Speaking with Charlie is like spending time with an expert tour guide to jazz in the last fifty years. He refers to the jazz greats of yesterday and today with the intimate knowledge of a person who knows and loves them. His knowledge is not confined to American artists he is truly a man of the world when it comes to the musical genre he lives for. His energy is limitless in pursuit of his goals; and his enthusiasm is contagious to anyone who spends time with him. The jazz world is lucky to have people like Charlie Fishman who are dedicating their very existence to making the world a jazzier place.
Jazz Review: How did you get the idea to start the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival?
Charlie Fishman: When I was managing Dizzy (Gillespie), I was on the road most of the time, and Washington was sort of like a way station for me to wash my clothes and repack. After that, I stopped managing because both of my parents were aging and sick I’m an only child. I took a look around and thought, "Damn! We invented this music, Ellington and so many others are from here, and we don’t have a jazz festival? There are jazz festivals in Africa, the Caribbean, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Slovenia and we don’t have a jazz festival. I felt that was embarrassing, and knowing that jazz really reflects the inherent values of this country, which Wynton articulates so much better than I do, I thought that it was very important in terms of providing an enriching and exciting event for the community, but also to showcase and celebrate the music that was invented in this country. Whatever you do in Washington, D.C., whether it’s intended or not, is viewed as a national event. Whatever’s done here is a reflection of the United States of America; and boy, do we need something to reflect the values of this country going out into the world.
Jazz Review: The first year of performances boasted a stellar line-up, including Dave Brubeck. Where have you gone from there?
Charlie Fishman: I’ll tell you something about Brubeck. Dave is now eighty-six years old, and when he walks out onstage, he looks like an eighty-six year old man and he shuffles out onto the stage. Then he sits down at the piano and it’s like Superman changing in the phone booth. It was just a wonderful experience to have Dave with us. This year, we have an expanded and equally exciting lineup, which includes NEA Jazz Masters Roy Haynes, Randy Weston, Paquito D’Rivera, Roy Hargrove, Dr. John, John Scofield, Mavis Staples, Luciana Sousa, Geri Allen. A lot of this is due to the response and the cooperative spirit of the community and the various institutions within the community. For example, this year the Library of Congress is participating in the festival, the Inter-American Development Bank is co-sponsoring our Gala, the National Women’s Museum of the Arts is holding a "Meet the Artist" lunchtime discussion with an African vocalist who is coming. The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden is presenting a lunchtime concert; and Paquito and Hargrove are both Artists in Residence who will be here the entire time. Paquito is presenting a couple of musicians because we are doing special programs to give a platform to lesser-known musicians.
Jazz Review: That’s great. I always love the mixture of well-known and lesser known; it’s important for the development of the art.
Charlie Fishman: Oh yeah. We have Edmar Castaneda, a jazz harpist from Columbia that Paquito brought to a gig one time, and he played Chick Corea’s "Spain" solo and absolutely blew our minds. Diego Urcola, a wonderful trumpet player from Argentina, has been playing with Paquito for as long as I remember. We’re presenting him in a club of Argentine jazz. We have an Israeli group coming, two Mexican groups coming, and we’re working cooperatively with the French Embassy, the Israeli Embassy, and the Mexican Cultural Institute. More and more embassies are expressing their desire to become involved with the festival and bring some of their musicians to show that jazz belongs to the world.
Jazz Review: I think that’s so neat. I can picture where the embassies would think this is a good thing for them. The great thing for me is that this is a D.C. event, it’s heavily rooted here and heavily sponsored here, but it’s also an international event. This is an international city, so it only makes sense.
Charlie Fishman: It’s a matter of knowing your turf, so to speak. Each city is unique unto itself. Chicago has arguably the greatest outdoor festival in the country. San Francisco does a magnificent job; first they started out as a little festival, it’s grown and now it’s city-wide, it’s three, maybe four weeks, they have a spring season. There’s no reason why we can’t do that.
Jazz Review: Absolutely why not? One of the features of the festival, and an obvious tie-in for D.C., is a special concert of Duke Ellington’s music. This year, it is a family concert of his setting of The Nutcracker Suite. Are there some educational materials available for families who attend this performance?
Charlie Fishman: Everyone who comes to the performance will get a little program with all the information. Each year, we do a tribute to Ellington as well, and last year we did "Duke Goes Latin" with the Chico O’Farrell Cuban Orchestra, and we commissioned two pieces for that. This year we commissioned Victor Masando to do a whole South African take on Duke Ellington, and we’re performing it at the festival. Randy Weston is opening with a solo performance of Ellington music; so actually we’re doing two different Ellington programs, one for families and one for the general public. We’re also doing two free student concerts: one with Na’Rinbo, a Mexican marimba band at the Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center, and another with this African program for which we’re using Paquito D’Rivera’s horn section from the Untied Nation Orchestra.
