February 26, 2013
Every third Thursday of the month, the free concert series, Take 5! transforms the Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian American Art Museum into an American town hall, making it a center of social, artistic and cultural egalitarianism where all are welcome and few remain strangers. Like New York City’s legendary Town Hall, there are no bad seats in the Kogod Couryard. The atrium features soaring heights and live trees. Lights like floating stars are embedded in a glass ceiling. Banquettes and tables and chairs are sprinkled around the courtyard, offering a warm and calming ambiance that equally invites conversation or solitude. This is a community chill-out space in chilling times. A musical oasis in the midst of the city.
Recent free concerts have highlighted the music of Lee Morgan or offered a tribute to Wayne Shorter, featuring local saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed. Jazz trumpeter Mike “Bags” Davis takes the stage February 21, performing the music of legendary bebop trumpeter/composer Kenny Dorham whose big sound took him from the big bands of Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstine and Mercer Ellington to gigs with jazz leaders Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey, among others.
But Take 5! is not a performance series where “we’re playing jazz just for the sake of jazz” insists American Art’s program producer Laurel Fehrenbach. The series is the museum’s nod to “an American art form we can’t hang on walls,” and a tribute to American biography, honoring the lives of pioneering and emerging jazz artists who have transformed America through the art of sound.
During an average performance, the jazz park atmosphere of the courtyard attracts more than 200 people. Capturing old jazz heads and jazz novices. Parents with toddlers and children find the space as friendly as millennials enjoying a glass of wine from the cafe. Board games, checkers, Monopoly, Life and Candyland, engage families sitting up close to feel the music or in the back to play with the kids. Free educational handouts offer insight into the cultural histories and careers of the featured artists.
Art Jamz, a local studio and ”participatory art” program provides a bohemian touch, offering paint supplies, canvas and teachers to anyone who signs up to explore their artistic side, creating art against the backdrop of live music.
“We want the courtyard to be full, lively and used by whoever wants to use it,” says Fehrenbach, who says she is open to new collaborations with local organizations. She says the family friendly space and concerts have become a welcome accident stumbled upon by people living in the Penn Quarter neighborhood or workers heading home from daycare with kids. Bright and open with a cafe, the courtyard makes it possible for nearly everyone to find the right spot to fit their situation.
The upcoming Take 5! Schedule offers:
Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Wynton Marsalis, Honoring Duke Ellington and The Making of a Millennial Jazz Musician: Elijah Jamal Balbed.
February 25, 2013
Some stories and museum collections can’t be presented with words alone. For them you need music. Maybe even art. Or photography. During Black History Month 2013, the history of the community of Gees Bend, Alabama, and the spirit of the women of the Gees Bend Quilts, is being brought to the nation by jazz pianist Jason Moran, using music to help animate history and interpret museum collections.
A museum exhibition can showcase a collection. But music gives it soul, emotionally connecting the public to the spirit and rhythms of people and unknown stories behind objects. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History is among a vanguard of museums who have used live music performances and commissions for decades to interpret and showcase American history and collections.
The Chamber Music Society performs on the Smithsonian’s quartet of rare Stradivarius instruments bringing cultural and artistic context to classical music scholarship. The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO) enriches jazz collections with live performances of unpublished music from the collections and appearances by jazz masters representing living history. The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City—a Smithsonian Affiliate—has musicians of diverse genres interpret art on exhibition and musically engage the public in themes inherent in Himalayan art and culture.
Other museums are catching onto the music-collections connections.
In 2008, Moran, artistic adviser for jazz at the Kennedy Center, was commissioned by The Philadelphia Art Museum to compose music for a Gees Bends Quilts exhibition. The result was a jazz symphony that melded rhythms from the community’s past with improvisational jazz felt in the moment. When the quilts and the stories were put away, the music remained in their stead. Recently, Moran staged his Gees Bend jazz at the Kennedy Center. During this Black History Month, jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater is taking the music and the Gees Bend story to the nation via the first national broadcast of the composition, offered over NPR’s JazzSet.
