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Jazz Masters Visit Nation's Capital

Brubeck, Ram, Lateef, Corea, Burton Brubeck, Ram, Lateef, Corea, Burton
As our capital city, Washington D.C. is home to many events of national importance. This applies to the arts generally -- Washington is home to the National Symphony, the National Theater, The National Gallery, etc -- and is also reflected in the jazz world. A recent flurry of activity saw several jazz masters visiting the area.

April is Jazz Month at the Smithsonian Institution, resulting in a full program of concerts, lectures and symposia, taking place at the Kennedy Center, The Library of Congress, Howard University, The National Portrait Gallery, Georgetown's Grace Church, The Smithsonian Jazz Cafe, The Voice of America Auditorium, and other venues. As usual, I could only look in on a few of these events.

Several events featured pianist/composer and NEA Jazz Master Dave Brubeck, as the Jazz Month coincided with a week-long Brubeck Festival, an annual event organized by the University of the Pacific, which is home to the Brubeck Institute. Festival activities were split between Washington and the university's home in Stockton, CA., and reflected this year's theme of cultural diplomacy. This rubric was prompted by the fiftieth anniversary of a ground-breaking State Department tour undertaken through Eastern Europe and south Asia by the Brubeck Quartet in 1958. The Washington schedule included panel discussions on cultural exchange, photographic displays, interviews and concerts. Wednesday evening at the Museum of Natural History auditorium included a conversation between Brubeck and Dick Golden of The George Washington University, covering the 1958 tour as well as other early memories of Brubeck's career: his time at the University of the Pacific studying with Darius Milhaud, the formation of his legendary octet, and his early trio and quartet. The conversation was followed by a performance by the Deepak Ram quartet. As an exponent of Indian classical music on the bansuri or bamboo flute, Ram's presence may have seemed incongruous, except that the evening was celebrating Brubeck's visit to India and Ram, who grew up in South Africa, was an associate of Darius Brubeck -- Dave's son -- at the University of Durban. The quartet, which features guitarist Vic Juris, along with bassist Tony Marino and drummer Jason Lewis, featured one of Darius' compositions, as well as other originals and standards from the new album Steps. (You can see my review of their album at

The following evening, in the auditorium at the Library of Congress, Brubeck continued his reminiscences, this time in conversation with veteran journalist Hedrick Smith. The conversation focused on the events of a 1958 tour which, although it was organized by the State Dept., found the members of the quartet largely having to fend for themselves in politically inhospitable places such as East Germany and Poland, and dealing with culture shock in Turkey and India. Brubeck is a great raconteur, and his recollections were dominated by the humor of these situations (although they did not seem amusing at the time), but even more by the warmth with which the quartet was greeted by the audiences on the tour, and the American's fascination with the music they encountered on their travels; drummer Joe Morello spent hours jamming with Indian percussionists, for example. These experiences were translated into compositions by Brubeck for his now classic Jazz Inpressions of Eurasia recording, free copies of which were available for all the audience members. The Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet -- Brian Chahley - trumpet, Ben Flocks - tenor saxophone, Javier Santiago - piano, Christopher Smith - bass, Cory Cox - drums -- were on hand to perform some of the music from that session, including "Brandenburg Gate," "Thank You," and "Nomad" and "Blue Rondo A La Turk" which made its way onto the Time Out album, as well as onto jukeboxes all across the USA.

Coinciding with Brubeck's visit, Howard University hosted another icon of American music, multi-woodwind artist and music educator, Dr. Yusef Lateef in a presentation entitled "A Conversation with a Gentle Giant." Ably moderated by Dr. Sais Kamalidiin, Howard University's music historian, Dr. Lateef held his audience of music majors and others spellbound while demonstrating that his 87 years have not diminished his powers of memory. It did not require too many questions from Dr. Kamalidiin to stimulate a flood of recollections that ranged over his lengthy career in music, touching on his early years in Detroit, his time with the Adderley Brothers group, his educational experiences, both as student and teacher, his time as a researcher in Nigeria, his thoughts about his own music and creativity in general. He recalled the musicians who made an impact on him during the early portion of his career, managing to mention: Teddy Buckner, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Stitt, Ernie Fields, Dizzy Gillespie, Lucky Millinder, Donald Byrd, Doug Watkins, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus, Kenny Burrell, Charlie Parker, Milt Jackson, Milt's brother Alvin, Curtis Fuller, Hugh Lawson, Ernie Farrow, Hot Lips Page, Eugene Wright, John Coltrane, and Barry Harris.

I understand that Lateef's talk was recorded and is being transcribed. Hopefully the transcript will be available in Howard's library as well as the Library of Congress. His presentation brought home forcefully the fact that the history of America's classical music resides primarily in the still largely undocumented recollections of its practitioners, a generation of which are now in their seventies and eighties. An effort needs to be undertaken to initiate and record conversations with these men and women to preserve the history of America's only original art form. Kudos to Prof. Kamalidiin and Howard for their efforts in this area. Let's hope there will be more sessions like this one.