Jazz Review: That’s another feature of the festival that I noticed: the United Nation Orchestra. It sounds wonderful.
Charlie Fishman: Dizzy and I founded that in 1988. Dizzy’s whole belief about music is reflective of not just himself, but of the faith that he embraced, the Bahá’i faith. One of the mantras of Bahá’i is that we are all one world and we are all its citizens. This is something that I embrace very much. In the United Nation Orchestra, we have fourteen musicians, and I think we have nine or ten different cultures represented: from Argentina, Peru, Curasal, Israel, Cuba I can’t remember all of them. When you see all these different people, musicians from Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Brazil in the band, and it really was designed to show that music is either good or bad, and jazz has the unique ability and the uniqueness of its musicians to be able to plug into any culture at any time. When we were in Africa, for example, we did a month long tour for the (United States) government. We were in Morocco, and we always insisted that a local group be the opening act. We did this to show respect for the local culture and also because you could learn a lot from them. There was this band there that was sort of a jazz-fusion band, and they were rockin’, they really were smokin’. Giovanni Hildalgo, our conga player, got the spirit, walked out onstage and started playing with them, and then another musician started playing with them. Dizzy would walk out and play with anybody. It’s just very exciting to see, and so impressive. Jazz musicians across the spectrum can do that, and a lot of them can play classical music: Paquito, Chick, Herbie, Keith Jarrett, Bradford, on and on and on.
Jazz Review: A lot of them have a classical foundation that enables them to use that as a springboard to other styles. I don’t think that you can improvise until you know your basics.
Charlie Fishman: Absolutely. I studied classical piano for eight and a half years and stupidly, I never wanted to practice. I wanted to be a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Brooklyn was baseball. I was very good, but I didn’t want to practice; so my teacher decided that if he introduced me to jazz, maybe I’d pay attention o everything else. I heard jazz and said, "Damn that’s what I want to do!" and I quit classical. That was probably one of the dumbest mistakes I ever made. I have a profound appreciation of having classical training, be it harmonically or as a performer, of the importance of having that kind of grounding and basis in music. You know where I think it’s done almost better than anywhere in the world is Cuba.
Jazz Review: Really?
Charlie Fishman: Look who comes out of Cuba who can play classical music: Chucho Valdés, Paquito D’Rivera, and many, many others. It’s just the most exciting music around, and unfortunately that we don’t have the opportunity to expose the public to it as much as we should. I once had a brief discussion with Richard Parsons, the chairman of Time-Warner. He was honored at the CVC, and my wife, who is African-American, was one of the people who escorted Mr. Parsons during his time here, and they sort of bonded a little bit. I was sitting with him at an after party and he is a big jazz fan. He is one of the biggest sponsors of Jazz at Lincoln Center. He turned to me and said, "You know Charles, I think the jazz community has lost touch with its audience." And I said, "With all due respect, Mr. Parsons, we haven’t lost touch with our audience. You all don’t let us get to an audience. We don’t have a 24/7 jazz station in the nation’s capitol. That’s outrageous to my mind."
Jazz Review: I think the whole variety of music is being affected in this country. Look at what’s happened to the classical stations in this area now.
Charlie Fishman: And WETA dropped all of its jazz.
Jazz Review: It seems to be one way only here, and that’s really sad. It’s not that way in Europe.
Charlie Fishman: Thank God for Europe and Japan, that all I can say. We used to go out on the road in Europe and in two weeks, you make sixty to seventy percent of your budget.
Jazz Review: And the style doesn’t seem to matter as much as if they like who you are and if your music hits their heart.
Charlie Fishman: You also have to remember that Europe has a thousand years or more of cultural history. We have two hundred some odd years, and we are a polygon of cultures. Opera, theater, classical music, and the dance all originated in Europe. The only art form that originated here is jazz. That’s a major reason why I felt it was important to present a jazz festival in Washington. We have to celebrate and showcase this music.
Jazz Review: As part of the festival, you will present the Duke Ellington Jazz Fest Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Billy Taylor. Please talk about the great impact that Dr. Taylor has had on the development of jazz in this country, as well as his role as a jazz educator.
