Jazz, R&B Stars Honor History at Reopening of Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theatre
On a blustery mid-April evening, celebrities of multiple generations strutted across the red carpet for a gala event celebrating the reopening of Washington, D.C.’s legendary Howard Theatre. From old-school icons like Dick Gregory, Dionne Warwick, Leslie Uggams and Smokey Robinson to new school leaders such as Lalah Hathaway, Eric Roberson, Chrisette Michele and Savion Glover, the star-studded crowd packed the newly renovated theater to pay tribute, in part, to Berry Gordy Jr.
“We’ve all waited for this theater to come back,” said Rhonda Ross Kendrick, daughter of Diana Ross and Gordy. “There are so many memories, so much history in this theater. And my father is being honored tonight, so I’m really thrilled to be here.”
For sure, Gordy’s iconic Motown Records established strong ties to the Howard Theatre, especially when the label launched its Motown Revue touring packages in the early ’60s. In fact, it was at the Howard Theatre where the Supremes first performed outside of Detroit. And Motown’s once reigning prince, Marvin Gaye, grew up in the District. Given that, it comes to no surprise that for Gordy’s tribute, the bulk of the classic Motown material focused on Gaye and the Supremes. Vocalist Raheem DeVaughn—another D.C. native—sang a passionate rendition of “Let’s Get It On,” while Eric Roberson and Tonya Blount delivered an admirable take on Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s landmark duet “Ain’t Nothing But The Real Thing.” James Ingram and the Afro-Blue vocal ensemble’s flinty cover of “I Want You” capped off the Gaye portion, which gave way to a medley of Supreme chestnuts, rendered with karaoke cuteness by three anonymous starlets billed as the Supremes.
Before the Motown revolution, the Howard Theatre was a national hothouse for jazz, where icons such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis performed regularly. According to the theater’s records, 1963 was its last official jazz show before it first closed in 1970. Jazz, nevertheless, didn’t take a backseat at the gala celebration. George Duke did a masterful job as music director, complementing the Howard University Jazz Orchestra with heavy hitters such as Christian McBride and Christian Scott. Also on board were Dianne Reeves, Al Jarreau, Joe Sample, Warren Wolf, Madeleine Peyroux and Jimmy Heath.
Some of the major jazz highlights included Sample’s poignant solo piano tribute to Dr. Billy Taylor on “I Wish I Knew,” Reeves’ dazzling homage to Fitzgerald on “Sweet Georgia Brown” and the blistering exploration of Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home,” which featured Wolf’s scintillating vibraphone work alongside forceful solos from Heath, Scott, Sample and D.C.’s own living legend, Davey Yarborough, on baritone saxophone.
Even when the evening transitioned from jazz to soul during a riveting tribute to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun&m dash;who also planted some life-altering roots in D.C.—a jazz sensibility took hold. That was certainly the case when Les McCann graced the stage for a solid rendering of his classic “Compared To What?” and a rollicking nod to Big Joe Turner with Keb Mo, Bobby Taylor and Robert Randolph. The most magical moment during the Atlantic Records portion arrived when Hathaway and Frank McComb sang a heartfelt version of Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack’s gem “The Closer I Get To You.”
Another legacy that the event didn’t ignore was how top comedians filled the seats at the Howard Theatre. Sure enough, along with Gregory were Bill Cosby and Wanda Sykes. And while each comedian made some dicey attempts at entertaining the black-tie crowd, especially when the humor teetered toward the ribald, Gregory brought a level of sobriety to the celebration when he said: “Many of us performed at the Howard Theatre, not because we just wanted to be here; we came here because America told us that this was the only place where we could work.”
Indeed, the Howard Theatre dates back to 1910, before the arrival of the famed Apollo Theater. It was the crowned jewel of the District’s famed U Street, once billed as the “Black Broadway.” When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, rioters decimated U Street but saved the Howard Theatre. But the Howard Theatre couldn’t withstand the socio-economic fallout of the riot’s aftermath and closed its doors in 1970. Afterward, it attempted reopening intermittingly with little lasting effect until the city invested $29 million for an overhaul renovation of the Howard Theatre beginning in 2006.
The exterior retains much of the stucco Beaux Arts facade of its glory years. The inside digs, though, are 21st century elegance, courtesy of the D.C. design firm Marshall Moya; it comes with 650-seated/1,100-standing capacity, a stage suited for small ensembles featuring a hydraulic floor, and a balcony filled with leather chairs and Brazilian-marbled tables. Both floors also come with fully equipped bars. Marshall Moya also added a swank basement area with a green room, restrooms, a waiting area and 2,400-square-foot banquet kitchen.
Much of the talent booking will fall on the shoulders of Steven Bensusan, president of New York-based Blue Note Entertainment Group (no affiliation with the label), who aims to ensure that the Howard Theatre will become a competitive hot spot in rapidly gentrifying Washington, D.C. That translates to some dates dedicated to rock and pop acts. But Bensusan also says that the theater’s ties to jazz and soul will be firmly intact. “I think it’s really important to present many of the people who once performed in the theatre,” Bensusan said. “At the same time, we’re bringing all types of music back to the Howard Theatre, not just jazz and r&b. We’re going to try to expand the programming and appeal to everyone.”
With confirmed upcoming shows by top-shelf acts such as Meshell Ndegoecello, Esperanza Spalding, Bad Brains, McCoy Tyner, The Roots, Mos Def and the Bad Plus, it seems like the Howard Theatre has returned finally for the long haul.