Another saxophonist and jazz icon arrived in DC shortly after Dr. Lateef's visit, not to speak but to perform. Tenor man Sonny Rollins appeared for a single show at the Kennedy Center as part of the Washington Performing Arts Society's subscription series. It has been more than ten years since I have heard Rollins live, and when I put on one of his recordings it tends to be one of his classics from considerably further back, so I was not totally sure what to expect. I have to admit to being a little disappointed.

It is very hard to criticize a jazz icon, but it must be a lot harder to be one. It would take a virtual superhuman not to be coasting, at least a little, after more than six decades in the jazz business. Rollins is no exception, his title of Saxophone Colossus notwithstanding. Heaven knows he has done more than enough to deserve his iconic status. The problem is that artists who reach that status break through to a whole new level of exposure, often to more general audiences not well versed in jazz. This was clearly the case at the Kennedy Center. This audience -- predominantly white, affluent, concert-goers -- were there to hear what they understood to be a jazz legend. An African American gentleman and long-standing Rollins fan who sat next to me pointed out that the audience was not responding to the music the way a jazz audience would; they "weren't moving" he said. Yet they enthusiastically applauded what they took to be great jazz. Unfortunately, much of what was offered was rather run-of-the-mill music.

We heard a fairly standard set from what has been Rollins' working group for some years. There was a lengthy improvisation on a simple riff. There was a ballad, Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood," a tongue-in-cheek reading of a corny pop song, Noel Coward's "Someday I'll Find You." There were not one but two calypsos. Everything we associate with Rollins was on display: the huge tone -- a bit too huge, actually, courtesy of the sound system -- the melodic invention, the moments of wry humor. But he has also picked up some mannerisms that are less attractive, seemingly aimless note flurries that the sound system turned into a shapeless mush, honking low notes that also grated on the ear, noise effects that made sense in the context of his earlier work but now seemed gratuitous. His best moments, for me, were during his cadenza on "Sentimental Mood" which had flashes of the Rollins of old.

Rollins was well supported by his group, trombonist Clifton Anderson and guitarist Bobby Broom added decent solos, and drummer Kobie Watkins was suitably propulsive, but percussionist Kimati Dinizulu seemed superfluous at times, and Bob Cranshaw, a fine bass player, was reduced by the material to playing repetitious pedal points, or routine ii-V-I progressions on bass guitar, although he did get an extended solo on "Sentimental Mood." I couldn't help wondering how the group, Rollins included, would sound working through some more challenging material with a richer harmonic foundation; there's certainly plenty of it out there.

What bothers me about all of this is that many people in these kinds of audiences are getting a limited glimpse of what jazz is all about (the WPAS season offers Rollins, Nancy Wilson and Wynton Marsalis along with Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Ravi Shankar and Joshua Bell). This imposes a considerable responsibility on the performers to show the music at its best. I don't think this particular performance rose to that challenge.

A more satisfying approach to this problem occurred back in March when Chick Corea and Gary Burton appeared for an evening at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Maryland in College Park. This is a similar type of audience; there are one or two jazz concerts each season interspersed with chamber music, orchestral and operatic offerings, so along with the true jazz fans there are a good number of keen concert-goers interested in broadening their horizons. Both groups left this concert thoroughly invigorated.

The piano/vibraharp combination seems incongruous at first, perhaps, with too much similarity of timbre between two essentially percussive instruments, but Corea and Burton have turned these qualities to their advantage, creating swirls of sound that retain melodic coherence and rhythmic clarity at the fastest tempos. They also manage to inject a note of lyricism on the slower material, such as the exquisite "Crystal Silence."

The material we heard was from the duo's newest CD The New Crystal Silence and included well-known pieces such as Corea's "La Fiesta," -- a highlight of the evening for me -- and "Bud Powell," along with some new -- at least to me -- material such as "No Mystery," "Alegria." and "Love Castle." Two preludes by the nineteenth-century Russian composer Scriabin were sandwiched between Bill Evans' "Waltz For Debby," and a Monkish reading of the old standard "Sweet and Lovely," without ever seeming out of place. The whole performance was notable for precision, creativity and flair from both performers. It was a veritable Tour de Force.

Burton observes, in the notes to The New Crystal Silence, and again for this evening's concert, that most collaborations, particularly among jazz musicians, tend to go stale over time. In this case, however, he writes, "I've come to believe that what Chick and I have together is going to break that rule. The performing we have done over the past year has been our best over thirty-five years." He adds, however, that ". . . our music has evolved in the last ten years . . .We play the tunes very differently, with fresh concepts and new inspiration." Indeed, if one thing characterized this evening's music it was freshness.

Corea agrees that no-one can really define what jazz is; he has defined it as "whatever the last person meant who used the word." The following day, at an excellent workshop given by Gary Burton, I asked him if he cared whether their music was called jazz or not. He confirmed that, in many ways, the genre has become irrelevant. The people attending the concert came expecting to hear jazz. If they were like me, they came away convinced that what they had heard was great music by any standards.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Brubeck, Ram, Lateef, Corea, Burton
  • Concert Date: March/April 2008
  • City State Country: Washington D.C.
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