Charlie Fishman: Oh wow that’d take maybe a day. Billy and I were interviewed together on WETA about a week and a half ago. I was asked a similar question by the interviewer, and I said, "Before Wynton, there was Billy Taylor. What this man did remember he was having jazz shows on the radio, he created the Jazzmobile, he has a PhD, he’s an educator. I think Billy was one of the true pioneers of jazz education in this country. Over the last twenty-five years, Wynton has been the most prominent spokesman, very articulately, about jazz; but as I said before, before Wynton, there was Billy Taylor. As a musician, a composer, an ambassador, as someone who really pioneered jazz education, look what’s occurred at The Kennedy Center since he became the jazz advisor there.
Jazz Review: The whole development of the KC Jazz Club, the musicians that he has been significantly influential in bringing in - it’s amazing.
Charlie Fishman: Absolutely. The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival
Jazz Review: The jazz workshops that he does
Charlie Fishman: The festival is hosting four different master classes. Two are at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, one with Wallace Roney and one with Paquito D’Rivera. American University is hosting a master class with Roy Hargrove. The Kennedy Center, with its Performance Plus program, is presenting Geri Allen. All these jazz education programs that are going on were largely influenced by Billy’s efforts early on. You know, when you think about Moscow, you think about Russia. But there’s this place named Moscow, Idaho, where they’ve been running an amazing jazz festival for years. It’s in February, and if you could see the line-up, the programs they do. It’s sort of like a mini IAJE convention. It’s called the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. And so many universities are doing things with jazz and having jazz programs, and Billy was a primary influence. He certainly wasn’t the only one; but he was definitely in the upper echelon of pioneers who strove and succeeded in promoting education. Look how many universities today have jazz studies: Rutgers, North Texas, Oberlin, Indiana. David Baker is another prime mover in the jazz educations scene. But when you think about Denton, Texas, North Texas State University has one of the finest jazz programs. Then you have the Berklee College of Music, the Boston Conservatory of Music you can go on and on and on. And we’re slowly infiltrating the academic scene, and I think it’s just fabulous. Unfortunately, we’re going at a snail’s pace for my taste, but nonetheless
Jazz Review: But we are making progress. People like Gene Puerling, who does absolutely drop-dead gorgeous arrangements for vocalists, and Steve Zegree at Western Michigan, who has Gold Company and does great arrangements that are very accessible for schools that’s very important.
Charlie Fishman: Absolutely. You know, a number of very prominent celebrities celebrate jazz. Cosby, of course, is one of them, but you also have Danny Glover, Ed Bradley. At our festival, we have an upscale fundraising event where Avery Brooks is coming. People like Jack Lennon played jazz, Clint Eastwood is a major supporter, Denzel (Washington) is a supporter of jazz. If we could just coalesce the community. I remember when I was a kid, there was a wonderful jazz column in The New Yorker almost every week, written by the wonderful Whitney Ballion. It’s absolutely astounding to me that a magazine of that statute doesn’t have a jazz column. When you take a look at The Village Voice when I was growing up in the 1960s, The Village Voice was a major promoter of jazz. When you look at the music scene in that magazine today granted, it’s changed ownership you hardly see any jazz anywhere. You don’t see it much in record publications, in newspapers or magazines, it’s nowhere. It’s a real battle. You have spokesmen like Branford, Billy, Wynton, and many others. As I said before, in the last twenty-five years, I don’t think there is anyone who has articulated more succinctly or represented jazz better than Wynton. The fact that there’s a Jazz at Lincoln Center as an integral part of a major arts institution signaled a lot to many other communities around the country. There are many orchestras around the country that have a jazz series. The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra presents a jazz series. Look what The Kennedy Center has done. Look at the museums around this town. We are doing something, so are the Smithsonian Jazz Café and the National Gallery of Art; but why shouldn’t The Portrait Gallery, The Corcoran, The Phillips all present within a festival? They all do present during the year; but with our staff of two full time people, it’s hard to get to everybody when you have to raise all the money we do and then put together a program such as the one we have which has more than sixty events in a five-day period.
Jazz Review: I was looking at your program, and it’s amazing! Please talk about the significance of the U Street Corridor in D.C. life of jazz.
