert and festival performances and who has offered frequent commentary on various aspects of live jazz presentation, I will give you my two cents on what we’ll call my favorite concert sightings of the year just past.

Please note that the only order here is alphabetically by venue or event – and yeah, this list is largely DC-centric for certain – and for the sake of full disclosure I will refrain from the obvious conflict of listing any performances I had a hand in presenting or producing (including, for obvious biases, the 2014 DC Jazz Festival, which I had NO hand in presenting/producing). Herewith, my favorite performance sightings from 2014:

January 31: Tootie Heath/Ethan Iverson/Ben Street Trio (nothing like a multi-generational band)
March 21: Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith (loved the brass band-centricity!)
May 16: Kris Bowers
August 15: Orrin Evans (R.) Quartet (w/J.D. Allen on tenor!)
September 12: Stefon Harris Quintet (debut of the vibist’s new band after a hiatus to tend to SF Jazz Collective business)

CLARICE SMITH Performing Arts Center (Univ. of MD)
March 25: Kenny Barron‘s Platinum Quintet (time to record this band!)

Revive Big Band

April 5 (KC Jazz Club): Revive Big Band (the absolute best representation of jazz-meets-hip-hop extant!)
May 11 (Concert Hall): Blue Note at 75 (Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson, Norah Jones, Robert Glasper, Jason Moran, etc. Need I say more?)
December 31 (Terrace Theatre): Harry Connick, Jr. (subbing for Branford Marsalis in a major surprise!)

February 15: Trombone Summit (Frank Lacy, Delfeayo Marsalis & Steve Turre ending with a second line through the hall! This was a true sate of the modern jazz trombone!)
February 15: Christian McBride Trio (what a doubleheader! McBride, Ulysses Owens and Christian Sands somehow found a way to up the ante from the raucous Trombone Summit they followed!)

MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL (it was an exceptional year at MJF!)
September 19: Sangam (Charles Lloyd/Zakir Hussain/Eric Harland, in the first of Charles’ triumphant 3-performance residency)
September 20: Charles Lloyd/Gerald Clayton Duo (though the ultra-busy Jason Moran is Lloyd’s regular pianist, apparently Gerald Clayton is next in line, and if so someone needs to pick Charles Lloyd’s brain to find out what he knows about picking pianists – the man has uncanny vision; the telepathy between he and Clayton was simply brilliant!)
Charles Lloyd2
September 21: Brian Blade Fellowship (first personal sighting of this band trumped anything they’ve laid down on record, and that’s considerable!)
September 21: Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet (with Walter Smith lll on tenor and special guest vocalist the haunting Becca Stevens, the thoughtful trumpeter came full circle from his MJF debut as a student)

MONTY ALEXANDER JAZZ FESTIVAL (Easton, MD; what a pleasantly delightful weekend drive up to Maryland’s Eastern Shore this turned out to be; one of those unexpected pleasures that make life worthwhile.)
8/29: Etienne Charles (the Trini trumpeter brings some of the most cogent and entertaining island pride ever delivered to jazz music.)
8/30: Monty Alexander (at the festival named in his honor, the Jamaican maestro reprised his Jilly’s days – Sinatra, Rat Pack and all – with Allan Harris as vocal sidekick)
Monty & Allan

8/31: Dee Daniels (love those singers who in addition to an ability to swing at any tempo, always bring a touch of the Holy Ghost in their performance, and Dee Daniels epitomizes that sensibility; apropos playing the Sunday brunch closer to the weekend)

NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL (like Monterey, these two old warhorses continue to be must-travel opps for any serious jazz enthusiast; this year Mother Nature did her best to disrupt NJF, particularly on a soggy Saturday, but Sunday’s final session was worth the trip alone)
August 3: Vijay Iyer Sextet (this was the most complete music I’d ever experienced from the erudite physics genius; particularly his telepathy with drummer Marcus Gilmore)
August 3: Ron Carter Trio (no small ensemble better exemplifies the elegant swing equation than this trio with the down-here-on-the-ground soulman Russell Malone on guitar)
August 3: Ravi Coltrane (don’t dare sleep young Kush Abadey on drums; and Ravi just keeps getting’ up)
August 3: Danilo Perez Panama 500 (with the folkloric magician Roman Diaz on percussion, the Jazz Ambassador to Panama brought new iterations to the Latin perspective)

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