To develop the piece, Moran, his wife Alicia, an accomplished opera singer, and members of his band traveled to Gees Bend to conduct research and embrace the people of the remote community. Their improvisational conversation is recorded in musical masterpieces ranging from Alica’s rendition of the Quilter’s Song, first recorded in the field in 1941 for the compilation How We Got Over: Sacred Songs of Gees Bend, to the band’s musical interpretation of a quilt pattern. The Morans have created similar music commissions to help museum’s present history and collections. A case in point is Bleed, created for the Whitney Museum of Art.
Baltimore photographer Linda Day Clark has traveled to Gees Bend annually since 2002 after discovering the community on assignment for The New York Times. In a podcast for the Philadelphia quilt exhibition, she discusses the “amazing microcosm of culture” in Gees Bend, calling it both “a blessing and a curse” for its historic authenticity.
Day related a conversation she’d had with Gees Bend elder Arlonza Pettway, a descendant of slaves. Pettway told Day about sitting on her great grandmother’s quilt to hear the stories of her great grandmother’s capture in Africa, being held captive with other slaves, lured onto a ship, and their experiences during the Middle Passage.
“We’re looking at a group of Africans brought over during slavery,” says Day, ”and when slavery ended, they stayed. Very few people in Gees Bend have moved in or out.”
Located in a bend of the Alabama River, with one road leading into and out of the community, Gees Bend was founded by a North Carolina cotton grower, Joseph Gee, and 18 slaves who relocated with him to the region to farm cotton. The Gee family later sold the plantation to a relative, Mark H. Pettway.
During this 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, the Smithsonian is presenting the exhibition Changing America to commemorate African Americans’ quest for freedom and equity in America. It may be argued that little has changed in Gees Bend in 150 years. Yet the stories this community has preserved and the artwork it creates continues to inspire and inform a rapidly changing world outside its reach. And with artists’ like Moran history is becoming music to their ears.
Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Take 5! Where Old Jazz Heads Meet Jazz Novices Over Sweet Notes and Wynton Marsalis, Honoring Duke Ellington.
February 7, 2013
Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the spiritual architect and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, celebrates jazz legacy in a big way. In celebration of the organization’s 25th anniversary, Marsalis has made the legendary composer Duke Ellington a major focus of the orchestra’s nation-wide anniversary tour, with the band performing familiar and lesser known compositions of the man, who as pianist, band leader and musical impresario is often acknowledged as ”beyond category.”
Call it the Crescent City honors the District of Columbia, in recognition of Ellington’s hometown and Marsalis’ New Orleans roots. At a recent concert that filled the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Marsalis told the audience he feels he hasn’t paid “proper homage to the great Duke Ellington” in recent trips to DC. So he’s correcting the oversight by devoting half of this concert to Ellington’s legacy and music. Jazz at Lincoln Center organizers say the orchestra has and will continue to give Ellington similar prominence throughout the tour.
The evening was an Ellington feast. Compositions like The Mooche and the iconic Mood Indigo which the Duke “played every night for 40-something years,” Marsalis reminded the crowd, were captivating. Braggin in Brass, a tune that took the trombone section through physical and musical gymnastics, was performed rarely and recorded only once, said Marsalis. “I think it was because the trombone section told him we don’t want to play this anymore.”
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, born April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C., was a global giant in jazz for more than 50 years. As a cultural ambassador, Ellington garnered global recognition for jazz as an original American art form and was admired by fans and heads of state, worldwide, for his artistry. Over the years, Washington, D.C. has celebrated its native son with numerous honors including a community-building contemporary art mural, the development of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a statue of Ellington at the piano in front of the legendary Howard Theater and the dedication of a park in his name in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood.
But perhaps two of the city’s best tributes to Ellington was the installation of the Duke Ellington Collection—an archival treasure trove of photographs, records and other materials, including 100,000 sheets of unpublished Ellington music at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Archives Center, and the establishment, through federal appropriation, of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra as ”the nation’s jazz orchestra” to preserve and disseminate Ellington’s jazz legacy and that of other jazz legends, to the nation and the world via tours, recordings, education, and concerts.
Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include The Making of a Millennial Jazz Musician: Elijah Jamal Balbed and Oscar Peñas: A Music Man on a Mission.
January 31, 2013
When I met Elijah Jamal Balbed, he was 19, wailed like an old bebopper, and had already been named “Best New Jazz Musician of 2010″ by Washington City Paper. He’d been recruited for a Jazz Appreciation Month performance at Meridian International to honor the Cold War jazz diplomacy of jazz masters like Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck. Along with jazz kids, ages 9 to 20, Balbed comprised an impromptu quintet that quickly owned the bandstand, following a performance by star bassist Esperanza Spalding.
As the kids rocked, bureaucrats clapped on beat, hooted with glee, and murmured about jazz kids in the hip hop generation. Hmm. Maybe we need to rethink America’s music diplomacy after all.
“It’s America’s classical music, so it (jazz) can’t die,” declares Balbed, now 23, recalling that meeting recently at the American Art Museum. He’d just concluded a set at the museum’s “Take 5!” jazz concert series where he, the junior member and leader of the group, had presented a program introducing the Early Compositions of Wayne Shorter to a mostly middle-aged audience of more than 200 people. Most of the music performed had been recorded on Vee-Jay Records, a Chicago label entirely owned and operated by African Americans, from its founding in 1953 until its demise in 1966. The label also recorded Lee Morgan, John Lee Hooker, Little Richard, Jerry Butler, and even the Beatles.
But education is one of Balbed’s strong suits. Along with communicating across generations. He knows how to get people jamming to straight-ahead jazz music and history as he brings home his focused message: ”music is more than just a back beat. . .just open up your ears a little and feel something past the notes.”
What the young musician wants audiences to feel is America’s cultural history. Sometimes as a soft hug, other times a bear-like squeeze. Jazz is his instrument of communication to transmit stories and feelings through the complex rhythms and compositions of artists like saxophonist/composer Shorter, now 80. The concert featured Balbed and the group: Alex Norris (trumpet); Samir Moulay (guitar); Harry Appelman (piano); Herman Burney, Jr. (bass) and Billy Williams (drums) performing early Shorter tunes like Blues A La Carte, Harry’s Last Stand and Devil’s Island.
Balbed credits mentors, past and present, with helping him find his passion for jazz, and developing an ear. Shorter has shaped American musical history as much as he has experienced it. His early career included stints with Maynard Ferguson’s Orchestra, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, forays into fusion with Davis and Weather Report, and collaborations with musicians from Brazilian vocalist Milton Nascimento and folk singer Joni Mitchell to rock artists Carlos Santana and Steely Dan. In 2000, Shorter formed the first acoustic jazz group under his name with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade.
Balbed was introduced to jazz as a freshmen at Albert Einstein High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, where “I hoped to get in the honors jazz band,” he recalled smiling. A hope quickly dashed by music director Joan Rackey. “She put me in the baby jazz band and told me, ‘you don’t listen to enough jazz yet.’ She was right. I give her a lot of credit for grooming me. ”
He also credits Paul Carr and the jazz studies program at Howard University. But most of all he credits Washington, DC, a city with a strong jazz history and present, for his music education and opportunities. He currently plays every Monday night with the house band at the historic Bohemian Caverns, dubbed the “sole home of soul jazz.”
“There’s such a strong jazz scene in DC,” he said. “There’s a lot to feed off of in the city. Throughout college I was able to start gigging around the city and progress.”
The next Take 5! program will be held February 21, from 5 – 7 pm. It features Mike “Bags” Davis and the music of Kenny Dorham. Balbed performs next February 15 at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in Rockville, Maryland and February 16 at the HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz & Blues in Washington, D.C.
Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Oscar Peñas: A Music Man on a Mission and Hawai`i’s Troubadour of Aloha
January 29, 2013
Jazz guitarist Oscar Peñas is on a journey to build an authentic jazz voice; a personal style that communicates his depth of feeling for the music that captivated him and his friends as teens growing up in his native Spain and that now tells the story of his American journey. “It’s a work and progress,” he said sighing. An exhilarating and sometimes scary ride that challenges him to overcome the confines of his classical guitar training and European formalism even as it invites him to celebrate them.