Charlie Fishman: I was introduced to the U Street corridor through three different experiences, first by Bill Cosby. I produced the first concert that started off the Thelonius Monk Institute in 1986, as a television show and as a concert. Bill and Debbie Allen were the MCs. I picked him up, and of course the first place he wanted to stop was Ben’s Chili Bowl. In the concert, during his remarks, he talked about a man named Tony Taylor who was really the prime mover and producer of jazz during that time. The third influence is old-time cab drivers. Whenever I get into a cab in D.C. and I see an elderly gentleman, I ask if he’s originally from here, and I just ask about U Street. I’ve gotten such an education from all of these people. You know, there were five different theaters here presenting jazz way back then: the Tivoli, the Dunbar, the Howard, the Lincoln, the Republic. And then there were all these clubs; it was almost like 52nd Street in New York. It was just amazing. I remember that Dizzy told me when he would finish his set at one place and run across the street and sit in on another place, then drop in another place, play a tune there, then go back and do his set. From what I understand, the scene here was not dissimilar. They used to call the U Street corridor the "Black Broadway."
Jazz Review: I’ve heard that. And the renovated Lincoln Theater is a really nice house.
Charlie Fishman: This is a very conscious decision for us to focus on the Lincoln Theater. The Warner Theater is a beautiful theater, and perhaps one day we’ll do a concert there. But our commitment was to raise the awareness among the population about the richness of the U Street corridor. When the Lincoln got renovated and reopened, that was the symbol of what jazz meant in the community.
Jazz Review: Are you looking at future performances in places like THEARC (The Town Hall Education Arts & Recreation Campus)?
Charlie Fishman: Oh yes, yes. We are. You’ve got little theaters all over the place. There’s the Atlas Theater in Northeast D.C., the Greenburg Theater on Wisconsin Avenue that belongs to American University, and of course, all the museums. There is no reason in my mind why a jazz festival in Washington should not run over a period of a month. You don’t have to concentrate everything in five days, and you can spread it out. We make a very conscious effort to make things as affordable as possible.
Jazz Review: I noticed that, and want to applaud you for that. I know this takes tremendous effort on your part, and you mentioned that you have two full time employees setting this whole thing up, and you have a number of producers. Do you have a large number of volunteers who help out?
Charlie Fishman: We haven’t gotten a lot of support in that respect. Our biggest challenge has been to generate a board of directors that have the clout to take the burden of fund raising off of me. I’m not a fundraiser; I’m a producer. When I go out to solicit somebody, I’m sort of singing for my supper. I don’t know if you follow some of the philanthropic stuff that goes on in the city; but when someone needs money, Rich Person A calls Rich Person B and says, "You know I need $25,000 for blah, blah, blah." And he sends him a check. The next week, Person B calls Person A and says, "I need $25,000 for blah, blah, blah," and they exchange checks. One of the most impressive things to me was when the NBA All-Star Game was here several years ago. We were invited to this party that Magic Johnson hosted to honor Alonzo Mourning. At this event, Dikembe Mutombo came up to Alonzo, and he was raising money for a hospital in the Congo, which he dedicated earlier this month. He presented Alonzo a personal check for a million dollars for his kidney foundation. Alonzo turned around and gave Dikembe a million dollars for his hospital. That’s the way it works; but that’s on a level of peer-to-peer. I’m not a millionaire, so it’s very difficult. Remember, this corporate community is very odd; it two biggest industries are government and lobbying.
Jazz Review: Very true, and sometimes it’s very hard to get money out of them for the arts because it’s not a tangible product they can measure in terms of outcomes and deliverables.
Charlie Fishman: Exactly right.
Jazz Review: As the founder and producer of this event, what do you see as a logical progression of development for the next five years?
Charlie Fishman: Continuing to expand the festival to reach out geographically and demographically to the community so it becomes part of the tapestry of the culture of this city. I do have to say that I am so grateful and so impressed that the government of the city is the major supporter of this event. They gave us a quarter of a million dollars this year. The Deputy Mayor, Stan Jackson, and his staff have been fabulous to us. When you have the backing of your local government, it makes a huge difference. Because the Federal Government is here, you have quite a bit of support from the members of Congress. Eleanor Holmes Norton has been fabulous, so has John Conyers. We have an Honorary Congressional Host Committee with about a hundred members of Congress. Our producers don’t plug in until the end, and they should be around all the time; but we don’t have the money for that. It’s only that we have a incredible production team that we can pull this off it’s not me alone, that’s for sure. We’re sort of a pin in the ass to remind people how wonderful, how exciting, how important this music is.
Jazz Review: How can someone volunteer for this event in the future?
Charlie Fishman: Just send us an email, and we’ll have somebody contact you. Send it to the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival.
Writer’s note: If you’re around the Washington D.C. area next fall, please make it a point to attend the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival. The music is amazing and it is definitely worth your time.