“But that’s why I like jazz,” he says, “for its openness. It is music you can integrate your culture in to. It is the most authentic sound of North American culture.” Past and present.
Jazz, America’s original music, is embedded with more than 100 years of American slave and immigrant history. In its rhythms, one can almost hear and feel the multicultural history it represents. Jazz can showcase the history of America’s progress towards democracy and its shortcomings in equity and inclusion. But jazz is not just about America’s past. Peñas, and other artists like him, represents a growing underground of edgy, internationally diverse musicians for whom jazz is gaining resonance and a fan base that crosses generations and borders.
This April, Jazz Appreciation Month will celebrate JAM with the theme “The Spirit and Rhythms of Jazz” to honor the historic and evolving multiculturalism of jazz worldwide, facilitated through celebrations like JAM and UNESCO’s International Jazz Day.
Leading the vanguard are noted and emerging jazz artists like Peñas, Danilo Perez, Esperanza Spalding, Elijah Jamal Balbed, and the group Slum Gum, many in collaboration with venerated jazz masters like Randy Weston, Gil Goldstein, Cecil Taylor, and Wayne Shorter, among others. They highlight jazz’s heritage, are building its legacy and demonstrate daily, why jazz is America’s original music, a beloved global cultural treasure.
Peñas grew up with the music of artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and other jazz pioneers. They’re viewed today as “traditional” jazz artists, he said, but were the social and musical rebels of their time. Their music inspired him to find and to live his passion, and he believes their music and messages are instructive for youth searching for purpose and pathways today.
“They were innovators when they came out,” he said excitedly. “Using teamwork and their listening process” they made great music that pushed artistic boundaries and the social status quo. “And if you learn to communicate and do something in common,” through music that is transformative, “that can’t be a bad thing,” he reasons.
Today the 41-year-old guitarist works with friends and mentors like Goldstein and NEA Jazz Master Taylor to compose and perform his own boundary pushing music that he hopes has resonance with his peers and the next generation. Inspiration, he said, is drawn from the ups and downs of everyday life, as well as political and social issues.
Consider Julia, a hauntingly beautiful tune performed with Goldstein on accordion—an atypical but expressive jazz instrument. The tune’s bolero rhythm celebrates life, joy and the lyricism of Spain, Peñas says. It also mourns a death, the loss of his beloved nine-year-old cousin, Julia, who died of a rare genetic disorder while Peñas was home for the Christmas holidays in 2006.
“I wrote it a few days after she passed. It was kind of my therapy to express that tremendous loss. It came along very fast.”
Music of Departures and Returns is an emerging project with band mates Franco Pinna, a native of Argentina, and Moto Fukushima, a native of Japan. It confronts “the question mark of where’s home,” says Peñas, and explores the feelings of immigrants in a world of global citizens. Though he has lived in the U.S. for many years, Peñas admits to feeling ungrounded. “I don’t know where home is anymore,” he says. “For me Brooklyn, New York, feels like home. And my original hometown [Barcelona] feels like home too.” So do other places. The eight track CD will feature guest performances by Spalding and trumpeter Jason Palmer, among others, exploring diverse cultures.
Recognized by the ASCAP Lab for New Composers, Peñas says his quest is to deepen his musical voice while maintaining its personal and professional integrity. Friends and mentors like Goldstein and Taylor are helping. With them gigs and neighborhood jam sessions easily flow into life lessons about music, cultural history and risk taking that keep him real.
A few years ago, he remembered a wake up call delivered by Taylor. “I like what you’re doing but I don’t know why you don’t use your cultural background more,” said the classically trained African American jazz pianist known for his own expansive cultural roots and boundary pushing music.
Peñas reflected on the comment and used it to transform his music.”He was telling me I was doing good,” he says. “I just didn’t sound authentic.”
Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Hawai`i’s Troubadour of Aloha and Remembering Dave Brubeck, Goodwill Ambassador.